November longshots remain hopeful
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2010 - The odds may be against them, but if enthusiasm and conviction could be converted directly into votes, four local candidates challenging sitting members of Congress in next month's election might turn what many observers consider foregone conclusions into squeakers.
George Connor, political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield, notes that the best time to defeat incumbent officeholders is after their first term. This year's long-shot challengers -- Robyn Hamlin and Arthur Lieber in Missouri, and Teri Newman and Tim Bagwell in Metro East -- are working to defeat incumbents who have been in Washington far longer than that.
But, Connor notes, this year's political climate, marked by Tea Party rallies and a high degree of fervor on both sides, may give congressional hopefuls more hope than they usually have.
"Is this a more fertile year?" Connor says. "I think the answer is yes, in the sense that more viable candidates seem willing to challenge incumbents. In part, you can point to the Tea Party movement in general, but that doesn't explain primary challengers to Democrats or challengers to conservative Republicans. There are plenty of movements, both left and right."
Why do people take the time and money to get involved in races where they may seem to have little chance to succeed? Connor notes several reasons.
"Sometimes," he says, "it's for the future. They may say, 'I want to represent the Democratic Party, so I'm going to be the sacrificial lamb this time around, so I can get something from the party later. I want to get my name out to the party activists.' They're never a viable candidate the first time around, but they may be a viable candidate the next time around."
He said that social media also plays a role, because it's simpler to get your name and your platform out without spending a lot of money on television ads.
"It's easier to run a campaign as a non-mainstream candidate because of Twitter and Facebook," Connor said. You can get your message out to a lot more people more cheaply -- free, in many ways. Certainly that is where that 18-30-year-old demographic is.
"But it's not just the youth. Lots of middle-aged folks have Facebook accounts or are on LinkedIn. Candidates are investing a lot of time in microsites. It's really all about firming up your base."
Having a lot of non-traditional candidates running indicates a paradox, Connor said: People are unhappy with government but have faith in democracy.
"People are jumping in because they are not happy with the way things are going, not happy with the direction of the country, not happy with what Congress is doing, and they say, 'I'll jump in because I have a better idea.'
"They're expressing their concern in the ultimate democratic way, putting themselves out as a candidate. It's healthy for democracy, but it suggests that the country is sick."
Listen to why two local candidates say they're in the running.
Robyn Hamlin, Republican in Missouri's 1st District, Challenging Rep. William Lacy Clay
"We need to have a choice. We need to have our entire district represented, not just a small slice of it."
As someone who sells group health insurance and has worked with small business owners for 26 years, Hamlin has a good sense of how many potential voters feel about one of the hot topics this campaign season -- the new health-care law.
"Most of them don't like it," she said. "They see it as more of an intrusion into their business and more taxes and more regulation and more paperwork. Most of them don't see a whole lot of new benefits.
"I've had a few ask me whether it would be more beneficial for them to drop their coverage because the penalties they would pay would be cheaper than what they currently pay to provide coverage for their employees."
Hamlin said her only previous experience as a political candidate was an unsuccessful race for county council when she lived in Illinois 15 years ago. She told Republicans in the 1st District that if they couldn't find anyone else to run against Clay, she would take the race on.
"They talked to several people," she said, "and they did not think they were strong enough candidates. So here I am."
She plans to put $2,000 of her own money into the race, plus whatever else she can raise without putting the campaign into debt. Media attention has been limited primarily to local radio stations, she said.
But Hamlin remains confident of victory.
"I've never looked at this as an uphill fight," she said. "It's a matter of educating people that they have choices to make and they should look at both candidates. It's not a foregone conclusion that this seat belongs to a particular family. We have to get beyond that. We can no longer let the same family control things."
Arthur Lieber, Democrat in Missouri's 2nd District, Challenging Rep. Todd Akin
With just a few hours to go before filing closed, and no one else ready to step up to run as a Democrat in the 2nd District, Arthur Lieber said to his wife: "We can do nothing, or we can go to Jefferson City and file."
He made the trip to mid-Missouri and ever since he has tried to run what he calls an unconventional campaign. Instead of asking supporters for money, for example, he will tell them: "You only have 24 hours to meet my goal of zero dollars." Instead of contributing campaign cash, Lieber wants them to provide ideas and a commitment to solving the issues that prompted him to get involved in the first place, including campaign reform, jobs, schools and health care.
His approach reflects his career in education, as a founder of Crossroads School, then as a founder of the non-profit group Civitas, which encourages young people to be self-learners, motivated by curiosity instead of grades.
Lieber says his goal in the campaign has been to elevate the conversation and to get people to feel that it is their obligation to learn about the candidates, then vote on Nov. 2.
"I'm not trying to engage in personal attacks," he said, "and I'm not carrying any conflict of interest baggage with me. I let the word out to several people after I filed that I wanted to begin an attitude of 'do no harm.'
"The conventional way is to go down by the river and gather as much mud as you can, then get a catapult and go to work. Maybe because I've been in education for 40 years, I find that deplorable and non-productive. We have to change it by example."
To keep the campaign on the higher plane where he wants it to say, Lieber has joined with Todd Akin to contribute essays on various topics to the Beacon. They have helped get his word out in the absence of any assistance from the Democratic Party organization, which he contacted in vain on the day that he filed.
"They have offered nothing," Lieber said, "and I have asked for nothing. I don't want to in any way, shape or form be asking for anything from people who are that entrenched in the system, and they haven't asked anything of me."
In that way, he added, he does not have to do what many Democrats have done -- distance themselves from President Barack Obama and policies that Lieber says have made sense.
"I'm very comfortable saying we need to support the end of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy," he said, "and I feel no pressure in any way to move away from the president."