How To Be an Effective Local Party … and Not a Failed One

10 mins read

By Bruce Maples


I don’t belong to an organized political party – I’m a Democrat.

– Will Rogers

While we chuckle at this comment, we also ruefully admit that it is often true, especially at the local level. We wait until it’s time for another election, then we scramble to do what needs to be done to win, or at least compete.

Here in Kentucky, we’re hit with an additional hurdle: one of our two off-years is actually another election year, for governor and other state-wide offices. So, we are trying to build our organizations at the same time we are campaigning.

BUT, this year is that gift we get once every four years: the year of no elections! This is the year we can put some effort into our party itself, especially the local parties.

So, as we are already one-third of the way through the year, I thought it would be helpful to lay out a checklist for all our county parties, so you can see where you stand. Are you a failed party, a so-so party, or an effective party? Now’s the time to find out – filing deadline is just eight months away!

Your bench

If I were to ask you which persons you are grooming to run for office, or that you would approach to run, how many could you name? Five, ten, twenty, more? If your answer is silence, then you’ve got a problem.

You should always have a bench list with two sets of names on it:

  • Those who themselves want to run, and have said so to you or publicly
  • Those whom YOU want to run, even if they haven’t mentioned it

If you are really serious about this, you are not only keeping these two lists, you are working with those people to both mentor them and to watch them. What are they like to work with? Do they keep their commitments, and are they good volunteers? How are they at speaking in public? How are they in a crowd? Do they have clear-cut positions on issues, and are they able to communicate those positions effectively? And so on.

Your bench’s diversity and quality

In addition to actually having a bench, you want to take a look at who is on that bench. What is your median age? How balanced is it between men and women? How about racial and sexual orientation diversity? What is the balance between people with years of experience and newly-active people?

One of the sins of the ineffective party is that they enlist the same old people to run every time. Not only is that lazy and unimaginative, it is usually also a good way to lose. Are you enlisting that person just to check the box, or to be safe? Or because you truly believe that they can win this time?

Your enlistment

Assuming you’ve got a bench, the next step is to enlist people to run. Have you started lining people up for 2022? If not, when do you plan to start? And guess what – January is too late.

An effective county party will have candidates lined up for every race in their purview by September, or October at the latest. That way you can get them trained, and help them develop a campaign strategy. They can get used to how much it is going to take in terms of both time and money. And, they can start telling their friends and family, and enlisting volunteers.

And if you’ve got more than one person per race, congratulations! Primaries are good for the party and for the candidates, assuming the party supports them both equally and assuming the candidates are in it for the right reasons. An effective local party can take a public stance of “Look how many good people in our county are Democrats, and want to serve.”

Your resources

Those candidates are going to need more than a firm handshake and a good front-porch demeanor: they’re going to need resources. Who is going to help them with social media? Who’s going to do their art work and their web site? Who’s going to be their campaign treasurer, or their campaign manager?

Many candidates have no idea where to find these people, much less whether the people they find are qualified. An effective local party has a list of resource people who work with Democratic candidates, and shares that list with anyone who files to run. And, the local party keeps the list current, including new people who show up that you didn’t know about.

Your money

If there ever was a time you should be raising money for the party, this is that time. From right now, you’ve got about five months before the fund-raising for 2022 will kick in (if it hasn’t already). Do you have fund-raisers planned? Do you have a program to enlist recurring donations? How many local people donate on a regular basis? Do you have a plan for going after big donations as well?

Democrats are almost always going to have less money than Republicans, but that doesn’t mean we have to try to operate and win with NO money. Have a plan and work your plan.

Your training

OK, you’ve got your candidates lined up, and you’ve raised some money to support them. Do you have training lined up? And I mean nuts-and-bolts training: how to raise money, how to file the election finance reports, how to door knock, how to work with volunteers, why you need a campaign manager and how to work with one, and so on.

Is it possible the state party will hold training? Sure, and you should take advantage of it. But KDP can’t be everywhere at once, and ultimately YOU are responsible for the success of your local candidates. So poll former candidates to build a list of all the things they wish they had been trained on, then figure out people to cover those topics and make your schedule.

Your organization

You may be thinking “How is a small group of volunteers supposed to do all of this?” And the answer is, they can’t. What you need is a combination of a strong board and a set of strong committees, with good chairpersons and clearly-laid-out responsibilities and expectations. And this is the year to get started building that.

If you have a moribund local party, or one that is not getting it done, start by getting good people who are hard workers on the board. Then, pick an area from the list above and start making it better. Once it has improved some, pick another area and work on it.

There’s a reason it’s called “building an organization.” You don’t just create an effective local party in an afternoon; it takes time, purpose, and hard work. But, the above can give you something to shoot for.

Want to win elections? Then get to work building your party. Over time, you can become the political equivalent of some sports teams: “they don’t rebuild, they just reload.”

Originally published on May 17, 2021. 

Photo by Leon / Unsplash

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Forward Kentucky is an independent media organization focused on progressive news and issues in Kentucky. Our objectives are to provide journalism that is objective, policies that are effective, and commentary that is progressive. Our goal is to help Kentucky become all that it can be through government that works, for all. We are "the progressive voice for Kentucky politics."

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