In the political world, 2015 is known as an off year.
It’s a time when endless election-related ads are absent from television, mailboxes are blissfully free of candidate mail pieces, and door-knocking hopefuls are nowhere to be found.
That reality, however, is only on the surface. Behind the political scenes, any serious candidate or imperiled incumbent will be busy using this year to lay the groundwork for 2016.
“A grizzled and wise old political consultant once told me elections are won in the off year,” said Republican political consultant Kevin Spillane, a former Assembly GOP Caucus strategist. “It is often more important than the election year.”
And 2016 is a bigger election year than most.
The nation will elect a new president to replace Barack Obama. There are some indications that Barbara Boxer won’t seek re-election as the state’s junior senator. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, are both reaching term limits — but neither appears ready to end their elected careers. Add in Fresno City Council races, statewide ballot initiatives and others, and 2016 promises to be an intense election year.
Now, while it is relatively quiet, is the time to gather endorsements and start raising money and reaching out to interest groups, political experts say. This is the time to speak to the Rotary Club, to hear out business and community leaders on their concerns, and to get educated on issues important to whatever seat a candidate is eyeing. Incumbent officeholders should start paying extra-close attention to their votes on issues to make sure they are consistent with the demands of the electorate, and they need to be as accessible to their constituents as possible.
Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio said “2015 will be the pre-game show for 2016 — lots of jockeying, fundraising and positioning to woo activists who will determine the outcome of the June 2016 (primary) elections.”
For Democrats who have a deep bench, it’s about distinguishing themselves from their competition so they will be in better shape in fundraising and in the polls, Maviglio said. For Republicans, it’s about building name identification and courting the party’s big donors and conservative activists. For those in non-partisan races, it’s about making those all-important local connections.
When local political consultant Mark Scozzari meets with a person considering a run for office, he always starts by handing them a paper and a pencil and telling them to write down every potential donor, from friends to relatives to business partners. For a Fresno City Council hopeful, Scozzari says the fundraising goal should be $50,000. For state Assembly, $250,000. Fresno city races have fundraising time restrictions that don’t start until next year, but that doesn’t stop candidates from seeking endorsements.
“They basically need to start farming, cultivating their donor list, and then getting endorsements,” Scozzari said. “Challengers will have a tougher time with that because people don’t want to go against the incumbent. If you are seeking an open seat, you need to build small coalitions and expand those to other donor coalitions.”
In 1996, Juan Arambula first won a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors after nearly a year of campaigning. He announced his candidacy in July 1995, loaned his campaign $25,000 from his personal savings account to get going, and by August was already trading verbal jabs with incumbent Doug Vagim. Because there was only Vagim and Arambula, that race was decided in the June 1996 primary.
When Arambula decided to move up to the state Assembly in 2004, he started preparing for the run two years ahead of time, and less than two months into his first term — in January 2005 — he’d already formed his 2006 re-election fundraising committee. He said those early starts are key to success.
“There is an awful lot to do,” Arambula said. “It benefits a candidate to get out early. If you don’t, then your run the risk of having endorsements and resources locked up (by other candidates). It just makes it that much harder.”
There are exceptions to the rule. Fresno Democrat Sarah Reyes didn’t start her successful Assembly campaign until December of the previous year, and current Assembly Member Frank Bigelow, an O’Neals Republican, didn’t start his until the fall. Making it even more challenging for Bigelow was the fact that his district sprawled across all or parts of nine counties stretching from Madera to Lake Tahoe and across the Sierra Nevada to Mono County.
That’s not to say that Reyes advises her path for all candidates.
She said candidates or potential candidates can and should spend 2015 positioning themselves as a viable contender That means, she said, being seen at the right places, connecting into important groups and being seen as a leader. But announcing a candidacy early can carry some risks, she said. It might scare off potential opponents, but it also might shine an early spotlight on a hopeful and could end up derailing a political run before it had a chance to get going.
Whether the decision is good or bad, it is coming this year, said Spillane, the GOP consultant. In some races — for instance, if Boxer calls it quits — waiting until this time next year will be too late in terms of both money and endorsements, he said. If a wealthy candidate gets in the Senate race, he even thinks some television advertising might be possible by year’s end.
Spillane also expects California visits from presidential hopefuls. Candidates from both parties will seek money in the Golden State.
“We may be in the back of the line on competitive states, but we are No. 1 when it comes to fundraising,” he said.
Spillane said California’s cache of electoral votes could also prove key to winning the GOP presidential nomination. Because of that, he said the state might even see a GOP candidate campaign in the state this fall, though that early focus will mostly be in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and others with early primaries or caucuses.
Be it president or city council hopeful, the key is to be productive this year.
“If they’re serious about running, they don’t have a choice,” said Tim Orman, a local political consultant.