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A Primer for Candidates

As the filing deadline for state and federal offices nears, a Tennessee activist offers some advice.

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The big thing about deciding to run is pretty simple. Are you ready, and do you have a plan?

John Jay Hooker said on his 80th birthday, when he was honored on the floor of the Senate, that one thing to know about him is that he wasn't afraid to lose. And he didn't win the two times he ran for governor (1966 and 1970) for a variety of reasons, but his subsequent advice is quite valuable for anyone running for office: You don't always have to win to make a contribution.  

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It used to be that people would wait their turn to run for office. Those days are over. We live in a new world order when it comes to modern politics. There are no longer "annointed ones" who are awaiting their time to serve.

You are going to need money, and time to make phone calls is crucial in the early days of getting financial commitments. Can you do that on your own or do you need help? It's something anyone running for office needs to think about.  

If you aren't ready to run for elected office (and some people aren't, because, God knows, a person has to be in it for the long haul), there are other things that can be done. Run for executive committee for your party. It's a way of learning the ins and outs of what is involved in political campaigns.

A few suggestions:

You can't do it all by yourself. You are going to need support staff. When you are doing call time, remember: Your campaign is only as good as its weakest link. Make sure each of your staff members is ready. Can you afford a couple of folks who will make your transition from call time to candidate seamless? You are going to need to be able to. It's important.

And trust is also important, since it's your name on the ballot, no one else's. You might also want to ask yourself: Is my campaign team in it for the paycheck or do they believe in me? The answer, quite frankly, is usually both, because folks have to eat. But if they believe in your message, they will work harder for you during the election year.

You need to give a clear and concise example to voters in your bailiwick about why you are the best person to serve. Don't talk at people, talk to them — and listen. Your message matrix needs to be on topic and your stump speeches need to be short. People want to be able to get a sense of who you are and what you can do. They don't want a monologue that rivals Othello's and leaves them without a clear message.

Talk to people who have worked campaigns before, and even if you can't hire them full-time, it's worthwhile to get honest and clear feedback from a professional who knows the ropes. It's even worth a limited hourly consulting fee, if you have it, to talk to someone who has had some skin in the game.

If you are doing your own social media, don't be robotic; be a person who folks want to know. And be sure to interact with your followers. Keep your messaging personal and clearly under your control, or it will get hijacked. You don't want that.

National issues will come up, but don't go down that rabbit hole. Are plants closing in your area? Talk about that. Is your hospital closing due to the lack of Medicaid expansion? Talk about that. Is unemployment going through the roof in your district? Talk about that.

Talking about Chris Christie when you only have about 15 minutes will eat up your time and accomplish nothing except helping or hurting a governor who is a long way from Tennessee.

Now is the time that candidates (especially new ones) begin the journey to run for elected office. Running the race is just as important as getting to the finish line. Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint. And good luck!

Trace Sharp is executive director of the Crockett Policy Institute. A version of this column originally appeared in the CPI Buzz.

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