Well before the campaign season begins, local party officers should be considering potential candidates for future election. Even in those districts where long-term Democratic incumbents hold office, county parties should be preparing for the day when that official decides not to seek re-election.
School boards, town boards, city councils and commissions, and other special district positions are excellent proving grounds for future legislators and state leaders. Recruiting progressive candidates to run for local offices is key to building a “farm team” of candidates for future legislative and state races. These local offices have a direct impact on our daily lives — sometimes moreso than the marquee positions at the top of our ballots. Our local parties should consider supporting candidates for these positions that reflect and support our Democratic values.
Activism on a popular community issue or event is an important quality for a candidate. It can also help them bring a built-in base of supporters and volunteers in addition to the party organization. However, a person does not need to be a popular community leader or elected official to be a successful candidate. Finding someone who can take advantage of factors like these can be as important as finding a well-known candidate:
- Issues that are important to all residents in the district
- Any outside factors that might affect the race, such as a national economic downturn or a statewide candidate with wide appeal
- Weaknesses displayed by the opposing candidate
Candidates should be reminded that they may need to run more than once before they are successful. Rather than being a handicap, an initial loss often provides seasoning for a campaign, allowing it to:
- Build on name recognition
- Learn from earlier mistakes
- Avoid “start-up” costs including: campaign logo, website, lawn signs and office equipment
The local party role in recruiting candidates is chiefly to identify people with potential and build a supportive relationship. Recruiting candidates for local county and city races falls primarily to the county party. It will likely require the involvement of recruiters from the House (FuturePAC) or Senate (Senate Democratic Leadership Fund — SDLF) to get a candidate’s commitment to run for a legislative race, but vital groundwork is laid by a local party that makes a long-term commitment to the process.
Candidates and the Party
Developing and maintaining positive working relations with Democratic elected office holders is a top priority for local party officers. Often, there is very little problem in this area as the elected office holders value their local organizations. However, some choose to separate their own campaign organization from the party for a variety of reasons:
- They seek to maintain control over their own campaigns;
- They are at odds with members of the local party over key issues;
- They may have been in office long enough to not depend on the local party for donations, volunteers or other resources;
- The district’s voting history indicates significant Republican leanings, so they strive to maintain an independent image to appeal to a broader number of voters.
While these reasons may have some validity in certain circumstances, in the long run, it is best for the party and the officeholder to build a mutually supportive relationship. County Party officeholders should recognize the value of building the party in order to maintain a strong political base. They should be encouraged to participate in party meetings and events and be open to passing on information to activists about pending legislation and other matters of interest, as well as coordinating party efforts to build community support for local issues.
Here are some tips for getting started on a strong footing:
- If there is more than one Democratic candidate seeking the same open seat or a seat held by a Republican, it is important that the party Chair and Vice Chair maintain impartiality throughout the process — and good practice for other officers to do the same.
- Provide frequent opportunities for Democratic candidates to meet with activists and other potential voters at local events, forums, or meetings. If possible, be prepared to present a substantial donation from the party to candidates. It is a powerful reinforcement of the County Party’s value to their campaigns.
- Encourage unsuccessful candidates and their volunteers to stay involved with a welcoming approach and positive suggestions.
Role of the Party in Campaigns
Local party leaders play a demanding role during an election year in campaigns of city, county, legislative and statewide candidates. The most effective officers focus on maintaining the County Party, recruiting volunteers and working with local candidates and the DPO Coordinated Campaign.
All election activity is governed by both state and federal laws. In addition, some regulations administered by the U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service also apply. Generally speaking, if it involves money, in any form, from any source, received or expended by a County party, there are rules that must be followed to the letter or the party risks hefty fines and negative publicity — and these rules can change.
A basic guideline for all party officers is: “When it comes to money, do not assume you know what is legal. Ever.” It is also important to understand that the rules for county parties or caucuses are not the same as the rules for campaigns. There may be some crossover, but party officers should not take advice from campaigns, even from their Treasurers, about what is legal and how funds must be reported (or vice versa).
There is detailed information on the Oregon Secretary of State website. Chairs and Treasurers should familiarize themselves with its content and keep it handy for reference. In addition, checking in advance with an advisor at the SoS on an activity you have planned can prevent problems that could be costly later, if funds are collected or spent illegally, or reported incorrectly. Caucuses and Congressional District Committees are part of the DPO and are not separate legal entities, so all activity must be coordinated with the DPO.
Here is some additional information to keep in mind:
- Officers should never assume a party activity is legal just because it has been done in past years. Many activities commonly thought of as legal or exempt, are not and ignorance of the law has not been a successful defense for political parties. Check with the SOS or the DPO to be sure.
- All party materials must have a disclaimer accurately stating what entity “prepared and paid for” the material. Only buttons and other small items are excluded from this requirement.
- Literature, clothing items, banners, buttons, etc., should always be printed by a union printer and display the union “bug.” In addition, all items purchased for imprinting should be “Made in U.S.A.” These important considerations demonstrate a commitment to the principles of the DPO.
- It is illegal for a candidate or campaign to falsely claim an endorsement of any kind.
- County Parties may not serve as a conduit for “pass-through” contributions to any candidates. This is also known as “ear-marking” and is illegal under both state and federal law.
Building a strong and effective party organization takes time and requires officers to have a vision for the future, including but also beyond the current election cycle, and a plan for how to get there. Campaigns and candidates are often focused in the near term on winning the upcoming election. This difference in focus has the potential for conflict between campaigns and the party. It is up to the leaders of the County Party or Caucus to keep these dual efforts in sync.
The Local Elections Project
The DPO provides an annual seminar and candidate training project called the “Local Elections Project” to help local candidates with some basic tools in their campaigns. County Party Chairs will be contacted at the start of each year with details about this program by the DPO’s Political Organizing Coordinator.
The DPO Coordinated Campaign
A “coordinated campaign” is a concept approved in federal election law. It allows state parties to achieve combined electoral priorities of Democratic candidates by leveraging economies of scale for those campaign activities that all campaigns need, but not all campaigns can or should build on their own. Many state parties use this strategy and begin with the “top of the ticket” – a US Senate race or other high-profile statewide effort – and then include other statewide races, Congressional races, and state legislative efforts.
Rules that govern coordinated campaigns include:
- State campaign finance laws
- Federal election laws
- USPS (United States Postal Service) regulations
So what are those campaign activities that all campaigns need, but not all campaigns can or should build on their own?
- Building and running field mobilization efforts
- Mail Programs
- Voter Protection
- Opposition research and tracking
- Voter file management
- Statewide slate cards
The DPO has ongoing capacity to do some of each of these things within its operational budget. But during the Coordinated Campaign cycle, we need more and bigger efforts in all of the areas on this list to win critical races. The ability of the Coordinated Campaign to carry out these efforts is dependent on the ability of all the partner campaigns to raise resources and make them available to the coordinated effort. Therefore, strategies and investments must be decided collectively.
The Coordinated Campaign — through its partners and participants — raises a revenue stream separate from the DPO’s operational revenues. Revenues and expenditures are tracked separately from the operational budget adopted by the Budget Committee, the Executive Committee, and the SCC. A report on those revenues and expenditures are reported to the SCC after each election cycle.
The Coordinated Campaign hires organizers who often are assigned to do grassroots activities in communities around the state. Its success depends on the support of thousands of volunteers, often recruited through County Party efforts. County Party leaders are encouraged to work with Coordinated Campaign efforts for their mutual success as the program ramps up each election cycle — typically in the late spring or early summer of an election year.