What’s it like to run for office? Exhausting, exhilarating and, above all, humbling
Author: Hal Bidlack - July 13, 2017 - Updated: September 19, 2017
In 2008, it was my honor, and I truly mean that term, honor, to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado’s 5th Congressional District. I ran as a Democrat, albeit a somewhat conservative one, in one of the most Republican districts in the nation. I took on incumbent Congressman Doug Lamborn with little hope of winning in one of the most costly types of campaigns you can run – for a national office. Spoiler alert – I lost.
But over the course of my campaign, I learned a great deal, got to meet some remarkable people, learned a great deal about Colorado, and got to hang out (briefly) with people like Bill Ritter, Ed Perlmutter, Ken Salazar, and (really briefly) Joe Biden and a very nice gent named Obama. Then, on Election Day, I — well, as I said — I lost. But boy, was it a learning experience.
I often hear people talk about running for office, especially the Congress, and so please let me share a thought or two on what that really means. Running for office is exhausting, exhilarating, and above all, humbling. So, why should you, or anyone, run for Congress in Colorado? You should know in advance you won’t be greeted too warmly by lots and lots of people. For everyone who says they love you, someone else will claim you are un-American. For every donor, there will be an angry phone call with someone who suggests a biological impossibility. Still interested?
According to a recent Gallup poll, national approval of Congress has increased to a whopping 21 percent. That’s up from some all-time lows, but it still means that 72 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress while 7 percent (presumably those without internet or a newspaper) have no opinion.
In Colorado, a Denver Post report about a poll proclaimed, “Colorado Democrats have early momentum heading into 2018.” Yet a closer read suggests that the evidence of significant support for either party might be a tad overstated, to say the least. The poll shows that Colorado voters say they prefer a generic Democrat to a generic Republican by a margin of 39 percent to 34 percent. While that is better than being behind, it should not provide either party with too much to celebrate. The alternate view of those same polls says that 61 percent did not say they supported the Dem, while 66 percent didn’t want the GOP candidate. Simply put, Americans are fed up with Congress. Everyone says so, right?
Well, if that’s the case, why in 2016, when overall approval was near single digits, did the American people decide to return 97 percent of the members of the House of Representatives to office for another term? Because, generally speaking, Americans hate Congress, but love their own Member of Congress. So, is it time to declare your candidacy?
Prior to running for Congress myself, I served over 25 years of active duty as an Air Force officer. I spent a significant chunk of that time teaching political science at the AF Academy in Colorado Springs. I specialized in the study of American governance, and I earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan. Thus I gently suggest, I can offer a few insights from the perspective of both a scholar and a candidate.
So, why would you want to run for office in Colorado? Lots of candidates admire the words of Teddy Roosvelt, who said:
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
It’s a nice quote, and I think TR was correct — until you’ve run for office, you don’t really understand how comforting those words are — especially if you lose.
So why do people run? There are lots of reasons. Fundamentally, you have to have a certain amount of ego to think that you should represent the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of Coloradans. But there also needs to be something else — a strong desire to help mitigate the human condition. I believe this is the case regardless of party. I truly believe that, and in my own campaign, I tried to back away from the demonization of the other side. Not everyone supporting me was thrilled with me when I said, in nearly every speech, that, “Doug Lamborn is a good and decent man, doing what he thinks is right. But he is wrong about almost everything, and hopefully he feels the same way about me.”
To run for public office in Colorado means, or at least should mean, that you are passionately committed to improving the lives of those who elect you. Anything less, and you will find the campaign a grim task. But if you believe you can make a difference, and you are willing to commit seriously to the cause, you should run. Because, as I truly believe, if you want to complain about things, you should also try to be part of the solution.
So how do you run for office? Do you stand in the public square and shout “I’m running!” at the top of your lungs? Nope. It varies by individual office, but being a candidate requires you to make thousands of phone calls, raise an obscene amount of money, walk and talk with as many voters as possible, and more.