WAGNER: The long and winding road to recruit candidates

February 15, 2014

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a conservative special-interest group.

It opened with four paragraphs about a Statehouse issue along with a list of House members the group wanted its supporters to call and email. But that’s not what caught my eye.

At the very end of the message, down by the boilerplate disclaimer language, was this line: “Reminder: The last day to file to run as a candidate in the May Primary Election is Feb. 7th, 2014 (by NOON).”

A link to the filing form was included.

Most recipients probably never saw or glossed right over that sentence, but it got me thinking about how little most folks know about the time and effort that goes into successful candidate recruitment.

Hint: It takes a wee bit more than a link to a form in an email blast.

Finding great candidates is tough when you’re the party out of power or trying to wage primary challenges, as this group is hoping to do. It can be equally difficult when you’ve got partisan advantage. (See also: Richard Mourdock.)

Getting the best people to run for office comes down to a solid mix of data, predictive modeling, opposition research, polling and a simple, though admittedly subjective, character gut-check.

You start with the premise that you can’t win everything, so you have to exploit the other side’s weakest links.

Far too often, partisans and activists think that means targeting elected officials with whom they disagree most vehemently on the issues they care most about.

That’s the wrong approach. Quite often, those outspoken folks are in the safest seats, which means there’s little or no chance they’ll be tossed out on their behinds. With limited resources, you fight the fights you can realistically win.

To find the weakest links, look first to the baseline.

For those seeking to unseat elected officials in the opposite party, are there districts or races where a statewide candidate from your party performed better than the incumbent you want to challenge? For those planning primary challenges, are there noticeable performance gaps between the incumbent and others on the same ticket?

Put in plain English, a Republican in a legislative district carried by President Obama in 2012 is likely to be targeted by Democrats.

That data-driven process significantly narrows the number of targeted seats. The next step is identifying the best candidates to run, and this part is way more art than science.

Polling and opposition research help you identify an incumbent’s weaknesses, but local voters also expect a candidate who represents their community. A liberal city slicker won’t play in a conservative district; a right-wing Republican will struggle in a more moderate urban area. And many races, particularly for executive offices, are more about personality than policies.

Once you’ve got one or two people in mind, you have to convince someone to sign on the dotted line. Lots of people say they want to run for office. Few understand what they have to give up to do so.

Competitive races take an enormous toll on family, finances, career, health and sanity. And at the end of it all, even the best challengers often lose.

I don’t envy my political colleagues who recruit people to run for office. I’m sure they wish it were as simple as sending out an email. A successful recruitment process takes time and effort—but yields candidates whose values and hard work beget winning campaigns.•


Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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