Running a campaign in Michigan? Hire local or pay the consequences.
As the races for Michigan Governor and other statewide positions begin to heat up across the state, a few things strike me as important red flag lessons political candidates – both Republican and Democrat – must learn, otherwise they will be doomed to a quick end for their campaign.
Recent case in point – Lt. Governor Brian Calley. While Calley’s recent missteps are not yet fatal, statewide campaigns like his across Michigan are at-risk of making similar mistakes that could cost them when the primary arrives on August 7, 2018 – still political light years from now.
Alluding to major breaking news for months, Calley – by all accounts – was planning a game changing announcement on Mackinac Island designed to boost his nascent campaign for the top job. Members of the media who attended his press avails at different points during the week expected to hear the LG announce his intentions to file for the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
But instead, the LG used the spotlight he had warmed up for himself – through the use of a substantial 501c4 digital budget for eight weeks prior to the Detroit Regional Chamber Policy Conference on Mackinac Island – to instead announce a hastily thrown together effort to call for a ballot initiative that could create a part-time legislature. Announcing an effort that might substantially change the status quo politically in Michigan takes initiative, but to herald this plan in the middle of Lansing and Detroit establishment players was either a gutsy move or a foolish play.
Calley later doubled down on his Tuesday announcement later in the week when he again called for additional transparency in government, something his likely primary competitor Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette beat everyone to the punch on roughly 10 days before the Mackinac Policy Conference took place.
Given that Calley and the Snyder Administration as a whole have both been reticent to act transparently, both announcements came off as rehashed, pandering moves for voters. Current legislators and policymakers also panned the idea. And the digital platform that Calley and his team spent weeks building toward was completely squandered, likely by political advisors who told Calley that announcing his run for Governor amidst a crowd of Lansing lobbyists, Detroit policymakers, and politicians was likely the height of hypocrisy.
Likely, that advice came too late. Consultants probably said that Calley was likely be called out on it by the Capitol Press Corps, giving him less than a clean launch, which is required of all campaigns to dominate the political news cycle, at least for a little while.
Adding insult to injury, political observers are now picking up on the story behind the story. Allegedly, the LG attempted to stack his deck on the Island, hiring out-of-state supporters to surround him as he unveiled his plans for the part-time legislature.
Politicos on Twitter and other digital media have been quick to point to proof that these GOP Calley supporters came from other states, including Virginia, Kentucky, Utah, and other far-flung locations. Take my advice: Nothing will ruin your Michigan street cred faster than hiring out-of-state people to run or even support your campaign in-person.
Every campaign uses out-of-state consultants to advise a prospective candidate, generally for perspective purposes. That’s mostly stock in trade these days and each candidate has his or her favorites, but non-Michigan folks need to take a backseat to in-state advisors who know the landscape much better, especially in the beginning.
Successful campaigns generally use a critical balance of in and out-staters – and having outsiders brag about their work on social media (and many Calley hired staffers reportedly did) is a quick way to peel the campaign’s hometown veneer away, likely for good.
Another lesson Calley may be learning (hopefully not) the hard way: Never relinquish complete control of your electoral effort to organizations or consultants that are more interested in making money or looking ahead to the next campaign rather than focusing on you. At the end of the day, no endorsement, funding promise, or political intelligence insight is worth sacrificing for who you are or what you stand for.
When candidates do hire out-of-state political consultants, campaigns need to be sure they are not recycling messages and deliverables from previous efforts. Each engagement must be unique – just because something worked in one region does not mean the work is a panacea.
There also has been a tendency in recent years to use nationalized cookie cutter messaging for candidates that can check the boxes on a set of ideals – customization is the key to victory because your platform recognizes that your state or district is special and that your constituents come first. And, if voters find out they’ve been sold used goods, it’s the surest way to make them turn their backs on you.
Lastly, to be viable, especially with this much time until the primary election – candidates must remain accessible, despite scheduling challenges and demands on their time from donors and consultants. Keeping a political candidate in a glass case solely raising money away from center stage is the quickest way to gain a perception of not caring about the real issues that impact Michiganders.
Make no mistake, other candidates on both sides of the aisle will appear before the 2018 primary ballot is set, including many people who just aren’t afraid of being lucky. Keeping challengers out of the game for prospective governors is just as important as addressing topics from those who are in for the long haul.
Hire consultants who have skin in the game – they are best equipped to add compassion and understanding to your statewide campaign. At the end of the day, they have to live here, too, and deal with the consequences of either electing a champion or a chump.