Heard on the Hill

No Campaign, No Gain

How can you help your party (and your career) while you’re stuck in D.C. on Election Day

Rep. Barbara Comstock passes out candy during a Halloween Parade in Leesburg, Va., on Wednesday. Comstock is trailing Democrat challenger Jennifer Wexton for her suburban 10th District seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

For staffers who live and breathe politics, it can be tough being stuck in D.C. during the final election countdown.

“It feels a lot like sitting on the sideline during the biggest game of the season,” a Republican aide said.

Not all campaigns can afford to send Hill staffers out to the states to help on the trail. And paying out of pocket isn’t an option for much of Congress’ low-paid workforce. 

So for the Hill denizens who want to get their boots on the ground, some of the nearby competitive Virginia races offer a chance to help out, either after work or on weekends. There’s Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock’s high-profile bid for a third term in the 10th District in the D.C. suburbs. Two other GOP-held districts, the 2nd and 7th, are both just a short car ride away. 

Some Democratic staffers hoping to see their party flip the House have been canvassing for Comstock’s challenger, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, her campaign’s communications director Aaron Fritschner said in an email last week. .

“I have had a bunch of friends and colleagues from the Hill come out to knock doors or tell me they plan to help out in VA-10 between now and Election Day,” said Fritschner, who is on leave from his role as Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr.’s communications director. “From my desk as I type this I can see one staffer who has taken time off to come out and volunteer phone banking right now.”

Junior-level staffers are most likely to take a couple of weeks off before Election Day when both chambers are in recess anyway, and chiefs of staff are generally supportive. 

It shows “a certain amount of dedication and gumption — willingness to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work,” a Republican chief of staff said.

A Democratic chief of staff said official office work came first but recognized the importance of letting staffers stretch their campaign legs. 

“We want our staff to grow and do things that they want, we want to win back majorities” the chief of staff said.

And that campaign trail experience could come in handy later, especially if you’re looking to move up on the Hill. 

Doing your bit

Some staffers have bit the bullet and paid their own way to help out on a race. 

“The stakes are too high to just sit on your hands and predict the... results,” said a Democratic aide who went to California to campaign on personal time.

For those not as fortunate, the Senate and House campaign committees on both sides of the aisle have phone banking efforts that staffers can take advantage of after-hours. But for many, that’s not enough.

“It’s a little frustrating because you want to do everything you can to help your boss win, but given the distance and travel costs, it’s not practical to get everyone out in the field. We can help by making calls from D.C. to get people out to vote, but it’s not the same as actually being there on the ground,” a Republican aide said.

A former staffer whose boss lost in a previous cycle recalled mid-level staff going out to the state just before Election Day, but there were no funds to send them earlier.

“Our campaign was definitely tight on cash, running in a large state with an expensive media market,” the former staffer said. “I was able to phone-bank some from here and take advantage of the [get-out-the-vote] efforts sponsored by the state party. But it’s tough to really feel like an effective part of a ground game when you’re only out for the final three to four days.”

Making it work

It’s not hard to find Hill staffers who have worked on campaigns — over 80 percent have done so, according to CQ’s latest Capitol Insiders Survey of congressional staffers. 

Chiefs of staff had the highest amount of campaign experience, the survey found, followed by legislative assistants and legislative directors. Schedulers had the least. 

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Some chiefs see the value in promoting or hiring campaign-tested staffers.

“If you’re going to be working in a House or Senate office, the electoral politics will intersect at some point in some way with your job, and having that general experience at the very least removes the unknown, or some of the unknown, from how you conduct yourself,” a Democratic chief of staff said. 

Another chief said that working on a campaign with “limited resources and tight deadlines” teaches staffers “how to think creatively and act with some resiliency.”

But not all chiefs felt the same way. 

“Campaigns are totally different beasts than official offices. It’s a different type of work, a different mentality, a different approach to viewing constituencies and solving problems,” a Republican chief of staff said.

“I find it difficult to work — particularly across the aisle — with someone that has a campaign/political mindset only. They aren’t thinking in terms of good, bipartisan legislation. They’re thinking, ‘How do I win?’ Injecting politics into policy — while acceptable in a very limited way — is not the way the Senate should operate completely,” the chief continued.

But the value of campaign experience can also be measured based on where a staffer is now — or hopes to be in the future.

“When it comes to comms directors and press secretaries … the best training you’re going to get is doing communications on a tough campaign,” a Democratic chief of staff said.

If you have aspirations to become a chief of staff some day, experience on the campaign trail tends to be a given. 

“Chiefs of staff, really without exception, have to have very good political awareness and electoral political awareness,” the Democratic chief added.

Of course, despite all their best efforts, elections don’t always pan out the way staffers might hope. And with 35 members of Congress voluntarily stepping down this year — not including those who’ve already resigned, lost primaries, or run for another office — many staffers will be left figuring out their next steps after Nov. 6. 

Just over 65 percent of 137 respondents to the Capitol Insiders survey said they would try to keep working on the Hill if the boss loses in November. Nearly 35 percent expected to leave and explore job opportunities elsewhere. 

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