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The loneliness of running for office

Nobody can stop you. But no one will put you there, either.

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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Many years ago, the incumbent stepped down in the state senate district where I live, thereby creating an open seat. A newcomer to how things are done, I assumed some party elders went into a “smoke-filled” room and picked the slate of preferred candidates. I mentioned to the party chair that I’d be interested in pursuing that position. Nothing happened. Others stepped forward and ran for that office. I later realized that in Utah, at least, there are no party elders working in “smoke-filled” rooms to determine political fortunes. 

If you want to run for office, settle in your mind the principles and programs you want to promote, file for office, organize a campaign and get to work. Nobody can stop you. But no one will put you there, either. Whether you run for your school board, water district or for governor, come in your work boots because you have a lot of work ahead of you. Most offices are contested, and an open gubernatorial seat like we have this year will, as we have seen, draw many talented candidates will lots of energy, ambition and resources.

Even more than the exhaustive time and energy needed to run for office, the first and last resource of a candidate is the diamond-hard personal resolve to run and to win. Before any campaign begins and continuing through the end of the race when the balloons and volunteers fade away, one thing alone sustains the candidate — the unflagging personal drive to win. Nothing can substitute for this. Nothing. 

We all watched as Blake Moore, Burgess Owens and Spencer Cox emerged from hard-fought, multi-candidate Republican primaries as the winners. What we didn’t see is the immense personal cost of the campaign to the candidates, successful and otherwise. We owe them and their opponents our gratitude for putting themselves and their ideas forward. 

What is not apparent to the electorate is that whether a candidate garners hundreds, thousands or millions of votes, she or he essentially stands alone in deciding to run, stands alone putting a campaign team together, stands alone when the crises come — as they surely must — stands alone when the polls go against her, stands and feels very alone during the debates, stands alone when asking for major financial contributions, stands alone when his resume is questioned or his experienced is maligned, stands alone when explaining controversial positions, stands alone fighting to stay alive after a gaffe, stands alone when opponents and their proxies come after her, stands alone when shadowy, outside PACs send out scurrilous material to her friends and supporters. And finally, at the campaign’s conclusion the candidate alone is named as the winner or loser.

Spouses, families, friends and supporters shore up the candidate and make it possible to sustain a campaign, and while they literally stand beside the candidate in most situations, it’s the candidate’s picture, resume, experience, personality, presence and principles on display. It’s the candidate’s name on the ballot. Their supportive role cannot be underestimated, but it’s never as personally determinative for them as it is for the candidate.

The delegates and voters want to know the candidates, their experience and background, their style of governing. It becomes an intensely personal experience, in many cases a one-on-one interchange. No campaign worker or surrogate can make up for what a candidate can’t or doesn’t do. And the voters either select you or reject you. 

Case in point: In 2010, Sen. Bob Bennett walked into the Utah’s State Republican convention seeking a fourth term as one of the most highly-esteemed members of the U.S. Senate. I don’t think he saw the incoming “missile” aimed at him that day in the person of a young insurgent named Mike Lee. Lee harnessed conservative and Tea Party dissatisfaction with the Republican mainstream to hand Sen. Bennett a stunning loss. Bob Bennett’s life was changed forever that day. So was Mike Lee’s. The rest of us went home as we had come.

Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.