Five calls from Missouri politicos after Election Day

(photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
When I address state legislatures about ethical dilemmas in public life – and how to avoid making a mistake like the one I made in the days immediately following my first campaign  – I always say that smart people learn from their mistakes, but wise people learn from other people’s mistakes.

It’s in that spirit that I offer up five types of phone calls I’ve received since Election Day, all from people I believe are well-intentioned and good-hearted, but who seem to be experiencing some post-Election Day blind spots.

The first type of call is rare that it comes from a victorious candidate.

You see, winning candidates in general are less likely to call because people – lobbyists, donors, future constituents – are blowing up their phones, whereas losing candidates spent the past year amid a maelstrom of activity, and are experiencing a discomfiting silence and loneliness during the post-Election Day torpor.

What makes this call vexing is that it comes from someone who is newly-elected.

“Hey man,” they say, “I’m reaching out to talk through next steps. I’m definitely psyched about last Tuesday but I want to start positioning myself for the (insert higher office)’s race in (2/4) years.”

There’s so much to do before being sworn into the Missouri Legislature.

In a normal year, the freshman tour provides some of the formal and informal learning; this year, amid a pandemic, not so much. A new member has to learn floor procedure and protocol, committee rules, the legislative drafting process (especially if you plan to pre-file bills), and the names of anywhere from 33 to 162 of your new colleagues – not to mention hiring legislative and/or district staff, organizing Capitol and district offices, closing up a campaign office and raising money to pay off any debt.

A wise man once observed that the best way to screw up your current job is to focus on the next job. Similarly, you shouldn’t spend the months between Election Day and your swearing-in to plot your campaign for higher office.

Doing the job in front of you effectively is the best route to a future promotion.

The second type comes from the candidate who lost by 20-plus points and is now considering a bid for a much higher office next cycle. This is more common than one might think; a friend recently fielded a similar call from a candidate who lost by over 30 points and is now considering a bid for U.S. Senate.

In early 2020, unsuccessful 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams announced that she would be president by 2040. Now, I’m all for political ambition — having once tried to skip a couple rungs on the ladder myself — and Abrams did a great job leading a voter registration effort that contributed to President-elect Biden’s Georgia win. But some found her declaration, coming from a former state House minority leader, to be a bit presumptuous.

The same might be said of a failed down-ballot candidate floating oneself for the U.S. Senate, who sought my advice at the start of the cycle, declined to follow it and proceeded to lose by over 20 points before now seeking additional post-election guidance, without acknowledging our original call.

The candidate might benefit from watching a memorable scene from The Wire during which a new big-city mayor asks a former mayor why he didn’t run for re-election. The former mayor notes that he got tired of kowtowing to a never ending array of constituencies.

Mayors – most politicians, really – have to spend a lot of time eating shit. And so humility is an important trait in politics, and certainly one this candidate could use.

The third type of call came from a Democrat who, after spending the cycle lacerating the Republican legislature for its recent actions related to abortion and guns and inaction on Medicaid expansion, asked about the possibility of opening a Jeff City lobbying firm or partnering with an established firm.

You don’t have to agree with everything the Legislature does to be an effective advocate in the Capitol, but you can’t spend a year denouncing it and then two months later expect your attacks to have trickled away like so much Giuliani hair dye.

The fourth type of call comes from people who say they “might consider” a next job…

a) that no one has asked them to do; and

b) for which many others are far better positioned to be selected.

Specifically, this came from an unsuccessful candidate who mentioned openness to a high-level post in the Biden administration, seemingly oblivious to the fact that thousands of people have spent the last 18 months raising money, canvassing early primary and caucus states, drafting white papers and frantically networking in a (usually futile) attempt to land a decent D.C. appointment.

Some candidates forget that during their year inside the candidate bubble, the world was happening all around them. People had birthdays, children and preliminary conversations with key Biden staff, while bundling money and crafting policy proposals. So while it’s lovely that this candidate would “consider” a Biden appointment, I advised him not to wait by the phone.

The fifth type of call comes from a successful legislator looking down the barrel of a gun called term-limits.

“What shall I run for when I’m termed in two years?” this pol wonders, considering a range of 4 or 5 other positions, most of which are plausible and winnable, but only one of which appears to genuinely interest them. What is sometimes hard to see from inside the electoral bubble is that there is life after politics, and being outside of it for a few years might even make you better at it when you return – just as the Founders intended.

Former Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton liked to say, half in jest, that “the minute you put your name on a ballot, you lose 50 IQ points.”

After the last few weeks of calls, I might slightly amend that to EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient points.

And that’s what I’d chalk most of the above blind spots to: the kind of self-absorption some candidates develop after staff, consultants, volunteers and others in their orbit cater to them for a year. That’s why it’s always helpful for candidates to have a spouse, parent, teenage kid, or old high school pal who can tell them – if solipsism or delusions of grandeur set in – to get over themselves.