You’re in. You’ve filed your paperwork and opened a bank account. Now let’s get campaigning: Practice your stump speech in front of the bathroom mirror, spend some time working on position papers, get out on the rubber chicken circuit, and order some yard signs.
Right now your focus should be on winning the “First Election Day.”
There are only two days when you can win or lose your election. Obviously, one of those days is Election Day itself (you know, the one where voters vote and all of that – we’ll get to that later). But the “First Election Day” is fewer than three months away: It’s the day you release your first campaign finance report.
That first reporting day is the only day – other than Election Day – when you can actually win your election… or lose it.
Campaign finance reports are when you lay your cards on the table. You might have a great resume. It may be your “turn.” Maybe you can deliver a stem-winder of a speech. You might have a small army of grassroots supporters. You may have the best campaign plan, a strong strategy to win, and a hard-working staff. Your wife and children and family dog might think you’re brilliant.
None of that matters right now: You will be judged on whether or not you can raise money early. (Sorry.)
The truth is that people who can either make or break your campaign are going to be looking at your campaign finance report:
- Party leadership, independent organizations, and political action committees. Don’t delude yourself; the cavalry ain’t on its way. Outside groups are not in the business of funding longshot campaigns. They’re looking for strength. If you’re running in a tough district or competitive primary, they’re looking to back someone who can win.
- The media. A strong campaign finance report makes you a legitimate candidate in the eyes of the media. And in the media, you’re either in the reporting mix, or you’re an afterthought. (i.e. “YOUR NAME is also an announced candidate and was also at the event.”)
- Other candidates and potential candidates. Want to clear the field in a primary? Start by scaring other potential candidates out of the race. If you’ve got a fundraising lead, potential candidates will take a pass. (Even better if you’ve got some of their donors.)
- Your next round of donors. Repeat after me: Nobody wants to be a $2,700 donor to a $50,000 campaign. If you’re not raising money, there is almost no chance that someone outside of your own, close sphere of influence will make a major contribution to your campaign.
- Your opponent’s next round of donors. If you have $300,000 and your opponent has $50,000, item #4 above works in your favor. Show fundraising strength early, and your opponent’s money will dry up.
Let me guess: You’re saying to yourself, “This isn’t fair.” Well, in a way, it is fair. Early money isn’t just about the money. It’s an indicator that you’re willing to work hard and grind it out. Nobody likes raising money. Everybody likes making stump speeches. When people look at your campaign finance reports, they’re able to tell by the number on the “receipts” line whether or not you’re willing to do the hard, painful work to get elected.
What else can someone tell from your campaign finance reports?
They can tell if you’re willing to listen to a good consultant (i.e. someone who tells you to raise money) or if you’ve surrounded yourself by bad consultants, staffers, and yes-men. They can tell if your friends, family, colleagues, co-workers, and business associates believe in you. They can tell if you have ties to activist Republican donors and the local business community and if you’ve been a visible leader within your party. They can tell if you’re serious and if the people close to you take your campaign seriously.
So start thinking in terms of your “First Election Day” – the day you file your campaign finance reports. It’s a day when you can win – or lose – your race, and it’s less than three months away.