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How to Run for Congress
While running for a seat in the U.S. Congress may seem a little daunting, don’t be intimidated if you’re passionate about having a direct impact on pushing progressive policies forward. Members of Congress come from all backgrounds, so no matter your story, you’ll fit in just fine. Plus, the House is also the most accessible office in the federal legislative branch.
Every 2 years, all 435 congressional House of Representative seats must be filled—attracting thousands of people just like you who throw their hats into the ring each cycle.
Still, navigating your first political campaign isn’t easy, especially if you’re running for a federal office, but we’ve got your back. This guide has everything you need to kick off your campaign to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The first step is fully understanding the office that you’ll be running to fill.
Technically, Congress refers to the legislative branch of the U.S. government, comprising both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But the term is also used interchangeably to refer to the House. For example, members of the House are often referred to both as representatives and as congressmen/women.
We also have a guide on how to run for Senate if that’s more your stride, but in this guide, we’ll be focused solely on the House of Representatives.
As noted above, the U.S. House of Representatives is a chamber of the legislative branch of the federal government. The House is responsible for writing and passing laws.
Unlike members of the Senate (who represent your entire state), House members represent only a specific portion of your state. These portions are called districts, and each district elects its own representative to serve in Congress.
There are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. How many representatives your state has is determined by the population of your state, based on the most recent census. Thus, the number of representatives in your state might change after the redistricting that follows the 2020 census. It could also change again following the 2030 census and so on.
The House also includes delegates from U.S. territories not recognized as states, such as Washington D.C., Guam, and American Samoa. These delegates can participate in the activities of the House, aside from voting to pass legislation, during a session.
There’s a lot that goes into law-making, so the House of Representatives has many moving parts that require reps to focus on forming and following up on laws affecting all areas of life in the United States.
To better illustrate how all of this works, let’s look at the three different parts of the House: the leadership, the committees, and the commissions.
As of May 2021, the Democratic Party holds the majority in the House. Below is a chart of what leadership roles look like within the House based on that majority:
Each party elects their own leaders (most independent members caucus with either of the two dominant parties). The Speaker of the House is elected by the House as a whole.
Twenty House standing committees oversee different legislative jurisdictions. Committee members are tasked with learning about issues, drafting bills surrounding those issues, and overseeing programs or organizations that fall within each committee’s jurisdiction.
The two parties are responsible for filling their allotted seats in a committee. Incumbent committee members are often given first dibs on their old seats. Then, recommendations for the rest of the seats are put forward and the members follow a selection procedure to agree on who fills the positions.
Specific committees include Agriculture, Veteran’s Affairs, Transportation and Infrastructure, Oversight and Reforms, and so on.
Each committee has a website that outlines the specific committee agenda and provides contact information, news, and other information. The U.S. House of Representatives website has a list of every committee with links to their respective websites.
Rep. Katie Porter (and her now iconic whiteboard) serves as one more-prominent example of what a role in a House committee could entail. No doubt you’ve seen videos of her pointedly questioning government officials and CEOs as part of her work within the House Oversight and Reform committee and the Subcommittee of Government Operations.
Below is a video of Rep. Porter securing free COVID-19 testing for Americans in 2020, to give you a glimpse of what kind of work you’d be doing in Congress if you win your election:
Commissions are advisory groups, permanent or temporary, that can be composed of House members, private citizens, or both. They are formed through law or by a House resolution.
Investigating policies or events and providing advice and recommendations to help shape policy-making comprise the primary purpose of House commissions. Ultimately, these groups offer legislatures more efficient access to bipartisan expertise on complicated topics. The goal is to provide accessible solutions to problems that both parties feel comfortable implementing.
Because many commissions are temporary, there isn’t a running list you can check out as with committees. However, Wikipedia has an alphabetical list of past and present commissions that can help you research further.
Understanding how the U.S. House of Representatives works will help you determine whether Congress is a good fit for you. What committees are you interested in working on? What experience do you have to bring to these different House bodies? Answering these questions will help you develop your campaign messaging and shape your political career.
Once you know that running for office in the House is a good fit, you can start building your political campaign. In other words, you’re ready to get to work!
The first step is determining the size and scope of your campaign. Do you qualify for the office? Who is your competition? What kind of budget will you need?
In this section, we’ll walk you through answering all of those questions.
The U.S. Constitution stipulates that you must be at least 25 years old to qualify to run to be a representative. You also must have been a U.S. resident for at least 7 years, and you must be a resident of the state you want to represent.
Each congressperson serves 2-year terms. Every member of the House faces an election during the midterm and presidential election cycles.
A state is broken up into districts, and each district elects its own representative to serve in the House. The number of districts in each state is determined by the population (again, based on the most current census). For example, in 2021 (based on the 2010 census), California has 53 districts, while Maine has only 2.
If you’re running against an incumbent, the House of Representatives website has a Directory of Representatives that lets you look up the representative for your district. In the directory, you can search by state and district, or by last name.
In the primary, you might be running for a seat in Congress against more than just the incumbent. Democratic primaries can be crowded places. Just look at the 2020 presidential elections where 29 candidates competed.
Who you’ll run against will also change in the primary vs. the general election. Gathering information about who is running, what kind of support they have, and how much they can fundraise will help you set your budget and fundraising goals. Primaries tend to have lower costs than general elections, but strong fundraising during the early days can help you stand out with potential supporters.
With that in mind, let’s discuss how a political candidate sets up a budget and starts fundraising.
Fundraising is the backbone of a political campaign. Without fundraising, you won’t have the resources to attract further support for your candidacy or reach potential voters with your message.
You won’t have a staff when you start fundraising, either. That’s normal. Due to its importance, fundraising usually begins before you’ve launched an official campaign.
Running for the House of Representatives is one of the more expensive political races.
The quickest way to determine what your budget should be to run for a seat in the House is to use the FEC website to examine the campaign finance data of other candidates. Using that data, you can see that Nancy Pelosi raised nearly $28 million for the 2020 election.
Rep. Pelosi was the top fundraiser for the Democratic party. And while you probably won’t need a budget as large as hers (only 4 other House candidates raised more than $10 million), you’ll still likely need to raise over a million dollars to have a competitive campaign.
Examining campaign finance data will give you an idea of the type of targets to set for your overall fundraising. To create a budget from this information, you need to break down the costs associated with running a political campaign. Here are some of the overhead costs your campaign will incur:
- Campaign staff: Your earliest hires will be a finance director and maybe a campaign manager. For fundraising needs for a budget this size, having a finance director or fundraising consultant of some kind should be your first priority. You’ll also need other staff, such as field directors, media consultants, and a treasurer.
- Advertising: To raise awareness of your campaign, you’ll need to budget for TV spots, mailers, yard signs, digital advertising, and more. Your costs for such advertising will be lower at the beginning of your campaign and will then increase when you ramp up Get Out The Vote efforts closer to the general election.
- Fundraising events: To secure contributions to your campaign, you’ll need to host fundraising events. You’ll want to keep your budget for these events relatively low so that the money coming in isn’t spent before you even have it. In-kind donations (e.g., venues and refreshments) can help keep event costs down. Also, don’t forget that campaign finance laws dictate who can (and can’t) contribute to your campaign and how much they can give. Your finance director (and compliance firm) can help ensure your campaign remains compliant with these laws.
Once you’ve got an idea what your budget will look like, you can get started with fundraising by setting daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly fundraising goals.
First, have a good campaign strategy in place. Know why you’re running, develop your branding, and begin testing your message as you start asking for donor support.
An essential step to getting things started is doing donor research.
Prepare a list of potential donors. Comb through your contacts and acquaintances—both new and old—and compile a list of people who might support your candidacy. Start with your inner circle, and work your way out to those in your extended network. Ask contributors if they have people in their networks who can help expand your support.
Don’t just collect names, though. Part of successful fundraising involves quickly making personal connections with your donors. Collect a few bits of personal information about each potential donor. What are their alma maters? What industry do they work in? See if you can find some common ground with them before reaching out. It’s easier to build a rapport if you share something in common.
Use this list of potential donors to organize your call time lists and chart your fundraising events.
Once you know who you want to contact, prepare your campaign for receiving funds.
Filing the right paperwork and putting together a legally recognized organization that complies with campaign finance laws will also go a long way toward lending your campaign the credibility it needs to succeed with fundraising.
- Register as a political committee. This step signifies that you’re officially running for office and lends credibility to your campaign with banks and other organizations.
- Get an EIN from the IRS. Having an EIN allows you to not only collect contributions but also pay your staff and other campaign expenses.
- Set up a campaign bank account. Legally, all political campaign funds and spending should be completely separate from personal funds. Acceptable banks for political campaigns are national banks, state banks, and other FDIC- or NCUA-insured institutions.
- Organize your donor information and contributions with a fundraising CRM, such as ActBlue or Numero.
- Set up your social media accounts and political website, as these can help you with individual contributions and grassroots fundraising through donation CTA banners and merch sales.
Either you or your campaign manager can tackle most of the above steps, but political consultants can also help. Financial consultants will specialize in setting up your bank accounts and organizing your fundraising. Digital consultants can build you an online presence that boosts your campaign’s reach and fundraising potential.
Aside from the previously mentioned constitutional requirements, the FEC requires potential candidates to have raised and/or spent $5,000 toward a run for the House of Representatives. Upon reaching this milestone, you’ll have 15 days to file a statement of candidacy. After filing that statement, you’ll have 10 days to file a statement of organization.
Additionally, each state has its own requirements for candidates registering to be on the ballot as hopeful House Representatives. The specific requirements depend on the state you represent and the party with which you’re affiliated.
In Maine, for instance, you’re required to acquire 1,000 signatures from your district if you’re part of a qualified party. Unaffiliated parties need 2,000 signatures to access the ballot. Meanwhile, in Washington, you must pay a filing fee of $1,740 (or 1% of the annual representative salary) regardless of party affiliation.
Ballotpedia has an interactive U.S. map that lets you easily find your state’s requirements for accessing the congressional ballot.
You can let people know about your run for the U.S. Congress in a number of ways:
- Political endorsements: Public support from prominent people or organizations can really boost your campaign’s reach. In your run for House, you’ll be helped by endorsements from local businesses, community leaders, or other politicians. Even popular artists can boost public awareness and support for your campaign.
- Political advertising: As previously mentioned, advertising accounts for a major part of any political campaign budget. Advertising will thus be a key way that you get and keep your message out in front of your voters and encourage them to take action.
- Voter contact: Door knocking, phonebanks, and text banks all help you interact with voters. The one-on-one conversations between voters and members of your campaign that occur through such voter contacts are indispensable in getting your message out there. Plus, the real-time feedback helps you understand how your political messaging is being received. The more you hear from voters, the better developed your political brand will be. Likewise, the more voters hear from you, the more engaged they will be with your campaign. This process will be vital from the earliest days of fundraising to the GOTV efforts closer to the general election.
- Solid SEO and social media: Your campaign must absolutely be findable online. An appealing website with solid SEO can lend your campaign credibility and provide another source of potential fundraising. With social media, you don’t need to maintain content for every social media platform, but even a generic profile can gain traffic. Many candidates put together Spotify campaign playlists, for example. A playlist doesn’t require constant effort to maintain, but will help keep your name on people’s radar.
If you want to keep your seat as a House member, your next election won’t be far off since the entire House is re-elected every 2 years. Leftover funds from your previous campaign can be carried over into the next campaign, which will give you a head start and help fend off potential challengers.
If you choose not to run again, leftover funds can be donated to other campaigns, to PACs, or to charities.
Finally, remember that a lost run for office isn’t the end of your political career. All but one of the candidates of any election will ultimately lose. You can easily roll the momentum from your last campaign into your run for the next office.
Plenty of politicians have lost a race or two and still went on to have long, impactful political careers. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are two such politicians, to give you some perspective.
And with that, you’re now ready to kick off your campaign for the House of Representatives. Use this guide and the linked resources to help make it a successful run for Congress. Good luck!