Belmont Club

Now for the hard part: money and messaging

One of the most sobering factoids about Barney Frank’s resignation is that he was re-elected 16 times before finally deciding he had had enough. Sixteen times. Leo Linbeck, you may recall, noted in a letter published some days ago on this site that this was no surprise. Death from natural causes far exceeded defeat at the ballot box as a source of Congressional turnover. Barney and his like are dug in more solidly on Capitol Hill than the Imperial Japanese Army was on Iwo Jima. The only time Barney was ever going to leave was when he felt like it. Can they ever be turned out otherwise?

L3 described a plan to challenge the incumbents where they were most vulnerable; at the primaries. But vulnerability is a relative thing. The incumbents are supported by the media monopoly on messaging, and they’ve got all the bucks. Even at their most vulnerable the incumbents have have all the big battalions on their side.

But not all is lost. The summit of Surabachi may be distant, but there’s a way up and L3 gives us an update on the efforts to ‘break the cycle of incumbency’ and elect new candidates into office after the Read More. He describes the necessary adjuncts to challenging the incumbents in primary campaigns, whether Democratic or Republican.  To break their stranglehold on power one must challenge their monopoly on messaging and money. Analysis shows there may be as many as 100 seats that are vulnerable. Since only 4 incumbents lost a primary in 2010, maybe, just maybe an America in the crisis year 2012 can do better than cycle out 4. But I’d better let Leo explain things.


I really appreciate your publishing my previous letter on the Primary Pledge campaign, and especially thank the members of the Belmont Club for their thoughtful and encouraging responses.

As I alluded to in that letter, there is a second, independent but complementary campaign that I’ve helped launch, which I’d like to share in this letter. I promise to be briefer in this one… ;-)

The Primary Pledge is designed to get more people to vote in Congressional primaries. The basic argument is that for our electoral accountability system to work properly, incumbents must be forced to compete in every election to win the continued support of their constituents. This won’t happen if only 10% of the people in their district vote. In addition to this being too low a turnout, it is an unrepresentative sample of the overall electorate in the district.

But even if everyone in a district voted in the dominant party’s primary (i.e. everyone voted in the Republican primary in a Republican district), there is another, perhaps bigger problem that has to be overcome in order to make the incumbent compete:

Incumbents have a “messaging monopoly” in primary elections.

For democratic elections to function properly, voters need to be informed about the choices before them. But the system, as currently constructed, is skewed strongly in favor of incumbents and against challengers. Some of the factors that contribute to this “unlevel playing field” include:

Money. Incumbents get more money, because they have the support of the party (for whom the incumbent provides support), the lobby (who have already “invested” in the incumbent, and are in the “return” phase of that investment, whereas a winning challenger will require additional “investment” before any “returns” can be generated), and the special interests (same logic as the lobby, plus the additional benefit of knowing where they stand on their issue, vs. anticipating what the challenger will do). These advantages are clear when you comb through the contribution reports filed with the FEC; incumbents get most of their money from law firms (lobbyists), trade associations (special interests), unions (special interests), and congressional campaign committees (the parties). The challenger has money from their in-laws (so they can get a special tour if he wins, or complain about how he doesn’t deserve their daughter if he loses), fraternity brothers or sorority sisters (because, you know, we made a promise to each other), etc. Seriously, it becomes obvious that the only realistic way to challenge an House incumbent is to be self-funding – a fact that further distorts our system.

Name Identification. Incumbents are better known, both because they’ve run before, and because of the lovely “franking privilege” that allows them to send free mail to their loyal constituents telling them how wonderful they are. They also get lots of “earned media,” which is to say free press coverage of all of the wonderful things they’ve done (i.e. the earmarks they’ve been able to negotiate for their district).

Consulting Talent. Running a Congressional campaign requires real professional skill. Knowing how to design and distribute messaging materials is not something you can learn in school; the best consultants have years of experience in how to inform and motivate voters to support their client. But long-term incumbents and parties “freeze out” challengers from the best consulting talent. Because consultants rely on referrals, and because parties (and other incumbents, especially the leadership, spread their money around) can literally make or break the career of a political consultant, it is almost impossible to recruit top-flight political talent to a challenger’s campaign.

Constituent Services (aka Protecting the People from the Bureaucracy). It’s a great game the incumbents have going. They support the creation of an impenetrable bureaucracy, and then hire a crack staff to help constituents to navigate that system. The bureaucracy wins (more bureaucrats), the staff wins (more staff), the incumbent wins (he becomes a hero), and the constituent wins (he get what he wants). The only people who lose is everyone else. But those who receive constituent service become very loyal to the incumbent, thinking they’re wonderful and competent.

So, when it comes time to face the challenger, the playing field is completely tilted in favor of the incumbent.

With money, name ID, consulting talent, and a loyal core of supporters, the incumbent has the ability to get their message, to tell their side of the story.

With no money, no name ID, no consulting talent, and no loyal core of supporters, the challenger has no ability to get their message out, to tell the rest of the story.

The implications of this messaging monopoly are huge. It means, effectively, that voters don’t really know the full picture of what their incumbent has been doing.

The incumbent says:

I’m great! I did X, Y, and Z for our district. I stood up to [R version: bureaucrats, unions, environmentalists, and Democrats; D version: the rich, big businesses, polluters, and Republicans] in Washington DC. I will bring home the bacon. Vote for me!

The challenger says:

He’s awful! He did P, Q, and R – he took money from lobbyists representing industries he regulated, voted to raise his own pay, went on junkets sponsored by lobbyists, and sold out his constituents for a mess of pottage [works for both parties]. I will put your interests first. Vote for me!

If the voter hears both of these messages, they can make an informed decisions. But today the problem is that the incumbent has a megaphone, and the challenger is locked in a soundproof room. Without money, earned media, messaging pros, and a loyal base of bacon eaters, the average voter only hears one side of the story.

Money, of course, could break the messaging monopoly. With more money, the challenger could have his voice heard. But campaign finance rules limit contributions to $2,500 per person for the primary. This means that it takes hundreds, or even thousands, of contributors to even “get in the game.” It’s as if a law were passed that limited the amount of money any individual could invest in a software business to $2,500. If that were the case, it would be great for Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and IBM (the incumbents). But it would not be good for the industry as a whole, as it would undermine competition (the same competition that allowed Microsoft to challenge IBM, Google to challenge Microsoft, and Facebook to challenge Google).

Each of these impediments to competition can, of course, be overcome. Wealthy people can self-fund; celebrities can run; state officials with longstanding relationships to consultants can try to move up; and local special interest leaders can give it a shot (e.g. a local union official, or a prolife leader, or the executive director of the Sierra Club) if the incumbent has voted the wrong way on their issue, so they can count on a loyal core of supporters.

But this has not proven successful at any national scale at breaking the cycle of incumbency. Something else is needed to create a level playing field and real competition.

So I’ve been working with a group of folks to create the “Equalizer Campaign.” We have formed a SuperPAC called the Campaign for Primary Accountability (CPA), and it will fund and manage this campaign.

The Equalizer Campaign’s mission is simple:

Break the House incumbent’s messaging monopoly in primary elections.

We will do this by creating messaging materials (emails, webpages, web ads, direct mail pieces, canvassing brochures, etc.) and delivering them to people who plan to vote in the primary election. Our goal is to make sure that every primary voter knows the full facts about the incumbent and their performance. The incumbent will tell voters all of the good that they’ve done; we will tell voters the lousy votes. The votes to raise their own pay; the votes to exempt themselves from their own regulations; the votes to raise the pay of federal employees in the middle of a recession; the votes to bail out Wall Street; the stock trades they made based upon inside information; the money they took from banking lobbyists before voting for TARP; etc.

Once voters have all of the information, they can make an informed decision. If, on balance, they want to return the incumbent to Washington DC, then so be it. It is THEIR choice, not mine.

But the mere existence of a messaging monopoly undermines the accountability system. Long-term incumbents know that no one will challenge them and tell the voters about their lousy votes. So they can do bad, destructive things without any concern that they will be called to account. That has to end.

These two campaigns – the Primary Pledge and the Equalizer Campaign – will attempt to restore competition and accountability to US House elections. If there is real competition, the voters can be back in charge.

We have already begun working on these campaigns in the early primary states, including Texas (March 6) and Illinois (March 20). We are analyzing other early states (Mississippi, Maryland, Alabama, Pennsylvania), and will begin starting more campaigns soon.

We’ve already raised millions of dollars already for this effort, most of it from people like me: small and medium-sized business leaders, entrepreneurs, and people of that ilk. We are not funded by either party, or by Washington DC special interests or lobbyists, or the big national groups who want to control Washington DC and push their own agenda (e.g. Soros, Koch, Rove, etc.). We want local citizens to reclaim control of their Congressional representatives; giving the ring of power to others will not improve our lot – the power needs to reside with the voters, and their representatives should be accountable to them. That’s the way the system is supposed to work, after all…

We’ve also recruited a top-flight team of political consultants to work with us, both Democratic and Republican, with decades of experience in running election campaigns. And we’re going to need all of their experience and expertise:

Our goal is to engage in at least 100 House races in 2012, in roughly equal numbers of Democratic and Republican districts. (Remember: only 4 incumbents lost a primary in 2010.)

We will focus our efforts on those incumbents who have been in DC for at least 10 years; they’re the ones with the power, and they’re the ones who face little or no competition. We are not looking to shift power horizontally between the parties; they’re both subject to the corruptions of power. We’re looking to shift the power vertically, from the federal government to the citizenry.

What can folks do? Well, everyone can help by talking up what we’re doing, signing up on our websites to get updates, and spreading the word to their family, friends, and neighbors, particularly to people they know who are thinking of running against an incumbent. We can’t create competition if there’s no competitor, but we also don’t want to be recruiting challengers to long-term incumbents. We do not want to pick who represents people in these districts; THEY should. We can get more fans to the stadium (the Primary Pledge Campaign) and level the playing field (the Equalizer Campaign), but there have to be leaders who have the guts to get in the game. And if you know of someone who has ever considered running for the House of Representatives, this is the year they should give it a go. It’s a critical election, and the people are ready to make a change.

Folks can also donate to our effort if they’re so inclined. Even small amounts help; the more donors we can show, the more seriously we are taken by incumbents. You can donate at either website:

The Alliance for Self-Governance (to support the Primary Pledge Campaign):

The Campaign for Primary Accountability (to support the Equalizer Campaign):

Anyway, that’s what I did during my summer vacation (and why my commenting on the Belmont Club has slowed to a crawl lately).

I hope other club members find these efforts to be a source of optimism, and even pride. After all, much of my thinking and searching for ways to make a difference started with interactions at the BC. You are all, in a real sense, co-creators of these initiatives.

Only if they work, though. Any failure I will take on my own account.

Thanks again for all you do.



Leo Linbeck III
President and CEO
Aquinas Companies, LLC

Adjunct Professor
Jones Graduate School of Business
Rice University Houston, Texas

Stanford Graduate School of Business
Palo Alto, California

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