Primary Election Strategies with Tina Keats CW 34 transcript

primary strategiesJohn Tsarpalas: Today Kristina Keats and I are going to get into a topic that I love- primary strategies. I love a primary with multiple candidates on the ballot. I like the thought of knocking people off the ballot in a petition fight.

We are also going to get into winning endorsement sessions because I really think it is fun to win the little elections on the way to the bigger election. Those elections are having a local Republican organization’s members vote for you and you win their support. There are strategies there, too. I do love a good strategy.

So join Kristina Keats and I as we talk primary strategies. This is Commonwealthy #34.

Well my guest here today is Kristina Keats. We are here to talk about primaries because primaries are different than a general election. So you need to know some different things, think differently, and have some different strategies.

So, Tina, there’s going to be different scenarios. You are in a primary and you are unchallenged. You are in a primary and you have one opponent you are going to challenge. And then there’s more than one opponent.

Let’s start off if you are not challenged. In some ways, I am feeling bad for you because a primary is a great place to run a real campaign and really get yourself motivated. It pushes you to win. It pushes you to work hard. I like a primary in many ways because it just gets the team started.

Kristina Keats: Right. I almost want to say try and find someone to run against you if you are not challenged. The reality is that if you are in a heavily Republican area, you are going to have a Republican challenge. If you are in a swing area or there is a good chance of a Republican win, you’ll still have a primary challenge.

The only time you don’t get challenged is when there is no hope of winning in general.

John Tsarpalas: Let’s not forget that this is not necessarily a partisan race. There are primaries in nonpartisan races. For instance, in Chicago, there is the primary and there is the general. No one is declared as a party member. For instance, those primary happens-

Kristina Keats: Then it’s not really a primary. It’s just a regular election.

John Tsarpalas: No, it’s called a primary. For instance, Chicago mayor.

Kristina Keats: Oh, that’s right. The ones where you have to get fifty percent in order to not have a run off.

John Tsarpalas: Correct. If you don’t get fifty percent, then it is considered a primary and it moves to a general election. So we have that scenario as well, too.

Kristina Keats: Right. If you have just what they call the jungle primaries, where they are not partisan and everybody runs, you are really running a general election race pretty much in my opinion. You will have the diversions of the two parties both lumped in there.

So I think what we want to focus on here is the real primary where it inside one party. That’s what’s completely different from a general election race. The most important thing I think is what you said; the primary is an opportunity.

You really want to hope you have a primary opponent, assuming that you are going to win. It gives you an opportunity to debate, to have press interviews, to raise money, to go door-to-door, and to be in a contest. It’s really good to do that.

John Tsarpalas: Right, it gives you a focus for your volunteers. We are pushing to meet this amount of people, make this amount of calls, by this date. There is a deadline. It’s a way to get people moving. Otherwise, how do you get them out in February or March knocking on doors when they are thinking it’s not until November?

People just don’t get motivated. But they can get motivated. But they can get motivated in a primary. So I think it’s huge to do that.

Kristina Keats: Right. The most important thing you get is the free publicity, which for some reason they now call unearned media. I don’t know why anyone ever gave it that name, but that’s what they call it. So if you hear somebody say that, that’s what they are talking about.

In other words, you get media coverage. You get people following your election and interviewing you. You get the interest groups interested because it is a contested race. You can’t put a dollar figure value on the benefit of having that free publicity.

Roger Keats, my husband, and I were talking about this before I got on the phone. He pointed out that in Illinois, the Democrats always had huge fights in the primary. There would be five people and they would duke it out. One would barely survive completely supposedly bloodied up and then win the general.

Well why? Because that was the name everybody knew. They had been hearing about the Democrats for seven months and the Republicans didn’t have a contest. When it came to the general, the name everybody knew and knew what they stood for was the Democrat. So primaries are important. You want to hope that you have a primary.

Beyond that, strategically, primaries are very low turnout by definition because it’s only a portion of the electorate. Even in a U.S. congressional race, if you are in a heavily Republican district, you are unlikely to have more than a hundred thousand primary voters, which means that you should be able to personally contact a large percentage of that electorate.

A hundred thousand sounds like a lot, but if you are making calls and your team is making calls and you have volunteers and an intern program, you could theoretically, if you really work hard, personally contact half of the voters. That is incredibly important.

And it’s even at the presidential level in those early primaries. People have to go meet the individual voters. You have to be very intent on that because if people meet you, assuming you are personable, smart, and well prepared, you get their vote.

So you have to work very hard in a primary. But it gets you started. It gets you up the ladder towards the general election.

John Tsarpalas: Something that I have done in primaries (and I think it is something to think about) is the petition challenge: challenge the candidate to stop them from getting on the ballot. It’s not a bad strategy.

If you are in a three-way race and you can knock one of them off and leave the weaker one on to run against, I think it’s smart. It’s often done in two-way races, but people want to do it so they don’t have to run a primary.

But I agree with you; I think it’s a mistake not to have a primary challenge. I think you need that motivation and that fire drill, if you will, to get your people going.

Kristina Keats: The only time it’s smart to knock your opponent off if you can… And by the way, that is not a possibility in a lot of states. Illinois happens to be a state where the rules are designed to get people off, not to get them on the ballot. It’s a strategy you can use in a state like that.

I would only use it in a district where if you knock off all your opponents in the primary you are going to win the general. That’s the only time I would use that strategy. But knocking off the stronger opponent and leaving a weaker opponent, yes. Will you still have a primary? Yes. That is also a smart strategy.

If you were in a swing district, you would not want to get rid of your primary opponent because that gets you the free publicity.

John Tsarpalas: The other time I have done this… There are people out there who are just (how can I say this nicely?)… Well, I think they are crazy or they are just completely out there.

Kristina Keats: They bring the whole party down just by being there.

John Tsarpalas: They are going to bring the whole party down. You want to get rid of those people in a ballot challenge. And let me talk about a ballot challenge. How do you do that?

You quietly go get a list from the Board of Elections where they filed. You get a copy of their petitions. You sit down with the list and you look for mistakes. Number one thing you are looking for is if they had people sign who are not registered. Sometimes you can’t even read the signature. If that’s true, those can possibly get thrown out, too.

Kristina Keats: The rule of thumb is if you need three hundred good signatures, you should get nine hundred total. You can expect that two-thirds of the signatures won’t be good.

That may surprise people, but not everybody knows what district they live in. You can say, “Do you live in the tenth congressional district?” and they will say, “Sure” and they don’t. That happens. They sign with their nickname, although in some states the nickname is acceptable. They moved and they didn’t reregister, etc.

You can reasonably expect in a general petition drive that two-thirds of the signatures are not good.

John Tsarpalas: I have done this twice in congressional races myself. The first thing you do is pull the petitions. Get some volunteers. Get a list of registered voters. Start going through it and making sure that these people are registered and they live in the district and that you can ascertain who they are.

Then start marking up copies (not the originals) of this. If you think you are close to throwing enough out, then go get the attorney. But this all has to happen quickly. Usually there is a week or ten days that you can file in. But you don’t want to spend money on an attorney until you’ve figured out that you’ve got a valid challenge.

If you put your mind to it, it can often be done. As I’ve said, I’ve done it twice in congressional races. I have worked with friends who did it in some local municipal races.

Kristina Keats: By the way, when he says get a list, you are getting it digitally. You should have been recording all of the information for what you’ve been doing in your campaign, who supports you, who signed your petition, digitally. So you should already have that list of registered voters in your computer database that you can quickly check them.

John Tsarpalas: Right, at this point it’s not a scramble to do that. You’ve got that. You just need to get the book.

Kristina Keats: You’ve got that. And that’s another thing that you can find; if they signed your petition and they signed the opponents petition… Well, no that’s okay because it is in the primary. You can sign more than one in a primary. But you can never sign a Republican and a Democrat.

That’s another way you can find signatures. You can look to see if they signed it for the Democrat, because if they did, then you knock them off. But you need to know your rules in your state because everybody is different. Then you can use them.

John mentioned doing it quietly. Once you pull it though, your opponent is going to know that you pulled it.

John Tsarpalas: They know you pull it, but that doesn’t mean you are going to throw them off. You could be just looking at it. They don’t know what you are doing. Are you putting in your database who signed their petition?

Kristina Keats: Right. By the way, since we mentioned this, you should pull all the people in your race: your opponents in a primary and your opponents in the general. You should pull their petition signatures because often times, not always, a petition signature indicates support for that person.

When you get to the general election, if you know that someone signed the petition for your opponent, chances are they are going to vote for them. But not a hundred percent- some people are just nice and will sign any petition. It just depends on the area. You need to know what your area is. In some areas, it correlates with support and in others it means nothing.

John Tsarpalas: Correct.

Kristina Keats: You can kind of figure it out based on your area.

John Tsarpalas: The other thing you are looking for is if they are supposed to be notarized in your state, if that is all valid: stamped properly, dated properly. You are looking for mistakes.

Kristina Keats: Right. And usually they are easy to find because a lot of people just don’t understand; they don’t know the rules. But it depends on the state. In Texas where I live now, they don’t even pass petitions. You just register to be on the ballot and it is done. The states where the petition process is a big one are usually the ones where the political powers want to control who gets on the ballot.

John Tsarpalas: Correct. If you’d like more information on that whole process, you can go back to Commonwealthy podcast #6, which was Campaign Election Law Basics with Deanna Mool. There we talked about basics of petitions and passing a petition, but it can give you a better idea of how all that works if you are interested in this whole process. We also talked about how to knock people off.

It’s a really good podcast. Deanna is an expert in this area. She’s actually helped me in these protests to try to knock people off. We’ve always been effective when we’ve decided we were going to go ahead once we looked through and found enough mistakes.

Kristina Keats: Now, having gotten past that issue of knocking them off or not knocking them off. Assume you have a primary opponent, more than one, running in the primary. I think it’s really important to know what you think and what your opponent thinks and be able to make the compare and contrast in a favorable way for yourself without personal attacks.

John Tsarpalas: Right, this is a primary. You’ve got to get their supporters to vote for you in the general election. You do not want to turn then off.

Kristina Keats: Right, and you don’t want to alienate them. It’s really easy to do that. You can see that happening in the 2016 Republican presidential campaign, where Trump specifically has just said something nasty about every single one of his opponents.

I think it is going to doom him (we don’t know this early) because if someone is supporting a not Trump and he says something really nasty, you are going to have a hard time getting that person to support you once his favorite candidate has left the race. Not a hundred percent, but it’s just not smart.

Keep your discussions on political principles and compare and contrast. “I’ve had more experience. Here’s my experience comparatively.” That’s how you do it. Stay away from the personal attack. It can be so divisive. It brings your negatives up, which you don’t want to do.

John Tsarpalas: Right, that’s the other thing. If you are in a three way race and you are attacking somebody, the person you are attacking will drop in the polls, but you will also drop in the polls. Who is going to win that? The person who did nothing, the third person.

Kristina Keats: Right, exactly.

John Tsarpalas: So be mindful of that. Be careful.

Kristina Keats: The best example of this is a California gubernatorial primary about twenty years ago. I can’t remember. There were two extremely wealthy candidates running for the gubernatorial and kind of a shlub career politician who was not particularly exciting as a candidate.

It was a three way primary. The two rich people just ignored that third guy and just attacked each other mercilessly. Who wins the primary? The guy nobody was supporting and didn’t have any money and wasn’t particularly a good candidate. I can’t remember. Do you remember who that was, John?

John Tsarpalas: I am trying to remember. I will find it and put it at the end of this podcast.

Kristina Keats: Okay. You know who I am talking about.

John Tsarpalas: I remember it completely. And I can picture his face, but I can’t remember his name.

Kristina Keats: That is a perfect example. Right, he was the one before Jerry Brown, right? Or no. Because then you had Arnold Schwarzenegger. The one before Schwarzeneggar.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, I’ll find it.

Kristina Keats: Anyway, it was a classic case. You don’t want to do that. You want to stay calm and not personal.

The other thing about primaries, as we said, is it is personal contact. You can raise a lot of money maybe and send mailings. Personal contact in a primary is even more important than in a general. At least in a general, you’ll have the partisan supporters who are going to vote for you even if they never met you.

But in a primary, everyone voting is a partisan supporter. So the personal contact is even more powerful and more necessary.

John Tsarpalas: Those people who are voting in a primary are more motivated. Those are really interested political people. Those are people that will write checks. Those are people that will volunteer. Those are people you want in your campaign for that general. What better time to go get them than in that primary?

Kristina Keats: Exactly. And they are going to be more sophisticated. They are going to ask you harder questions. So that’s where we get back to what good training it is. These are going to be voters who pay attention and know what is going on and in cases will know more than you do about individual issues. So it’s an opportunity for you to get educated.

John Tsarpalas: I think you made a good point early that needs to reiterated: You will then get press and look like a winner because you’ve won the primary. I think that’s huge. I think that had a lot to do with our success for Mark Kirk in 2000. It was his first run, but it was a very contested primary for the Republicans. There were thirteen candidates. On the Democrat side, it was uncontested.

So the Democrat didn’t get the name recognition or the name ID that he got. He was splashed all over the papers after winning the primary as the winner. I think this kind of cemented in people’s brains that this guy is a winner. I think it really helped him for the general.

Kristina Keats: And it gets you momentum.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Kristina Keats: Remember, you’ve got an endorsement from your local media that you can reprint in your general election literature early on: “Endorsed by the Chicago Tribune.” You can be putting that in mailings that you are sending out in August or September for the general election because it’s true.

John Tsarpalas: If they endorse you for the primary, right.

Kristina Keats: Right, they endorse you for the primary. And endorsement’s an endorsement. It’s on your website. It’s on your social media so people see that you’ve been endorsed.

Now, the media may end up endorsing your opponent in the general. But you still have an endorsement. Usually an endorsement isn’t just, “We endorse So and So.” It’s, “We endorse So and So because” and then it’s got a short description of why they think you are good. That is worth gold. You can’t buy that in an ad in terms of the value of it.

John Tsarpalas: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about the field operations. Who are you identify to ID that you are going to call or knock on their door? You are looking for people that have voted in previous primaries.

Kristina Keats: Primaries, right.

John Tsarpalas: In some states you name yourself as a party. In some state, you pull a ballot in the past and that declares yourself as a Republican or whatever.

Kristina Keats: Right. In almost every state, you have to in some way. You are going to be able to know who those voters are. The way that you start approaching it, because your time is always limited-

John Tsarpalas: By the way, being a senior, it was Gray Davis that won in California.

Kristina Keats: Gray Davis, right! Absolutely. Thank you!

John Tsarpalas: It finally hit me. I always think of something ten minutes later. I don’t need to look it up. It was Gray Davis who won. Everyone was like, “Who? What?”

Kristina Keats: Right. It wasn’t even showing that he was winning in the polls. It’s a strange thing. People may think of the two who are fighting most, but when they get in there, they say, “You know what? I don’t like either of them.” And then they vote for the third person they’ve never heard of, but had a nice name.

John Tsarpalas: Right. Anyway, I am sorry I took you off track.

Kristina Keats: He was a terrible governor as I recall.

John Tsarpalas: Oh, he was bad.

Kristina Keats: He was horrible.

John Tsarpalas: It took Schwarzenegger to straighten the state out. But anyway, back to strategies. Who are you looking at?

Kristina Keats: So keep in mind (this should upmost in your mind at all times) the most valuable resource any campaign has is the candidate’s time. So the candidate should always be spending his time in the most fruitful ways.

If you are going to be out making voter contact, you start with those people who are most likely to vote. Well, that’s easy to see. Look at your voter database. Look at the people who vote in the Republican primary most consistently. Call those households first. And then you work your way down.

Hopefully you will be able to have data that goes back five or ten cycles. So you call the ones who voted in the last eight cycles first and then the last seven cycles and then the last six and then the last five, until you work your way down.

You want to talk to the people who are most likely to show up at the polls first. You will not get to every single voter that will be voting. So you want to talk to the ones who are most likely to vote first.

Remember, human beings are social animals. You call and talk to Joe Blow. If he likes you, he is going to talk to three or four of his friends. And then they talk. So you are not going to personally to every single voters in your district, but you could theoretically with two or three degrees of separation connect with every single one. That is your goal.

John Tsarpalas: Right. Let me throw this other thought in here. What about groups who endorse? For instance, you are in a multiple county area or townships if you are in a heavy county. The local GOP township organizations have endorsements sessions. We have not really touched on that in any other podcast.

Kristina Keats: Right. And those are incredibly important because, again, social animals. A local township organization might have four or five hundred members. The rest of the people in the township know people in that organization. If it is a good organization, they trust their opinion.

I know in New Trier township where we lived, the New Trier endorsement would carry the day for almost any candidate. One of the reasons why is because all of the money people sat on the side waiting to see the New Trier township group was going to say.

They did that because of years of experience of knowing what a smart, involved group of people were in that township organization and were going to really run all the candidates through a ringer.

But you need to know in your area who endorses and who carries sway. Do your homework. Do that way early. Start networking. Start going to their events so that you meet people. In order to get a township organization, you need people on the inside supporting you.

If you are smart, you figure out who the most influential people inside the organization are. I have to say Mark Kirk was quite brilliant at that, in finding out who he needed to get to support him, and then going after those people.

And then let them do the work for you. Let them secure an endorsement for you.

John Tsarpalas: Find the leaders. They might not necessarily have a title, but there are people within those groups that know a lot of people and people trust them. Get them to make phone calls for you.

But you also call everybody. The first thing you do is you start showing up to these group’s meetings and get known. But you find out who is voting. There are rules and the rules are different in every organization because they make them up- sometimes on the fly and sometimes they are written. Find out what the rules are and who gets to vote.

And then start finding those people well in advance. You would like to get some of those people pledged to you before anybody else calls them.

Kristina Keats: Exactly. There are people who really have a lot of influence on an organization for whatever reason. I am not even sure I can explain it. They could have run for office themselves. They could be someone that always have a good analysis of the different candidates. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.

It’s not that hard to find out. You can just ask, “Who are the people who influence this group?”

John Tsarpalas: Right. And don’t assume that if the chairman of the group is supporting somebody that you can’t beat them. Those insiders can bring enough people to beat the chairman. I’ve done that. I’ve literally gone behind the chairman’s back or whatever and gone after what I thought and found those influencers and still won it.

Kristina Keats: Right. Some chairman specifically don’t use their influence to try and wield it. They look at it as they are the ones keeping the team going. They have to be careful.

Remember, if they are a chairman of an organization, if they are too heavy handed about who the group has to support, they can lose the support of the group. The group can splitter off. It can leave. It can stop coming to meetings. It cannot help.

So the smart chairman, in my opinion, don’t take strong positions on candidates. They kind of keep their finger up in the air, watching to see which way the team is going to go. They can influence it, but the good ones are not heavy handed.

John Tsarpalas: Correct. There are also some other strategies here. One strategy is know the rules. Some places need three-quarters of the vote before they will endorse. It is possible to tie it up so there is not endorsement if you are weak, but you can get enough to stop them.

There also are those that have multiple ballots. If no one gets fifty percent on the first round, they’ll drop off the lowest one and go to another one. This strategy worked really well for you and me and that is asking for the second round vote.

Okay, you are supporting John Smith and I am with Mary Doe. You don’t really want to support Mary Doe this round, but if John doesn’t make the first cut or the second cut, will you switch to Mary Doe? And then Mary Doe builds support and wins the fifty percent in the third or fourth round.

Those strategies you need to think about too here for winning group endorsements where there is a vote and you know how to do that.

Kristina Keats: Now having said all this, you need to do your homework. There are some groups that have a reputation of being just nut cases. Either they are single issue or the person who runs it is a crazy person. Unfortunately, and it’s on both sides of the aisle (it’s not exclusive to any political party), there are those groups.

Make sure that you know before you go. Don’t seek the endorsement of a group the rest of the world thinks is nuts. That is not going to help you. You need to your homework. That is all we can say. You need to know what the reputation of the various groups are. That’s all I am going to say about that.

John Tsarpalas: No, I get it. I think something people need to think about is strategies for each one of these groups. Get on it early. Realize what that means or doesn’t mean.

Here’s something else you need to think about, which shocked me when I ran into it the first time: Some of these groups will endorse and they will do mailings. They will mail out their sample ballot or they will mail for all the candidates they have endorsed.

There are groups that do that, but then they ask the candidates to pay for the mailing, which to me was always shocking. It’s like, “Boy, I am struggling trying to put together a campaign and this group that has been around forever wants me to pay for it, too?” But that does happen. Be prepared. Know that is there.

I have mixed feelings about that. That really ticked me off on one level.

Kristina Keats: Right. In this day and age, I would hope that most groups have joined the twenty-first century and don’t mail anymore. That would be just crazy. Surely you have an email list.

John Tsarpalas: Well, GOP groups are still mailing sample slates out at primaries. They are.

Kristina Keats: You are kidding!

John Tsarpalas: Because of the older voters.

Kristina Keats: Oh, well, yeah.

John Tsarpalas: They are not e-people. My parents need to see a sample ballot in the mail. That’s how they are going to vote.

Kristina Keats: Right. But I would say that in ten years, this will be irrelevant.

John Tsarpalas: Probably, but for now, know that that is out there, too. That’s part of what is happening. And then that organization, if it is a working organization (there are some that provide money and there are some that provide volunteers), that organization can then focus on Get Out the Vote for you.

They can help you knock on doors. Get some precinct committeemen to knock doors or whatever. They also can help spread literature for you and make calls to Get Out the Vote during those final Get Out the Vote days, which we will be getting to that podcast on Get Out the Vote a little later here. We are a few months out yet, because we are working towards that.

Kristina Keats: So you can see there is a lot of organization involved. I don’t remember if we did a podcast on it, but I am sure we said start early. If you want to run for office, you should give yourself two years minimum for planning.

John Tsarpalas: Right, you should have made the rounds to all of these organizations a year before they even started petitioning to put you on the ballot.

Kristina Keats: Right. Senator Dan Duffy always said he didn’t want to have to ask for something the first time he met someone. Go you go meet them before you go back and say, “Hey, now I am running for office and I really need your help. Could you do this for me?” I think that’s really smart.

The only place I disagree with that is fundraising. You sometimes only get one shot.

John Tsarpalas: Well, it’s nice if you have time to build a relationship. But yes, sometimes you only have that one shot. Sometimes they are very busy people; you are lucky to get in.

Kristina Keats: The really big donors will see you and will want to know, “You’ve got five minutes. What do you want?” You better be prepared. And it’s not just, “Well, hi. How are you?” You better walk in and say, “Look, I am running for such and such. Here’s how the race is going. I’d like your support.”

But I think we have about covered it.

John Tsarpalas: Well, no, I wanted to go over one more thing. I wanted to talk about Get Out the Vote. Then you get to the election season and you want to be turning out those people you’ve contacted and you know are supporting you. You are not turning out all the Republicans. You want their people to stay home and those you just don’t know. It’s not going to help. You only want to push those people out that you know are your people.

Kristina Keats: Right, which gets back to our podcast on keep track of your data. Know everything. Know everyone you talk to, everyone who has signed your petition, everyone who signed the opponent’s petition, everyone who you met at a coffee or on a street corner or wherever. Have all of that data in there so that you know on Election Day who you should reasonably try to get to go to the polls.

If you don’t have data, you can’t run a Get Out the Vote effort, bottom line. Who are you going to turn out? “Oh, I think this person might vote for me.” Well, that’s not good enough. But we are going to do a whole podcast on Get Out the Vote.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, we’ll get to that.

Kristina Keats: Okay.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, very good. I think we’ve given them something to think about. There’s a lot of things here to think about actually. We will talk to them again soon. So thanks, Tina.

I hope you got some ideas today on things that are possible in a primary. Those endorsement sessions can be really important and key to winning a primary, building grassroots support, and finding donors and volunteers. So think about those. Get in there early and start talking to people in those organizations.

Something I failed to mention when I was talking to Tina is try to get a member’s list. A lot of them won’t give out the list. See if someone will share the list will you. See if you can find it somehow, some way, so that you can make phone calls to the members and line up their support long before the endorsement session comes around or anyone else even thinks about it.

We’ve got show notes and transcripts on I would love to have you send us an email at and let us know your thoughts on the show or any questions or areas of interest that you may have. Thanks for listening!

Kristina Keats: Assume you have a primary opponent, more than one, running in the primary. I think it’s really important to know what you think and what your opponent thinks and be able to make the compare and contrast in a favorable way for yourself without personal attacks.

John Tsarpalas: Right, this is a primary. You’ve got to get their supporters to vote for you in the general election. You do not want to turn then off.

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