Seven Rules for Republican Challengers

Recently I responded to a thank-you letter from a local candidate for Congress, James Watkins, running against an long-time Democratic incumbent, Jay Inslee, by offering some specific election advice. This advice applies to all challengers to political incumbents, especially in areas that are traditionally heavily Democratic, such as the Seattle are.

Running against an incumbent is usually a futile task but this year's situation gives you some powerful leverage points, if you know how to use them.

1. Avoid getting locked into attacking the incumbent. Don't make the mistake of running AGAINST Inslee. It is easier and less costly to defend than attack. People always justify their past actions and voters mentally defend their past votes. If you run against an incumbent by attacking him, you will lose. People who are going to vote against Inslee will vote for you regardless. Only Inslee can create more anti-Inslee voters. Your task is capturing the middle ground. This does NOT mean taking "democrat light" positions. Just the opposite. If the race is Dem against Repub, you will lose. Like most metropolitan areas, this is a heavily Democratic district. You must change the normal basis for voting decisions (1.1.2 Defending Positions).

2. All successful challenges to incumbents start by building a position on a climate change. People need a reason that change their position. but will change future actions when conditions change. This means you cannot convince people who voted for Inslee in the past that they were wrong about him. You want to make them right for voting for him THEN and for voting for you NOW. This is what I mean by leveraging the times we are in. What has changed is economics, especially high unemployment, AND the dominance of Congress and White House by the Dems. Inslee was the better choice when the economy was strong and Bush was president, to help keep Bush and Republicans from overreaching. Now that the Dems are in charge and overreaching, it is time to retire Inslee for a job well-down on his generous Congressional pension. This will not win over solid Dems, but it will win over those who see themselves as more independent. Many didn't like Bush then and don't like Obama now ((1.4.1 Climate Shift).

3. Take away the Dems best defense, "Bush did it first!" If you run against government over-reaching by either party, you don't have to defend Bush and Repub Congress. The minute Inslee uses the "Bush did it first" defense, you must say, "Yes, that is why you were the best choice then, but I am best choice now. We need to stop BOTH parties from doing it." See what I mean about not having to take a Democratic light position? (9.0 Understanding Vulnerability).

4. Never forget that an election is not about how great you are, but how you can make your constituents and the country great. You WILL be attacked for your lack of experience. The other common defense of incumbents is that the challenger has less experience. Do not fight to defend your experience but use your "non-elite" status to your advantage. Make the election about the common people. Admit that Inslee is powerful, well-entrenched political inside and you are not. Applaud his success and over to reward it by a generous retirement. Make the election about the regular people, getting someone in office who thinks like them instead of an inside. The election is about who the voters are not who the politicians are (3.2.1 Environmental Dominance).

5. Do NOT run on a laundry list of issues. This is the most common mistake that all politicians make. The terrain of issues is complex and constantly shifting. Voters cannot reconcile all the conflicting positions and as the issues shift, which they always do in a long campaign, they only get more confused. Confusion works in the incumbent's favor. Do not get drawn into debating the issues or discussing the issue. (1.2.1 Competitive Landscapes).

6. Instead of running on issues, run on a clear, central message that all issues lead back to. You will be asked about issues, but use issues to take every discussion back to a central philosophy. ("We must control political over-reaching."). Every position on issues simply reinforces that core value (not "theme"). Always discuss issues in the priority that the voter cares about them, not in their importance to you personally, the press, or Inslee. A clear philosophy is the core of a strong strategic position. It unites supports and makes you difficult to attack. How do you attack the philosophy of preventing government over-reaching? Positions on issues are the methods that must support mission (1.6 Mission Values).


Economy and Jobs: This is the most important area we must be concerned about. DC has taken its eye off of ball because Dem leadership have put long-term party priorities above today's pressing economic issues, increasing taxes and regulation least when we can afford it. Cause of economic problems: government over-reaching, putting affordable housing, bailouts, and unworkable economic controls above sound economic policy.

Terror Security: This is the second most important area we must be concerned about. DC has taken its eye off of ball because Dem leadership have put long-term party priorities in terms of social justice and international popularity above today's pressing security issues. Cause of recent problems: government over-reaching, putting extending terrorists civil rights and political correctness above protecting people.

7. Beware of getting caught up in any single issue that currently gets a lot of media, like health care. If health care is an issue at the time of the election, it will be because the bill passed. If the bill fails, it will not be an issue. If the bill has passed, run on simply pausing it because it taxes people now, which hurts economy, a higher priority for the voters. The bill reverses the logical order of good policy where we pay in good times for what we cannot afford in the bad. Right now we are in bad times, we should not be taking more out of people's pockets nor can we keep printing money. Works especially well if "Cadillac health care" tax hit Microsoft and similar employees in area (9.3.2 Message Control).