Six Lessons from a Conservative Candidate With a Cause (Who Lost)
Having run for the Republican nomination in a Tennessee congressional district, Hunter Baker shares what he learned for anyone who want to do what he did — maybe with more success.
You learn a lot when you lose. You learn about losing, obviously, but what you learn about defeat might help you or someone else win next time. In my first article about my campaign for Congress, Why I Ran: How to Be Religious Liberty Candidate 1.0, I offered general reflections on running for office and on what we need in the next wave of religious liberty advocates running for office. Here are six insights I learned the hard way.
Lesson 1: Conservative Media Probably Can’t Push You Ahead
I thought I had some advantages that might help me to make a bigger impact than anyone expected. First, as a longtime writer for conservative media, I expected that National Review and others would highlight my efforts. I was right about that. Rod Dreher at the American Conservative, National Review, The Stream, The Federalist, Redstate and Erick Erickson at The Resurgent all either wrote about me or featured content by me.
I thought they would create name recognition and help the regional media to see me as a candidate worth covering. I was wrong about both.
By far, the thing that people knew or cared about when I met them was the fact that I am a professor at Union University, which is well-regarded in West Tennessee. Regrettably, for the sake of my campaign, three other candidates had strong ties to Union. I almost never had people say they had read about me in conservative opinion outlets. Maybe all politics really is local, as Tip O’Neill claimed.
Local reporters saw little news value in the professor who was getting so much attention from the conservative media. I’m not sure they knew I was getting such attention or that it mattered to them.
In addition, I thought the media would be intrigued by the idea of a candidate focusing his campaign on religious liberty. This may have been the first congressional campaign in America to do so. If anything, that seems to have solidified their conviction that I was destined for marginal influence. They did not diverge from their unstated standard that unless a candidate has six figures in the bank, he is not worth covering. That point leads me to the next lesson.
Lesson 2: Even Socrates Wouldn’t Get Coverage Without Big Fundraising
If the media determines a candidate’s value based on the amount of money raised, doesn’t that doom us to a class of elected officials whose primary merit is that they are able to weave together an economy of favors and influence so as to raise a great deal of money? It would seem to me that reporters and analysts end up participating in a campaign largely determined by marketing. They will only cover those who can afford the most advertising.
Imagine an ideal candidate named Socrates. He has amazing knowledge of public policy. He has a calm, steady temperament. He is wise. He would exceed any legislator in the art of legislation. He also cares little for money and does not constantly cultivate donors.
What would happen to him? He would be virtually unknown. Voters would never have the chance to learn about him. Will the media inform the public about his existence? No. They will write him off.
Lesson 3: Christians Have an Incentive to Talk a Little Crazy to Get Media Attention.
Is there another way to get the media’s attention? As a longtime Christian who has often been perplexed by the outrageous things our purported spokesmen have said to reporters, I have worked to develop an articulate defense of the Christian worldview so that I could represent our side well when I had the chance. But now I know why the public statements run a little to the crazy side. That’s how you get noticed.
Near the end of the race, I realized that if I had begun to make wild statements regarding prophecy, who is going to Hell, and why God hates this group or that group, I would probably have suddenly been worth sustained media attention. Of course, at that point, the purpose being served wouldn’t be religious liberty. I’d just be confirming the settled opinions of secularists that Christians are crazy and don’t have a place in the public square.
Lesson 4: A Field of 13 is a Tough Place to Make a Political Debut.
I was wrong about something else in this race. We had 13 men running. Six of them came from the Memphis suburbs, which was the richest source of votes. I believed that those six would check each other and let a niche candidate get 15 to 20% of the vote, which would be enough to win. I miscalculated.
With 13 candidates in the race, two things happen. First, the media doubles down on using money as the way to decide who to cover because they are eager to reduce the size of the field. Second, the task of getting attention from voters is much more challenging. They aren’t encouraged to read about as many candidates as possible to make a good choice. Instead, they are discouraged from trying to figure it out. I would have had a far easier time as a single outsider challenging a powerful incumbent than I had as one of the crowd seeking the same office.
Lesson Five: Being a Good Speaker Doesn’t Necessarily Get You Very Far.
I shared a stage with the other candidates many times. As a professor who has spoken all over the country and who knows a lot about public policy, I had a significant advantage. I hoped that I was building a reputation that would spread across the district, attracting voters frustrated with having inarticulate conservatives failing to win the verbal battles with their liberal counterparts.
But as I found, the number of people who can be reached in campaign appearances (especially at the district level) are inconsequential compared to those reached by advertising. The victor didn’t make a big impression as a speaker, but being a charismatic or ultra-informed orator was never his game at all. He came on strong toward the end of the campaign to win the ad war and maybe also the endorsement war with Mike Huckabee on his side.
Lesson Six: Pragmatism Will Deter Potential Allies
Going into the campaign, I thought I had a shot at being the primary pro-life candidate in the race. Everyone would be pro-life and some would have pro-life voting records, but I had the support of Robert George of Princeton (the most prominent pro-life philosopher in the United States) and other pro-life leaders like Francis Beckwith and Scott Klusendorf. If the state and national right to life groups wanted to put a person in Congress who could press their case with fire and excellence, I would make a strong choice.
When I met with the Tennessee group, I sensed the conflict I created. It was very much the same with another group, with whom I met in Washington, D.C., at their request. Both knew, I think, that I could make a difference as a member of Congress because of my skill as an advocate. But neither could envision me and the magic words “path to victory” in the same sentence.
Ideological allies will almost always go for the most pragmatic choice, the one most likely to win even if he won’t be the best advocate once he’s elected. That is easy to understand, but I wonder whether we might achieve more if such groups occasionally “made” a candidate who shows promise for the cause rather than facilitating one who has already been made by others.
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.