Managing a legislative campaign during a pandemic

What was it like managing a legislative campaign in a pandemic?

Well, it was very similar--except we couldn’t do anything in person and our zoom meetings were often interrupted by dogs crying and children barking in the background. Alright, maybe I’m being a little cheeky, but the fundamentals don’t change much.

Campaigns are about communicating a candidate’s message to the people who will determine the outcome of the election. The other parts of a campaign--organizing volunteers; raising money; seeking the endorsements; buying stickers, shirts, and signs--are all done in service to that very basic task. Communicate your message...and make it a good one.

What makes campaigns unique from one another are the candidates, of course, and the path to victory. Apparatus is helping out Sandra Feist in Minnesota House District 41B this year. Sandra reached out to the firm in January. When I sat down with her, I could tell she had what it took to be a good candidate and, more importantly, a good legislator. She’s smart and hardworking, and through her work as an immigration attorney and active suburban mother she was both living her progressive values and deeply invested in the future of her community.

At that first meeting, I told her something I think every candidate needs to know as they bring on professional help--you can’t solely hire your way to a victory. At the end of the day, political races--especially those at the local level--will be largely won or lost based on the candidate's willingness to do the difficult work ahead. Most normal people (even candidates!) don’t like spending endless hours on the phone or doors when they could be spending time with friends, family, or doing something they enjoy. Good candidates are willing to make that sacrifice because they know what’s at stake. Sandra never faltered in her determination.

The path to victory in each race is unique because the people involved are unique, but races also largely follow some basic templates. This race was for an open State House seat. The incumbent announced her intent to run for the district's Senate seat that was vacated through retirement. In the weeks that followed, six women announced themselves as candidates for the House seat. It was an impressive group, representing a gradient of ages and life experiences. It included former candidates and local elected officials, dynamic young organizers, and accomplished professionals. Each of them agreed to abide by the DFL endorsement process. This is where the coronavirus made things kittywampus.

In a race like this, in a year like this, a few to several hundred people show up at their local precinct caucuses, where delegates are elected to attend the Senate District convention to confer the DFL endorsement on the candidate who receives 60% support among the delegates. Caucuses, which occurred in early March, went as planned and Sandra did a good job getting her supporters and neighbors to attend on her behalf. Delegates were elected, and we set our sights on a March 21st convention date. It was a tight turnaround, but we were putting together good plan and setting about our work. For Sandra, that work included relentlessly calling and door knocking the delegates to have personal and often lengthy conversations about her vision for our state. The rest of us, including a large volunteer committee, were covering logistics and supporting her work. This is where good help can make the most difference.

And then all hell broke loose.

Just a few days from the convention, it was postponed. The state DFL, in a very difficult position, went through a few ideas before settling on running everything online--including all of the balloting for all of the local conventions--during the same roughly ten day period. In order to simulate the rounds of voting necessary to winnow candidates at an in-person convention, they opted to use instant-runoff, ranked-choice voting.

For us, that didn’t change much about our outreach strategy. It just meant we had more time to do it. The format also meant that we wouldn’t be dealing with some of the chaos and unpredictability that can make for a long day at convention. Preparing for a convention victory--whether virtual or in-person--means gathering as much information about the delegates as possible. That means knowing their names, their most important issues, their lived experiences, their pets’ names, and, most importantly, their candidate preferences--not just first choice, but who they might support if that first or second choice were to drop. While staff and volunteers worked on the nuts and bolts of the campaign, Sandra kept plugging away at those delegate calls, especially because door knocking, for all of the obvious reasons, was no longer a viable means of communicating.

Finally, as we reassured ourselves that we had done as much as we could, the balloting period started. We made sure to call all of our identified supporters to make sure they voted. We kept calling until we knew they had. We also made sure that we reminded many people who had Sandra as their second choice to cast their ballot. Based on our calculations, it was likely those would play an important role in this endorsement process.

We were right. On the night the ballots were tallied, we trailed one candidate closely for the first few rounds. After the fourth round, we gathered enough second and third choices from the other candidates who had been dropped from the count along the way. We took a narrow lead, and then crossed the 60% threshold necessary for winning the endorsement in the next round.

In this particular race, the endorsement makes all the difference. It’s a safe DFL seat in the general election, and all of the candidates kept their word to abide by the endorsement, preventing a challenge in the August primary. While COVID-19 introduced some real uncertainty into this process, Sandra’s campaign was benefited by her hard work, a good message...and a little bit of seasoned help. We kept our eye on the ball, and did the work necessary to make sure the voters--delegates, in this case--heard that message.

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