Many Americans are under the mistaken impression that running for office is very hard. They focus on movie and TV images of hard and grueling campaign debates, negative campaign ads, and the daily slog of making calls, shaking tons of hands, and giving speech after speech. They think that running for office is an ordeal you literally have to limp through to the finish line, and as one real estate agent resource put it, “There’s only three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and shady politicians.” All the while, you’re sweating out your campaign finances as you manage to rustle up the money to pay for this whole ordeal. While there is some semblance of truth to this popular image of running for office, for an increasingly large swath of the modern American electoral landscape, this is just not true. In fact, considering current political trends, running for Congress has become easier and easier. How? As parties become solidified, institutionalized, and ossified in many regions of the country, the real action, when it comes to getting elected to Congress, turns to the dominant parties primary. You win the primary, and you win the race. Simple as that. This is the current trend in the US and things don’t look like things will change anytime soon.
The reality of party domination
Owing to a complex combination of political, economical, and cultural changes vast swaths of America’s electoral map are becoming political monoliths. Whole areas of states either vote Democrat or Republican predictably and solidly every election cycle. Sure, from time to time a presidential election might ‘flip’ the territory one way or the other but the same patterns revert back to ‘normal’ once the presidential elections are over. Party domination and hegemony are regional. On both coasts, you have the Democratic party holding sway over large population-dense regions. In the South, you have the Republicans controlling complete counties, if not complete states. Increasingly, both state houses (oftentimes, the state senate and legislature) are controlled by the same party. More troubling, there is a recent trend where even the governorship is solidly in the control of one party.
More affluent and culturally diverse regions tend to skew Democrat and liberal, while more homogenous and traditional regions tend to lean Republican and conservative. Regardless of your political bent, this should be alarming to you. Why? By reducing vast regions of America to political ‘monoliths,’ we risk losing the hearty, double barreled, double fisted political discourse and political diversity that made this country great. I read a great line on FAA that read: America, after all, is a discourse. It is never a ‘one size fits all’ proposition. Instead, it is made up of conflicting and competing ideas all seeking to gain traction in the marketplace of regional and state and federal ideas. This whole set up is put in jeopardy when there is a movement toward a political monoculture. Political diversity is needed for truly robust discourses that encourage problem solving and innovative solutions.
Running for Congress is easy now
Now that political solidification has taken place in a large part of the US, it is actually very easy to run for Congress now. Just make sure you are in the right party at the right place. That pretty much takes care of more than half of the equation. The next step is to focus on winning the primary. Keep in mind that primary elections are very different from general elections. With general elections, you have to appeal to independent voters and a large enough share of the opposing party’s voters so you can win. Not so with the primary. Since a large chunk of primary voters tend to be ideological purists and tend to be more hardcore ideologically, you really have to show your party bonafides if you want to make an impact in the primary. Oftentimes, you have to challenge a long-running party heavy weight and run to either the left or the right of the incumbent-depending on your part and your region.
Running an ideologically hardcore campaign
While you might think you have an ‘edge’ over your incumbent opponent by running an ideologically stronger or ‘pure’ campaign, you have your work cut out for you. Why? Most of the electorate tend to favor incumbents. People often vote for the devil they know than the angel they haven’t heard of. Call it electoral inertia or just plain laziness, that’s the way people vote. This is why you have to go all out and appeal to the imagination of the ideological grassroots in your congressional district. Otherwise, you are in danger of getting run over by the incumbent’s existing political machine. You have to appeal to the ideological base and make your opponent come off as some sort of ideological whore or pansy.
The best kind of races in an increasingly polarized polity
The best kind of congressional race to run is not against an entrenched politically pure incumbent. The best would be to mount a primary challenge to a Congress person who is a political butterfly. In other words, this person votes with liberals one day and conservatives the next day. This type of ideological jellyfish is exactly the kind of politicians the currently polarizing polity of Congressional politics is grinding up, chewing down, and spitting out. You can join in on the process and take easy potshots at highly ideologically squishy targets. Of course, you can’t take things to such extremes that your opponent can have an easy field day portraying you as so far out of the mainstream that voting for you is like voting for an unhinged extremist nut. You still have to maintain enough space so you can tack to the center come the general elections and corral independent votes. Of course, your need to do this varies from district to district since some congressional districts are so ideologically ‘pure’ that you don’t have to tack to the center since there isn’t much of a centrist, moderate, or independent vote. With that said, you have to conduct your campaign in such a way that you don’t create any sound bites for the National party of the opposing party to mount a nasty nationwide fundraising campaign based on your ‘extremist’ soundbites.