If a candidate ran for Congress but no one inside the Beltway paid attention, did it ever happen?
Virginia Democrat Adam Cook didn’t plan to find out the answer to that riddle but, unfortunately for him, he is similar to dozens of congressional candidates every cycle, who put their lives on hold and make personal sacrifices to run, only to be ignored by leaders of their own party. On paper, Cook looked like an ideal candidate: a young attorney, first-time candidate (read “outsider”), and veteran of the war in Afghanistan who comes from a family of ministers.
It’s a potentially appealing profile for Virginia’s 1st District, which stretches from Prince William County to Newport News, nestled near Northern Virginia and suburban Richmond—two of the most critical areas in one of the most important swing states for the presidential election. But, like so many other congressional districts, the 1st District was gerrymandered, in this case drawn by Republicans. President George W. Bush won the district by a whopping 22 points in 2004 and Sen. John McCain won it by seven points four years later, even as he lost statewide.
“The history in past elections in the district is tough,” Cook said in a September interview, two months before Election Day. “Our whole thing is to go after veterans.”
The United States Air Force veteran believed he stacked up well against an incumbent who never served in the military in the third most populous veteran district in the country.
“I talk about how he’s a nice guy,” said Cook about incumbent Republican Rep. Rob Wittman. “This isn’t a pistols at dawn situation.”
What Wittman possessed was a laughable financial advantage and the air of inevitability, which virtually ensured that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wouldn’t come in to level the playing field with an influx of cash. Cook was left to rely on family, friends and a few loyal supporters. But while he was consistently ignored by the national party and national media, for a brief moment, Cook had the national stage to himself, literally.
The National Stage
On the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Cook was recognized on stage along with about 50 other military veterans. Cook stood in the back row, but as the group left the stage, the aspiring candidate lingered a little longer than the rest. He was the last to exit stage right, but not until he waved to the nearly 20,000 party faithful.
The normally reserved Cook was soaking it in. Wait, did he just point to Michelle Obama?
A day and a half earlier, the entire appearance was in doubt. With the threat of punishing rains, convention officials moved the pinnacle evening from Bank of America Stadium to the smaller, indoor Time Warner Cable Arena, and much of the program was up in the air. Some candidates running in similarly Republican districts or states avoided the convention like the plague because of the potential political fallout of being tied to the liberal national party.
But even though Cook was running in a district that President Obama lost by seven points in 2008, his campaign decided the underdog candidate didn’t have much to lose. At lunchtime on Wednesday, the unassuming Virginia Democrat sat alone near the mini-food court in the Charlotte Convention Center. Slightly sleep deprived from driving down from the Commonwealth that morning, Cook was energized from the day before when a joint appearance with Wittman at a picnic in the Northern Neck turned into a pseudo debate.
At that stage in the race, it was about celebrating the small victories. A couple weeks before, the campaign’s email system sent out hundreds of emails, all addressed to “Gerry.” Even now, some of Cook’s closest friends sign of their emails to Adam as “Gerry” in eternal memory of the gaffe.
But on this particular Wednesday morning in September, the campaign sent out a fundraising email highlighting Cook’s trip. The “ask” was minimal: “$25, $50, $100 or whatever you may be able to afford.” Soon after, Cook arrived in Charlotte with his manager, Ali Chalupa, and his mother, who would pull double duty as the official photographer.
As a first-time candidate, Cook knew he would need someone with experience, so he coaxed Chalupa out of political retirement. The two actually met on their first day of law school at the University of California-Davis and had stayed in touch over the years. Chalupa was a veteran of the Democratic National Committee and past conventions but stepped away from politics to spend more time with her two kids.
Soon, the energetic Chalupa arrived at the food court and whisked her candidate away on a journey for support. Chalupa navigated the maze of nondescript hallways and ballrooms, connecting Cook with an eclectic group of supporters along the way. First it was James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, then Bel Leong-Hong, a Maryland delegate and Asian American Pacific Islander DNC Caucus Chairman known as “Belkis,” who barely came up to Cook’s elbows.
At the end of one hallway, Chalupa cornered California Rep. Mike Honda (D), introduced him to Cook and confidently asked for a $2,000 contribution. When Honda hesitated, Chalupa endearingly recited his cash-on-hand numbers ($380,000) of the top of her head. The congressman smiled and agreed to help. He followed through a week later with a check.
“Our only limit is time right now,” Chalupa explained.
She knew that contacts made in Charlotte mattered most if they could be quickly translated into campaign cash for the two-month sprint to Election Day. Cook raised over $92,000 through June 30, which seems like a lot of money in almost any situation, but was dwarfed by the $624,000 Wittman raised. Through the second quarter, the congressman had $640,000 in the bank to just $6,000 for Cook.
When Chalupa saw Fox News reporter John Roberts in the hallway questioning attendees about Democrats’ decision to remove the word “God” from the party platform, she assertively nudged her candidate in front of the camera. Cook talked deftly and confidently.
He voiced his disagreement with the decision while weaving in his family background (he is the son and grandson of pastors) and talked about the need to respect all faiths. It was a solid, impromptu answer, which was in stark contrast to national party officials, who stumbled over the issue for more than a day.
“Did you talk about running for Congress?” Chalupa immediately asked Cook after the interview.
The candidate smiled, knowing that he had not. He was still evolving as self-promoter in a role that requires it. But even though most viewers wouldn’t know Cook from Adam, his grandparents were shocked to see their grandson later that night on their favorite channel as they sat 300 miles away. Cook’s conundrum was to get his own party leaders to recognize him. In an interview two levels of the convention center below where Cook was gathering support, former DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen explained the harsh realities of establishment support.
Like any party committee, national strategists are looking for candidates with a strong organization, grassroots support and the ability to raise the resources necessary to win.
“It’s always useful to have a poll that shows it’s working,” Van Hollen added.
Of course the challenge for most candidates is trying to reach those benchmarks without outside help. As Wednesday afternoon dragged on, Cook sat patiently along the wall inside the Veterans and Military Families Council meeting. The program ran long, but once it finally came time for Cook to speak, the normally low-key candidate gave a fiery stump speech. He talked passionately about the lack of veterans in Congress and received an ovation when he talked about the need for reconciliation, all while his mom sat in the front row taking pictures. Cook came of the stage and connected with retired General Claudia Kennedy, now a Democratic activist who party officials recruited to run against Sen. John Warner (R) in 2006 in Virginia.
Chalupa had a brief conversation with Jon Soltz, director of VoteVets, which boasts 220,000 supporters and is the self-proclaimed “voice of America’s 21st Century Patriots.” Soltz’s group finally endorsed Cook the day before the election. In the back of the room, a woman asked Cook to autograph her hard-bound Barack Obama book.
“He’s dynamic, intelligent and dedicated,” said Lisa Fricke about Cook. “He’s a true hero.”
As the mother of a daughter and son-in-law in the military, Fricke could relate to the Virginia Democrat, but of course she was from Nebraska. The next day, Cook got his moment in the national spotlight, but then it was back to Virginia and back to the lonely grind of running in an obscure race.
The Lonely Sprint
The campaign outside of Charlotte was less glorious, but still memorable, including a Veterans Tour featuring General Kennedy in the days before the election. But one of the biggest struggles throughout the campaign was money — specifically the lack of it.
For at least eight months, Cook’s primary function as a congressional candidate was fundraising. With the help of three “callers,” finance staff or interns who would dial the phone numbers, Cook would ask people for money for up to eight hours a day. And it was challenging to persevere with sometimes little return.
“All those weeks and months, to try to go through the same pitch and sound excited over and over again,” Cook said in a post-election interview. “No one can prepare you for that.”
Making 150 calls a day to see a yield of a few hundred dollars was normal. It would have taken Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D) two days, on average, to raise the same amount that Cook brought in over the course of the entire election.
“We had sophisticated donors getting a lot of calls,” Cook explained.
Potential contributors understood the challenges of the Republican-drawn district and were being pressured to support Democrats in competitive U.S. Senate elections. At the beginning of October, the campaign decided to use some of its precious resources to pay for a poll. Cook didn’t have money to hire a traditional pollster to pay for a thorough survey, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Instead, the candidate paid $3,000 to Public Policy Polling to conduct a shorter survey, conducted with interactive voice response technology instead of live callers. The plan was to demonstrate viability in order to encourage outside Democratic groups to get involved or, at a minimum, raise enough money for one final cable television ad buy.
Unsurprisingly, the results weren’t spectacular. Despite months of campaigning, Cook still suffered from a significant name identification gap and so the campaign released partial and selective results in a fundraising email.
“[I]f we just amplify my message, we’re looking at a race that’s too close to call: Wittman 46% and Cook 43%, with many still undecided,” Adam explained in a subsequent fundraising email.
The initial ballot certainly was much worse, but releasing those numbers would likely have sucked all of the air out of the race. In the end, it may not have mattered. According to Cook, an average fundraising email yielded between $700 and $1,000. The email with the polling numbers brought in about $2,500 and the effort lost money compared to the cost of the survey.
Overall, money wasn’t likely the defining factor of the race. Wittman outspent Cook $765,000 to $180,000, but in 2010, Democratic nominee Krystal Ball outspent the congressman $1 million to $972,000 and still came up short.
In the end, Cook lost 56 percent to 41 percent, about six points better than Ball’s 35 percent showing in 2010 and about 5 points less than Obama and Kaine did in the district in 2012.
The Next Step
After the election, Cook’s next step was not immediately evident, since all losing candidates in the 1st District of Virginia are apparently not guaranteed a job co-hosting a national cable television show. Cook will probably run for something again someday, but it would need to “fit into the rest of my life,” he explained.
Cook and his wife Melody simply can’t afford another campaign right now. For the last race, he left his job as general counsel at the Social Security Administration and the couple lived off of Melody’s salary and burned through most of the $25,000 they saved up while Adam served in Afghanistan before he became a candidate.
“I was campaigning full-time, but I think the real sacrifice was made by Melody,” Adam said.
His wife worked full-time, was the campaign’s graphic designer, and spent every weekend knocking on doors and being a surrogate at events. She even made fundraising calls—“the single most painful part of campaigning.”
“She was a rock star,” Cook said. “I very literally couldn’t have done any of it without her.”
Along with family considerations, Cook is also considering whether any Democrat can win Virginia’s 1st District.
“It’s so hard to separate yourself from what’s going on nationally,” he explained.
But that would be required to win a Republican leaning seat along with what Cook called “a perfect storm,” at least until long-term demographic changes in western Prince William County make the district more diverse and potentially more competitive.
For now, Cook still has the political bug. He put his campaign email list to use to solicit support for fellow Democrat Mark Herring who is running for attorney general this year and will likely look for the opportunities to help others. Next time, maybe more people will do the same for him.
Nathan Gonzales is Deputy Editor of the Rothenberg Political Report and Founder of PoliticsinStereo.com