Lessons from a Congressional Campaign

I ran as an independent candidate for Congress in Massachusetts against a visibly tired and increasingly unpopular but entrenched liberal Democratic incumbent, and a Tea Party Republican.  My message was, “The old system is broken — let’s start building a new one!”  I stated that I wanted to fight what I described as the trend towards a corporate state.  In that context, I criticized an overgrown and unresponsive federal government, Obamacare, the stimulus package, financial regulatory legislation, and the bailouts.  In short, I took the Tea Party line leftward.

I advocated a decentralized, community-based approach to economic recovery and job creation and I explicitly described myself as a “democratic socialist” on economic issues.  I participated in four debates, got lots of radio interviews and decent media coverage, and was endorsed by at least one local paper, with favorable comments in two more.  The state Green-Rainbow Party endorsed my candidacy.

Of course, I lost, gaining a mere 5% of the vote — the rather logical, if disappointing, outcome of what was essentially a Mom-and-Pop campaign operation.  I spent a paltry $5,000, all donated.  I had no paid professional advice, and only print ads.  The Democrats in Massachusetts mobilized their ground forces in the face of a strong statewide Republican threat.  And the Republican — a very personable individual with whom I got along well — had his Tea Party troops.  I had hoped to ride a wave of rebellion against the major parties to at least come in second, but I misjudged the stranglehold they have on voters, and I fell into the “spoiler” trap.

But I came out of this encouraged about the possibilities: If only the US Left (such as it is) would stop contemplating its collective navel, learn how to talk to people in plain English as it once did, spend less time in conferences and more in the streets, and RUN FOR OFFICE!

The lessons learned?  Here they are:

(1) We can reach the constituency now attracted to the Tea Party if we stop patronizing them, address their concerns directly and seriously, and state our solutions in everyday language.  I was astonished to find that many of my Republican opponent’s supporters were actually listening to what I had to say and offered compliments (if not votes).  It was the so-called “progressives” — self-righteous, elitist, and committed to losing causes — that I had trouble connecting with.

(2) Money is vastly overrated as a campaign resource — ground troops are the ultimate weapon, as they always have been, and I didn’t have them.  The labor movement could be our biggest resource, if it weren’t in thrall to the Democratic Party.  No one pays attention to the TV ads anymore, consultants aren’t worth the cost if you know the turf, and the web is useful only for communication with supporters.

(3) “Democratic socialist” is not a four-letter word.  I was surprised to find that almost no one flinched when I used the phrase if I explained it in terms of reducing corporate and “big government” power over our lives, and replacing it with community control.

(4) The biggest problem for third party and independent left candidates is the winner-take-all election system.  There should be a major push for instant runoff voting.  Public financing doesn’t work.

(5) Finally: As the cliché goes, all politics is local.  I learned that as a selectman (New England town executive committee) and school board member.  Obama should be the last straw as far as wasting time and energy on presidential campaigns is concerned.  My Democratic opponent bought his votes with thirty years of constituent service and public works projects.  Local elective offices could give us access to those goodies, and the votes that go with it.  It’s time to stop Waiting for Hugo Chavez, and start studying practical politics, American style.  And don’t be afraid of losing — after all, Eugene Debs ran five times and never got more than 6% of the vote.  I don’t think it was a wasted effort — either for him or for me.

Michael Engel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Westfield State University (MA); former Easthampton, MA selectman and school committee member; owner of a used bookstore, Cherry Picked Books (Easthampton); and author of two books: State and Local Government: Fundamentals and Perspectivesand The Struggle for Control of Public Education.  He is also a long-time Monthly Review subscriber.

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