With many districts, from city council to the U.S. House, safely in the hands of one party or the other, securing your party’s nomination is often the most difficult part of a campaign. If there is an open primary, the nomination process can resemble a general election campaign, requiring a full-scale public relations effort and coterie of consultants to shore up support among the electorate. But what if the nomination process is not open and is instead dominated by power brokers and back room dealers?
This was the situation faced by newcomer Jocelyn Benson in her run for the Democratic nomination in Michigan’s secretary of state race. She had few connections and no political background or local base to trade on. She faced a union-dominated state party apparatus that she would have to appeal to in order to even be considered for the nomination, which would be determined by a vote of delegates. In her quest to receive the state Democratic Party’s nod, all the latest technology or canvassing firms she could mobilize would not influence the power brokers she needed to persuade. How did she overcome this influence deficit? The old fashioned way – footwork and face time.
“I had no fundraising base, no political base, no voter base and very little to go on to convince people that I was a viable candidate, other than the fact that I knew the job and was passionate about it,” Benson recalls. A product of Harvard and Oxford and an author of a book on the history of the secretary of state office, she considered herself uniquely qualified for the position. She began to pursue the nomination in late 2008, by talking to local Democratic leaders and planning a tour of all 83 Michigan counties.
“I went to everyone and talked to Democratic leaders that one county and asked for someone to be my county coordinator,” Benson says. “My plan was to create a county coordinator in every county who would recruit fundraising candidates in their county.” It was a genuine grassroots to grasstops effort. By March 2009, Benson had coordinators in 75 of 83 Michigan counties and a network of volunteers working to build support and raise campaign funds. By January of this year, she had raised $225,000 for her campaign and had a donor base of 3000 people. “[That was] more than any non-gubernatorial candidate had raised at that point in the cycle,” she says. By the time most people began thinking about the nomination process, Benson had established herself as the frontrunner in terms of fundraising and grassroots support.
“I had a clipboard with a map of the state by county on the back,” she recalls. “When I got a new county coordinator, I would color in that county on the map.” When Benson was asked by a prospective coordinator about her support elsewhere in the state, she would simply turn over the clipboard and reveal an increasingly colorful map of the state. “It was very effective at visually communicating the strength of my organization,” she notes.
Benson ended up with a single opponent for the nomination, Detroit City Clerk Janice M. Winfrey, and won 95 percent of the convention delegate votes.
Benson went on to lose in the general election, as did every statewide Democratic candidate in Michigan. However, with 1.4 million of the 3.1 million votes cast in the 5-way secretary of state’s race, she received more votes than even Democratic gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero.
Beyond the personal credibility she received from her success in the secretary of state race, Benson believes she honored the sense of duty she felt running for an office she reveres. “We have a tradition of not nominating the secretary of state candidate until the last moment – [usually] in August. I wanted to push the party to take this office seriously,” she says. “I wrote a book about it [State Secretaries of State, Ashgate Publishing]; it is a sacred office to me.”
Benson’s success at grassroots organizing has shown how credible she is as a candidate. The Michigan Democratic Party is sure to utilize her talents again soon.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com