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The Mop-Up, with Dan Sena
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The Mop-Up, with Dan Sena

Talking to an expert on the earliest stages of campaign formation.

As I mentioned in this week’s edition of The Sweep, Dan Sena was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2018 cycle. Under Dan, Democrats gained 40 House seats and flipped the majority. In other words, Nancy Pelosi owes Dan her gavel or at least some nice pictures from the Speaker’s Balcony.

I am so grateful to Dan for taking the time to have this conversation. Dan is a general consultant now, which means he oversees a lot of campaigns each cycle. A congressional campaign will have a campaign manager and communications director, for example, who almost certainly live in or move to the area for the election and dedicate all their time to their one candidate. General consultants, on the other hand, are the strategic advisors. They will often help hire the campaign managers for the 8-10 races they may have in a cycle, and they will have preexisting relationships with donors and media buyers. They’re the ones with plans for what percentage of money should go into digital ad buys versus television and how to budget your race so you don’t run out of money three weeks before the primary. 

But GCs aren’t going to sit in the back of the truck with you for three hours to drive from breakfast at the American Legion (where you didn’t actually get to eat), do 90 minutes of call time with a new donor list (featuring zero people who actually agree to give you money), and tell you which reporter you should talk to after the next event (who will ask you to give a no-win response to something your opponent said). Ah, the glamour of campaign life!

Believe it or not, this is a busy season for folks like Dan who run general consulting businesses for campaigns. 

There is a mutual wooing process going on around the country. Candidates want the best GCs, of course. But not just for their campaign talent. As the bowerbirds of Australia would tell you: It’s not just what you as a candidate have to offer, but how you have decorated your nest. A well-regarded GC can make for a very shiny bauble, signaling to donors and other potential staff about the fitness and potential of a candidate. For their part, GCs want to brag about their win records after each cycle, so they don’t want to take on candidates that have no chance of winning, but they also want to have candidates in as many top-tier races as possible.  

And so a very weird mating dance takes place in which both sides have to do a little peacocking. Candidates show off their knowledge of the district and which local politicos are encouraging them to run, while GCs suggest some introductions they can make and share how they might be thinking about the race at this early stage. Hiring decisions on either side may yet take weeks and months, but phone calls (and zoom meetings) are filling up their days.

(Speaking of mating rituals, if you haven’t done a deep dive into the mating rituals of bowerbirds, you’re missing out on one of life’s greatest treats. It’s right up there with David Attenborough’s narration of the courtship habits of birds-of-paradise—or maybe I just really felt a certain kinship after the 2016 cycle with this feathered friend when Attenborough pronounced, “it’s hard not to feel deflated when even your best isn’t good enough.”)

Okay, okay, time to dive in with Dan …

Sarah: Let’s say you’re at the DCCC, and you’ve got 10 to 15 top-tier races you want to flip this cycle. Where do you start? Do candidates find you? Do you find them? How do you know who to talk to?

Dan: When you look at places like Utah’s 4th district, for example, I think the very first thing they’re going to want to do is have a discussion about whether there is any advantage to having a former member of Congress run again. [In this district, Democrat Ben McAdams unseated Republican Mia Love in 2018, only to narrowly lose to Republican and NFL alum Burgess Owens in 2020.] So somebody who potentially may have lost in ’20, who has a network who has a grassroots fundraising list, and who you know has a record of service that is sort of independent from the party. How does that person currently fit? And that fits into the races in California, it fits into a vast majority of the races that were just launched, so I think that’s question number one.

And then I think question number two that the committee has to begin to think through is what type of candidate is going to be best for a district. And really from there, there’s a whole variety of different ways that that these things can come together—whether it’s using online research, or whether it’s using some sort of qualitative or quantitative research to figure out the type of profile that works best, or there may be just really popular local elected officials that should run. Then you sort of look at the environment, the climate—politically speaking—of what’s going on in the district to figure out who really is the best type of candidate to run. And who’s got a profile that actually works. And then you kind of just go from there. 

Sarah: Do folks ever walk through your door and they’re like, “Hi, I think I’d be really good for this?”

Dan: 100 percent. I mean that’s the ideal situation, and what you then end up doing is there’s basically this recruitment committee process that both committees use—and I say committees, meaning the Republicans and the Democrats—with a series of members that sort of put these candidates through a little bit of a verbal gauntlet. Ask them to walk through why they’re running, their Rolodex. You really look under the hood so to speak. Both their financial ability but also sort of from a messaging perspective: What’s their record of service, how do they get to be where they are, to really help think through, you know, is this the best type of candidate? Does this type of candidate need some additional support, meaning like a mentor to help sort of get them to where they need to go? Or are they just so completely outside of the political norm of a candidate that they’ve got a bio that really excels, right? Or are they crazy and just want to run for Congress? Which we also do get the crazy people from time to time. So you sort of walk through that entire process with members and internal staff to figure out what type of ‘candidate needs’ these folks can potentially be.

Sarah: And what if you’ve been recruiting two different people because both were wavering, but then they both say yes? Candidate A’s got a stellar bio, and Candidate B has great name ID in the district. What happens? You’ve just recruited two girlfriends for the same prom.

Dan: Yeah, or exes. So look, I mean, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, right? And that’s really where your allies often come to the table. So, whether it’s that they’re coming from the labor world, whether they’ve spoken to EMILY’s list, or they have established relationships with the Congressional Black Caucus. There’s a whole bunch of different sorts of coalitions that these future members or potential members really begin to put together, and in some cases it’s a function of bringing all those types of people to the table to really think through who is the best candidate.

Sarah: How do you decide whether to recruit for quality or quantity when you’re talking about limited resources at the congressional level?

Dan: I’ll give the Republicans credit for what they effectively did. What we did to them in 2018, they did to us in 2020. They recruited everywhere, and they basically refused to give Democrats an easy pass anywhere. I really believe that regardless of the year that is a core strategy that both parties have shown to be able to be successful.

Sarah: Is that because you actually can pick up some random seats by accident, or because it forces the other side to spend money that would otherwise have gone to hurting a more vulnerable top tier incumbent? 

Dan: All of the above.

Sarah: You talked about having the research and showing folks that there’s a path to win the seat, but then you’ve also said you just have to recruit everywhere for every seat. But in some of those districts, the research is going to show that there really is not going to be a path. How do you convince folks that it’s worth a year of their life to do that?

Dan: Well, look, in the Trump world, it was much easier to do, because I think Trump created sort of this vacuum that Democrats wanted to fill. I think you raise a really good point going forward though. How does that play out for 2022 is still very much to be determined. That’s where you look at the economic numbers, you look at the number of shots in arms, you look at sort of the general momentum. And candidly the Republican side has a problem battling themselves. You’ve got these moderate non-Trumpians versus the regular Trump Republicans. Are there ways in these primaries that you can begin to stir and begin to facilitate the debate on our side about who really is the most Trumpian Republicans? There are things I think you could do tactically that at least get people interested in re-engaging in the fight. That will help you I think recruit everywhere.

Sarah: What does it mean to recruit a candidate or to be a recruited candidate? 

Dan: It really depends. Traditionally, the committee does best when it follows a local lead. And what I mean by that is in a place like New Jersey, for example, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re the national committee pick. If the locals and the local county apparatus hasn’t gone through its process to get a Democratic nominee or Republican nominee, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got the best candidate in the world with billboards and banners. And so it’s a little bit of a balance between making sure the local pieces are in place and the national pieces are in place. 

And traditionally, what it means once those hurdles are cleared is that you get access to all the things that come with being favored by the national committee. You get smart people to help you win your elections, you get access to strategy folks, you get access to tools and tactics to help you raise money and make your campaign more successful. 

Sarah: And donors look at that stuff too, right?

Dan: 100 percent. Donors want to know that the national committee has at least vetted you and views you as a viable candidate.

Sarah: In this anti-establishment era, is there now a potential backlash against the party’s recruited candidate?

Dan: Yeah, so we didn’t see a lot of that. I think it has gotten more powerful over the last two cycles. However, you look at the DSSC record, all their primary candidates got through, and all but two of ours, and remember we were at like 80-plus people. 

Sarah: What is the most important piece of advice you give to a brand new candidate?

Dan: I think it’s two big things: One, it takes an enormous amount of work, and typically those candidates who win are the ones who actually work the hardest. … You’ve got to tell your husband, your wife, or your kids that you love them and that you’ll see them in a year. The second piece is what’s your story, what is the purpose for your candidacy, why are you actually doing this and how are we going to tell it in an authentic and real way. Those are the two most important things because from that comes money, from that comes press, from that comes all of the other things. 

Sarah: What’s your go to car food, life sustenance on the road?

Dan: Trail mix. 

Sarah: Seriously? Oh, that’s way too healthy. It’s also kind of a finicky thing to try to get from the bag into your mouth, and I end up with peanuts all over the car. 

Dan: I don’t know. I spent my 20s and early 30s living out of my car, so maybe I just refined the art of the trail mix. I don’t know.

Sarah: My first race I had a twin mattress in the back of a borrowed SUV. So that’s how I started out. But this is why I try to tell women in particular, like, this is why boys go into this stuff when they’re 19 and girls don’t, because girls don’t want to live on a twin mattress in the back of an SUV and eat old pizza that’s been sitting under the seat for an indeterminate amount of time.  

Dan: Yeah, it is very much living in a fraternity house versus a sorority house. 

Sarah: Yeah, no, it’s pretty disgusting. But it’s really fun, and you just have to kind of get over that part. 

Dan: Right. 

Sarah: And learn the high art of eating trail mix from the bag while driving.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.