Why I Ran: How to Be Religious Liberty Candidate 1.0
I ran for Congress this year and lost — by a lot. Thirteen men entered the race for the Republican nomination in my district. We had the mayor of Shelby County, a state senator, a former state senator turned register of deeds, a multi-millionaire physician/broadcasting magnate, a former U.S. Attorney (and campaign bundler for Mike Huckabee), and a man who ran campaigns.
These finished ahead of me. The mayor ran on executive competence, the state senator on a “proven conservative record,” the multi-millionaire on owing nothing to any special interests because of his wealth, and the political consultant on representing rural West Tennessee. The man who won, the former U.S. Attorney, mainly ran on law and order and fighting terrorism.
Big War Chests
Of the six who finished ahead of me, everyone but the political consultant had large war chests with at least several hundred thousand dollars. They had a spending advantage of approximately 50-1 over my campaign and the six candidates who finished behind me. The multi-millionaire was supposed to have spent $2-3 million in a losing effort.
The primary empirical solace for me in the election results was that I turned out to be pretty efficient in turning dollars into votes. While the winner probably spent $35 per vote and a couple of the losers spent much more than that ($100 per vote or more), I spent about $9 per vote. On the other hand, the candidate who spends nothing and votes for himself ends up with a far more impressive ratio!
Finishing behind me, there was a group that consisted of a former banker, an industrial engineer, a former car dealer turned prison guard, an auto executive, a former factory worker turning CPA, and an exterminator (who wore an awesome stars and stripes suit throughout the campaign). Two stood out. The industrial engineer had a detailed plan for tackling the federal debt. The former factory worker turning CPA was highly focused on the “Fair Tax” based on consumption.
If you are keeping score, I lost to six politicians and defeated six ordinary citizens with high-minded ideas about running for office. In addition, I believe you would find that I had less money than the politicians and more than the men I defeated.
I had never held political office, so why did I run? What was I thinking? The first answer is that I have spent the last couple of decades thinking about religious liberty and religion and politics.
I knew that the Supreme Court would eventually issue a decision like Obergefell legalizing same-sex marriage and that the traditional marriage camp would be viewed as the inheritors of southern segregation and Jim Crow. I watched the cultural casualties beginning to mount and knew that the Hobby Lobby decision would be only a brief respite.
I knew I had to enter the Congressional race. In addition, I realized that I would be starting late, that I would be running on an issue (religious liberty) that has been on the margins of American politics, that I would not have much money, and that I would likely lose. Spiritually speaking, I felt that I had no real choice in the matter. I confided to some friends that if I ended up looking like a holy fool, then so be it. Knowing the likely outcome, I rode Quixote-like toward the windmill.
Did I hope that I would be radically vindicated, like David or Gideon? I did. I hoped that my campaign would shock and confound the world. I hoped that God would use my humble attempt at office to dramatically show the Democrats and Republicans that Americans care about religious liberty and that they don’t want to see the government restricting or denying the most sacred rights people have.
Instead of victory, I got the more likely outcome. The race was largely determined by spending, which is what our system pretty typically delivers. I knew that. I knew that and still hoped for a different outcome.
One of the side effects of the campaign is that I realize a little better than before that critiques of our system as a form of plutocracy (rule by money interests) has more validity than I previously acknowledged. The task of the media should really be to prevent campaigns from being pure marketing contests determined by finance, but they end up being mostly interested in covering the horse race instead of making sure voters understand candidate positions and qualifications so as to make an informed choice.
Do It Again
But I would do it again. The courts used to protect religious liberty, but they’re not doing that much anymore. If we can’t rely on the judicial process, we will have to build a democratic coalition for faith and conscience. A campaign like mine may not have generated a blizzard of votes, but it might have planted seeds of conviction and future activism with like-minded and energetic persons. Perhaps I built the equivalent of one of those failed flying machines destined to be brilliantly surpassed by the Wright Brothers.
Religious liberty can’t wait for the American media and voters to decide that they don’t want a political system almost entirely determined by money and the consultant class. I urge those who come after me to start earlier, to build the campaign chest necessary to be taken seriously as a player (whether that is just or not), and to find the organizational partners needed to do the things that go beyond being knowledgeable and articulate.
I hope that those reading this are not only future candidates. We need future campaign managers. I think it would have made a big difference for me if I had found a true partner who could complement my strengths in advocacy with a mind for strategy and organization.
I was blessed to have people who could help me with FEC compliance, finances, graphics, and the website, but I lacked a person with organizational genius and a vision for how to recruit and use volunteers. We may actually need our future campaign managers to go out and recruit our future candidates.
I was something like a religious liberty candidate version 1.0. We need version 2.0 and then 3.0. Let the long program for the struggle ahead begin in earnest.
For Hunter Baker’s thoughts on the issues and the Christian political calling, see the interview conducted during the campaign, Character Counts, and So Does Belief.