The Year of Firsts: Freshman Candidates Find the Campaign Trail Grueling, Expensive and Rewarding
Just before the deadline closed, Cara McClure and Kari Powell submitted the paperwork to run for the Public Service Commission. They didn’t know one another beforehand, but they ended up on a phone call just after the midnight deadline talking about their similar platforms and how, despite having never run for political office, they would each need to hit the ground running.
Then the idea came to them: why not run as if they were on the same ticket? Doing so would let them pool resources and cover more ground as they canvassed throughout the state. The women decided that using an innovative approach to campaigning was the best way for them to go up against their seasoned opponents.
McClure and Powell are just two of many people who entered the political fray for the first time this year and had to grapple with the question of how to campaign with little or no name recognition. The surge in first-time candidates is a national trend reflected in Alabama. Women, particularly black women, across the country qualified to run in record numbers this year. In Alabama, the Democratic Party had more people qualify to run for office in races up and down the ticket, with half again as many candidates signing on to run for seats in the Legislature than did in 2014, possibly inspired by Doug Jones’ victory in his race for the U.S. Senate in December. The Republican Party also had a bump in people wanting to run for office this year, perhaps in a desire to stave off the threat of a Democratic resurgence.
Several first-time candidates interviewed by BirminghamWatch said the experience has shown them that campaigning is grueling, time-consuming work. Often lacking active party support, many of the first-timers turned to grassroots efforts to get out their messages. Universal among these first-timers was a confidence that they can make an impact using innovative approaches to reach voters despite financial challenges.
Embracing the Underdog Status
Everyone loves a long-shot story of an everyday person triumphing over the establishment. The come-from-behind story of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has been widely celebrated and analyzed by political experts. Woodfin recently announced the launch of Next Generation Alabama, a PAC that will support candidates who apply grassroots approaches similar to those used in his 2017 campaign.
“One of the things that gives me hope is the victory of Randall Woodfin. When he started he was in much the same situation that I feel like I’ve been in — no one gave him a chance.” said Danner Kline, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer for Alabama’s District 6 seat in the House of Representatives. “He was relatively a neophyte, very young, and going up against a man who had been entrenched in politics with decades of experience.”
The grassroots approach speaks volumes to Kline. “Randall Woodfin got up there with a bunch of 20-something kids and, together with them, knocked on every door in the city multiple times. And they won. That inspires me.” said Kline.
Kline isn’t alone in admiring Woodfin’s grassroots campaign. Felicia Stewart, a Democrat making a bid for the District 46 seat in the Alabama House of Representative against incumbent Rep. David Faulkner, spoke of both Woodfin and Doug Jones’ campaigns as a resource for designing her own campaign strategy.
“The Randall Woodfin campaign definitely was instructive for me as I started this for the first time as was, of course, Doug Jones. I was an active campaigner, doing phone banking, canvassing, yard sign delivery and all of the things in support of the effort.” said Stewart, “That was the first inside look at how campaigns were run from a mechanics standpoint and certainly gave me some good clues about what we could do and what of those things we could leverage to be successful ourselves.”
Putting in the Hard Work
The kind of voter engagement Woodfin and Jones mastered in their campaigns takes people and time. But Robin Litaker in her unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination to the Public Service Commission didn’t have a campaign manager or staff and handled all fundraising on her own. Litaker was determined to meet as many potential voters as possible, often driving alone to and from speaking engagements around the state.
Litaker described her campaign as lonely, hard work, but she was dogged in her efforts to gain votes. What surprised her was how physically taxing the effort to get elected was. Despite losing in the primary, she said it was all worth it and that she is ready to do it again — next time armed with the wisdom she gained from her first experience.
“I ran for statewide office and got 30 percent of the votes,” Litaker said. “I am a virtual unknown, had no budget, no recognition and only campaigned for two months and 13 days.”
Although she isn’t ready to identify the next office she will run for, Litaker is committed to throwing her hat in the ring again. “I know where my big gaps were. I didn’t start soon enough and I didn’t get the polls covered like I should have. You have to have a campaign committee. I just didn’t have the infrastructure in place. I’ve got two years. I will be strategically better in setting up my campaign,” said Litaker.
Powell, a Democrat running for a spot on the PSC, recalls the moment she realized the challenges she would face running for office. Racing to complete the paperwork to qualify before the February deadline, Powell said, her 3-year-old decided that moment was the perfect time to make a game out of shutting her laptop every few minutes.
“Having three kids and running for office is no joke,” said Powell, “It is really hard to keep up with it all. Three to four nights a week I am doing events and meeting voters and on the other days I am phone banking.”
Despite the heavy schedule, Powell said she finds ways to participate in family life. “I cook for my family and get everything ready for them to eat at dinnertime, even if I’m not there to join them,” Powell said, “and I do manage to spend a good amount of time with my kids in spite of it.” Powell said that her oldest daughter, who is 14, will join her at events, wearing her campaign T- shirt, helping out and talking to potential voters. Powell said she wouldn’t be able to juggle both roles without the help of her husband. “My husband is a strong family support and has taken on the role of Mr. Mom,” Powell said.
As the last weeks of campaigning for the primary wound down, Tommy Amason, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination to the U.S. House District 2, had been burning a candle at both ends. Amason said he works 12 hours a day at his job at International Paper, serves as a command sergeant major in the Army Reserves, and was making public appearances the rest of the time. Having logged 30,000 miles in his car since last August and putting in countless sleepless nights, Amason credited his military training for the stamina he needed to keep the taxing schedule going.
Since launching his campaign, Kline said he’s phoned several hundred potential donors, a task that took him far out of his comfort zone. For Kline, Founder of the Free the Hops craft beer movement in Alabama, the question wasn’t whether he enjoyed calling strangers to ask for their support. Those cold calls were the essential, hard work necessary for sustaining his campaign, he said.
Finding Political Support
As a newcomer, Amason talked about the lack of support he received from his party. “The thing I didn’t expect was that my party wouldn’t support me, said Amason. “I was told the state GOP wasn’t going to accept me because I wasn’t part of the system, and that has (turned) out to be true,” Amason said, “and there have been county GOPs that have not welcomed us at all and who haven’t invited us to certain things.”
Heather Milam, Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said Emerge Alabama has provided important and energizing support for her campaign. Emerge Alabama, which is part of a national organization called Emerge America, conducts outreach and training for Democratic women to run for political office. Milam, McClure, Powell and Stewart all received training through Emerge Alabama.
In addition to improving her political skills set, Milam said the program provided an instant support network. “I’m doing this with a team of other candidates who are also doing it for the first time,” she said, “and because we are coming at it with the desire to make Alabama better, we are supporting one another — not fighting one another. There’s power in that.”
Milam describes her fellow Emerge Alabama graduates as regular people, but together she sees them as a force to soon be reckoned with. “Let’s be real; women make up 15 percent of the Legislature in Alabama, but we are 52 percent of the population. We have not been at the table politically and so we have to think outside the box and use political tools like grassroots organizing and canvassing and do it successfully,” she said.
Because Stewart was running unopposed in the primary, she was able to work with traditional Democratic organizations. “There have been some great people, like Richard Mauk (chairman of the Jefferson County Democrats) and the Greater Birmingham Democrats, who helped,” said Stewart.
As a super-volunteer on the Doug Jones campaign for U.S. Senate, Stewart developed relationships that proved helpful for her own campaign. “On the heels of Doug Jones, there were several folks who knew what they were doing and could give me insight and at least help me get off the ground,” Stewart said, “I put together a little committee and that got me to my launch point and basic stuff like getting a website going.”
Kline first started making plans to run for Congress in February 2017 and had an experience similar to Stewart’s in terms of help from his party. Having never been involved with party politics, he started by reaching out to the Greater Birmingham, Jefferson County and Shelby County Democratic organizations.
“I had meetings and everyone was very excited. They were familiar with me from Free the Hops and were very encouraging and gave me good feedback,” said Kline. He gathered professional advice on fundraising and enlisted friends to help him start an online campaign that raised $30,000 in the first few weeks.
McClure, a Democrat, said she found unexpected support from across the aisle. She’s been invited twice to appear on a Republican-focused radio show and had several listeners call in to pledge their support and even had one supporter drive over to the radio station to personally hand her a contribution.
But support from her own party could be stronger, McClure said. “I want more support from all of the white male candidates from my party,” said McClure. “Kari (Powell) created a push card with all nine of the statewide candidates and sent over to Nancy Worley (chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party), who printed and distributed it, and with the exception of Will Boyd (candidate for lieutenant governor), none of them use it,” said McClure.
Making the Most of the Money
The disparity between established candidates and newcomers usually amounts to money. Stewart said that she is hoping to demonstrate that a successful campaign can be run without spending extensive amounts of money.
“For me, that’s one of the many things that’s wrong with our political process,” Stewart said, “You should be able to run for office and do a solid, legitimate campaign and not have to spend a quarter million dollars. My focus is going to be around getting direct voter engagement — getting eyeball to eyeball contact with the voters of District 46. That’s how we will raise our money and we are aiming for a lot less than numbers that have been raised heretofore, and we will be successful and that will tell its own story.”
Stewart has raised $121,076 for her campaign, compared to opponent Faulkner, whose campaign has raised $390,505.
“The problem so often is money, said Milam, “but you have to have it to run for office. We were paying a great field organizer and we have a great campaign manager and they deserve to get paid.”
Milam’s coffers of $65,576 are dwarfed by her opponent, Secretary of State John Merrill, who has reported $944,328 in contributions. Milam, too, points to individual contributions as her fundraising strategy. “Candidates like me,” she said, “we are not awash in dark money or PAC money. We are going for contributions from grassroots efforts and getting money from friends and family.”
Litaker was adamantly against taking contributions from PACs or big business. Stating that she’d rather get her money from small donations, Litaker said, “It’s very gratifying to have people contact you and say ‘Can I give $20 or $40 for your campaign?’ I would love to say don’t give me more than five dollars. Think how powerful that would be if you had like 500 people giving you five dollars instead of one PAC.”
Getting out and Meeting the People
To Kline, an effective campaign should be centered on finding the exact people to communicate to. “The popular idea of campaigns in movies is that you go around to the county fair and kiss babies, said Kline. “That’s a terribly inefficient way to campaign. Seventy percent of the people at those places wouldn’t vote for you and the rest might not even remember your name.”
Kline went on to say, however, that being an unknown can have its advantages. “In this climate, where generally people assume the worst of politicians and they think that they’re in it for the wrong reasons, the fact that I’m new and haven’t held elected office gives me an advantage,” said Kline. “I’m a fresh face. And I am not tainted by being a career politician.”
Litaker said going out and meeting people was a rewarding part of the campaign. “I didn’t know what kind of people I was going to run into as I went to all these events,” she said. “It has been so uplifting to see how much people care about our state and this country and how they want the right thing.”
Litaker, too, found that it wasn’t necessary to see eye-to-eye with everyone. “Just the energy and the love that people have for their community has been invigorating,” Litaker said, “I didn’t know what I was going to run into. On the news you hear such hate, hate, hate and that’s not what I’m running into.”
Stewart was of a similar mindset. She expected walls to go up when she campaigned. “People are now open to a more direct dialog and they’re coming together and willing to ask questions rather than just quietly voting at the ballot box,” Stewart said, “when I’m calling asking people to have coffee with me or to set up something with their moderate friends, that part has been less difficult than I thought it would be.’
Stewart intends to reach as many voters in her district as possible. “My priority is to meet face-to-face with as many District 46 voters as I can,” said Stewart. “I really think that should be what public service is about — meeting the people that you will represent and taking the time to listen what is important to them. We can glean a lot of statistical data about voter behavior, but it doesn’t represent a specific neighborhood in Bluff Park or a specific neighborhood in Homewood.”
Powell said that, when it comes to running a first-timers’ campaign, “Politics as usual is completely out the window.”
“We don’t have to play the game. It’s OK to get creative,” she said. “Almost no one we come across knows what the Public Service Commission (is). Not even super-involved Democratic organizations know. So we had to put together a PowerPoint presentation to show at each place we speak. I haven’t talked to any person, Republican or Democrat, who actually disagrees with me about what’s needed for the Public Service Commission, but the Republican support has been a pleasant surprise.”