The Elizabeth Colbert-Busch Guide to Running in Another Party’s Safe District

Devin McCarthy

On May 7, 2013 in Charleston, S.C., Elizabeth Colbert Busch speaks to media after casting her vote in a special election runoff with former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford for a seat in the 1st Congressional District. (Photo by Mary Ann Chastain/Getty Images)
It’s no secret that congressional elections have a bit of a competitiveness problem. Most congressional districts invariably vote for either Republicans or Democrats. In those districts, the minority party’s candidates have no hope of winning elections, and their voters have no hope of winning representation. Take the 2012 election, when Democrats didn’t pick up a single seat in the 201 districts where Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by more than 4 percent and Republicans didn’t pick up a single seat in the 167 districts where Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by at least 11 percent. That’s an awful lot of safe districts. But maybe you’re foolhardy enough to believe you could actually break through those impenetrable partisan walls. You’re a Democrat in a red district or a Republican in a blue district, and you want nothing more than to represent your district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Well, with this election-tested* guide, you too can fruitlessly struggle to overcome our increasingly hyper-partisan winner-take-all congressional elections. If you follow the guide closely, you might even feel like you have a real chance at winning your race before your inevitable failure on Election Day.
Before we get started, it goes without saying that you need to run a strong campaign, not have any personal baggage, raise at least twice as much money as your opponent, and decisively win any debates. Once you’ve got that down, just follow these four simple steps. *Guide tested in South Carolina District 1 special election between Elizabeth Colbert-Busch and Mark Sanford, May 7, 2013. SC-1 voted for Mitt Romney at 11 points above his national average in 2012. Sanford won the election with 54 percent of the vote. Timing is everything. Whatever you do, don’t run in the general election. General elections have a high turnout and are highly predictable. Voters are unlikely to split their tickets. Instead, wait until a special election – that is, until your current representative is appointed to a higher office, retires mid-term, resigns in disgrace, or dies. It should happen eventually, if you don’t die of old age first yourself. Special elections tend to garner national attention, and they allow more emphasis to be placed on the individual candidates. Support the other party’s policy positions. There’s no way you can get elected just by representing the viewpoints of your party’s supporters. Don’t completely forsake them, but also don’t be afraid to register your opposition to your party’s most important legislative accomplishment in recent memory. Family fame. You’re going to want to have a close relative who is a popular celebrity. Not just a B-lister; this should be someone who has a personal legion of fans from both parties and, ideally, has a TV show on which to advertise your candidacy and mock your opponent. Speaking of which…  Choose your opponent wisely. This may be the most important step. If you’re facing an average or even mediocre candidate from the other party, you will lose. Your opponent needs to be embarrassing. Here’s an example of an opponent who was bad, but not bad enough: in 2008, Representative Henry Brown ®, incumbent of South Carolina’s District 1 (61 percent Republican), was forced to pay a fine for starting a fire that ended up burning down 20 acres of a national forest. Brown still won his election by 4 percent. No, you’ll want an opponent who’s done something even more embarrassing than recklessly causing massive environmental destruction. Something like a sex scandal. Better yet: a sex scandal funded by taxpayer money. In case the scandal took place a while ago, try and keep it current. Make sure your opponent does something new to remind everyone of the really scandalous thing he or she did, like trespassing on an ex-spouse’s property. It should ideally be shameful enough that your opponent’s national campaign committee pulls out all its funding from the race. DISCLAIMER: If you somehow manage to make all of that happen, don’t get too excited. You will still almost certainly lose. And if you do win the special election, you’ll probably just lose in the next general election anyway. But at least you did everything you could to strike a blow for disenfranchised minority party voters all over the country! Or here’s another idea. If you get tired of waiting for that perfect storm to fall on your district, you could always help the U.S. House switch to using multi-member districts elected under fair voting methods that would guarantee minority party voters the ability to elect a candidate in every district in the country. No sex scandal necessary—just a federal statutory change. Reprinted with permission from Fair​Vote​.org.
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Devin McCarthy is a Research Fellow at FairVote, focusing on proportional representation and international elections. He is a recent graduate of Georgetown University, where he majored in History and Government. During his senior year at Georgetown, Devin worked as a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has also interned at non-profit organizations including the Center for International Policy and the Forum 2000 foundation in Prague.
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