In congressional politics, it's an unwritten rule: incumbents get re-elected and challengers lose. In Pennsylvania this year some truly oustanding candidates are swimming against that tide -- and look like they just might "make it to shore" (i.e., win). Although I usually save my Pennsylvania-specific columns for that site, I'm reprinting this column here because it bears on races across the nation.
How Does a Challenger Beat a Strong Incumbent?
Toni Gilhooley, Republican candidate for Congress in PA’s 17th Congressional District (Harrisburg and East), served as a member of the PA State Police for 25 years. Her husband, William, served in the same organization as a homicide investigator. When talking about investigations, William says they are exercises in “expanding the circle.”
What he means by that is that his work began with a small circle – consisting of things like a crime scene, some relevant clues, perhaps a few witnesses, and perhaps a suspect (or “person of interest”) or two. Solving the crime meant building on the small circle, seeking out more details and people to bring the case to a good conclusion. In another words, it was necessary investigators to build bigger circles in order to solve the crime in a way that would result in a successful prosecution.
Politics functions in much the same way. A candidate starts out with a handful of staff members, a relatively modest group of strong supporters, as well as a small list of donors. In fact, many potential donors are afraid to contribute, because they fear the wrath of the incumbent. Other people who hesitate to donate would rather not back someone they perceive as a loser.
If an incumbent is to win, he or she must expand the circle. They must get more people to support them – and that, by itself, should lead to an increased number of contributions. Get a bandwagon-effect going, and you’ll be surprised by how many people start jumping aboard. Become everybody’s “favorite underdog” and you’ll soon start looking like the “overdog.”
As a candidate, you need to get supporters to reach out to friends, neighbors, and family members . . . and turn them into new supporters. The way to get support is to ask for it – or, perhaps, to get someone else to ask for it. Get one supporter to attract 10 others – and then ask the ten “newbies” to do the same.
Tell them how to do it (face-to-face, phone, or e-mail) and ask everyone who gets involved to “expand the circle.” Thus, ask people for support – and get them to do the same.
Tell supporters exactly what kind of behavior – by them and others – is necessary for you to win. Explain also how you do need contributions – small, medium, or large – to get your message out. Point out to people of modest means that modest contributions are welcome – and extremely helpful.
Everyone has an e-mail list. I have one with 500-plus activists nationwide, and it grows every bay. If people have a list with 10-20-30 or more people on it, send out e-mails that say, for example, “I met Toni Gilhooley, candidate for the 17th district seat in Congress. She spent 25 years working for the PA State Police, and her husband did the same.
“Toni’s a terrific candidate who’s really in touch with the views and needs of people in our area. I’d like to urge you to look into Toni’s candidacy and support her in any way you can. You can find out about her campaign at: http://gilhooleyforcongress.com. Thanks for any help you can give Toni. I hope you’ll let your friends and family members know about her candidacy.”
Ideally, about 25,000 such e-mails and/or phone calls (and maybe more) would go out. Perhaps 8,000 of the people contacted would go to Toni’s web site, and roughly 400-600 would make donations. (There should be a bang-up video appeal for funds on the web site.)
Ask for votes. Ask for support (and give some specifics about what “support” means). And ask for money. And keep mentioning your web site.
If you as a candidate keep extending your “circles,” at some point a large segment of people in your district will vote for you on Election Day. But the key is explaining to audiences, large and small, exactly how they can help you to win your uphill battle against the incumbent.
On Monday, I’m going to use a football analogy – you can’t go wrong with football stories in Pennsylvania – to show exactly how a big underdog won a very important game. The team did so by figuring out exactly what they had to accomplish to win – and then went ahead and did it.
Right now, I’m one of the few people that believes Melissa Hart. (4th CD), Toni Gilhooley (17th CD), and Marina Kats (13th CD), and a few others (like Tom Manion, 8th CC) can win. They’re running against heavily financed incumbents who will do anything necessary to prevail.
I believe Melissa, Toni, Marina, and Tom can win – if they do everything right. Most importantly, they have to keep expanding those circles.
Here's the key: The people who volunteer to help -- and actually do so, by putting up yard signs or going door-to-door -- are the most likely to recruit others who will help. The people who donate are most likely to know others who will do the same. Strength builds on strength. If someone contributes $200 or more, ask them if they'd like to serve on the Finance Committee. If someone contributes $2300, make them one of the co-chairs of the Finance Committee. Have frequent meetings with the entire Committee. Every dollars you spend should be getting you votes.