Norm Coleman says he learned to trust his instincts when he made the leap from mayor of St. Paul to run for Senate in 2002.
Coleman’s opponent until shortly before Election Day was Sen. Paul Wellstone (D). In late October, Wellstone’s plane crashed en route to a funeral in northern Minnesota. When Coleman returned home that day from a scheduled debate in Duluth, he found reporters camped outside.
“My campaign team is telling me, ‘Don’t go outside,’” he recalled this week at C&E’s Art of Political Campaigning conference in Washington. “They wanted to craft a statement.”
With the encouragement of his wife, Laurie, Coleman stepped out to instead have a conversation with reporters about Wellstone’s tragic death. “It was heartfelt,” said Coleman, who was elected to the Senate less than two weeks later. “You have to make some judgements sometimes that go against your campaign team.”
When jumping from local to federal office, it also helps if the candidate has run and lost before.
“If the candidate’s on a winning streak as mayor or state senator, it’s very difficult to convince them there’s something they don’t know,” said Michael Myers, president of TargetPoint, a GOP firm. “We would much rather work with candidates who have lost before.”
Coleman, who had an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1998 before winning his Senate seat, agreed. “Running statewide, you learn you can’t do it all, but you can’t give it all up,” he said. “You have to know, what’s your voice?”
Coleman also warned candidates taking a step up to the national level that operatives from the other side will be more aggressive than in previous campaigns. “They want to kill you,” he said. “That’s the difference between a local race and a national race.”
As a result, candidates need to have the support of their families when they run for Senate or the House. “You need that full buy-in because your consultants aren’t there at three in the morning,” said Coleman, now of counsel at Hogan Lovells.
Moreover, the issue matrix is different at the federal level so candidates taking a step up need policy help. They also need to run more sophisticated campaigns.
“You usually need to broaden your team and bring in new expertise,” said Myers.
But problems arise when new team members don’t gel with the existing ones or the candidate doesn’t trust the advice he’s getting. “That trust has to run both ways,” said Myers.
Alex Kellner, of Bully Pulpit Interactive, encouraged ambitious office holders to begin cultivating their base long in advance of their next campaign.
“You can’t begin to develop your grassroots base the minute you run,” Kellner said. “You want to develop an email list before you even announce. Craft the personality and awareness so people know you and have that relationship with you.”
Candidates also need to have a clear vision for why they’re seeking the higher office and that shouldn’t be just because they can win or think the timing is right. Tom Davis, who successfully challenged incumbents as he went from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to the House, said it comes down to having a good campaign manager and raising significantly more money than in your earlier races.
“The money differential is critical and it will pick the winners from the losers in the early stages,” said Davis. “If you don’t know where you’re going to get your first $100,000 maybe you should wait and try something else.”