In general, when thinking about political campaigns, people are mainly thinking about the general election. The public usually has high awareness of the strategies attached to winning the general election, such as persuading swing voters or running large-scale partisan turnout...
Interested in helping the United States move toward more progressive policies on healthcare, child care, police brutality, criminal justice reform, education costs, student debt, and more? Did 2020 make you want to try running for office for the first time?
If you’re a first-time candidate looking to run for a Senate seat in the U.S. Congress, then we’ve got the guide for you! Here, we’ll focus on running for Senate (if the House is a better fit, check out our guide on how to run for the House of Representatives).
In this article on running to be Senator, we’ll touch on the following topics:
- The basics on how to run a senate race
- What research is essential to prepare for a Senate campaign
- How to set up a successful political campaign
We’ll also give you a ton of resources for finding even more information that will help you get started on a successful Senate campaign.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
How you set up a political campaign depends on the office for which you’re running. This step-by-step guide thus aims to help you learn how to run specifically for a U.S. Senate seat.
First, let’s look at a few basic questions about the office.
The Senate has 100 Senators. Each of the 50 U.S. states elects 2 Senators to Congress.
Senate terms last for 6 years. Senate elections are spread out so that one-third of Senate seats are up for reelection every even-numbered year. To illustrate, 34 Senate races will take place in 2022: 14 Democratic-held seats and 20 Republican-held seats.
Honestly, it depends a bit on the specific seat.
One way to decide when to run for Senate is by first identifying the Senators for your state and then looking at what year they were elected.
Sometimes, however, Senators are appointed. For example, Alex Padilla is a candidate in the senate races for 2022, but he was appointed in January 2020 after Kamala Harris vacated the seat to run as Vice President alongside Joe Biden.
Not sure where to look to find the information? Check with websites like Ballotpedia, which offer detailed elections calendars.
You can’t build a campaign strategy without knowing who currently holds the office you’d like to run for. With federal elections, that information is especially important as federal-level elections require very large budgets (which we’ll discuss later).
Luckily, this information is easy to find. The U.S. Senate website has a list of U.S. senators you can search through. An interactive state map even lets you search by state. Clicking on your state in the map gives you a headshot of your state’s current Senators and their contact information.
Once you identify your Senators, you’ll want to know the budget for their last election and what the margins they won by look like. This information will ultimately help you know what kind of budget your own Senate campaign will need. Having an idea of the budget you’ll need will also help you develop strategies for fundraising, advertising, and GOTV efforts.
We’ll cover more about how to find this information in a later section of this guide. First, let’s look at setting up the foundations of your brand as a political candidate.
This question isn’t meant to send you down a path of self-reflection. Rather, answering the question will help you build your messaging and brand as a politician.
Of course, before you start building your political brand, you’ll need to meet a few constitutional requirements before you can think about actually running for a Senate seat.
To qualify to serve in the U.S. Senate, you must meet three main conditions:
- You must meet the age requirement for the Senate: 30 years old.
- You must have been a resident of the United States for at least 9 years.
- You must reside in the state that you’ll be representing as a Senator.
You’ll also need to be mindful of other qualifications. For example, the FEC states that candidates must raise and/or spend a total of $5,000 to qualify as a candidate. Before you can raise funds and register as a candidate to be on the ballot for senate, however, you’ll first need to form a political committee.
First, you don’t need political experience to run for Senate. In fact, the very first political campaign for many elected Senators was for the Senate race they ultimately won. Senators Mark Kelly and Ralph Warnock are great examples. Before becoming senators, Ralph Warnock was a pastor, while Mark Kelly was an astronaut.
In other words; No political experience? No problem. Use your career and life experience to show voters and/or donors that you have the following traits:
- Consensus-building ability: Show that your campaign brings people together. From the earliest stages of fundraising, the strength and credibility of your campaign is demonstrated by how well you unite people around your cause. Each contribution represents a person/people who believes in you as a candidate.
- Confident stature: Can you make connections and work toward a common goal? Can you assert yourself when necessary and resolve conflicts in ways that build relationships? Such skills will help you negotiate with your colleagues, which will be key to delivering on your campaign promises.
- Persuasiveness: Convincing voters and donors to support you during your campaign is just the beginning. As a politician, you’ll have a lot of conflicting interests to balance, especially on the federal level. You must therefore be able to engage audiences and influence them to lean toward your vision. The same is true of selling your proposed legislation once you’re in office.
Gaining such experience can happen in several ways. And really, a combination of forces is involved. Senator Warnock’s career easily involves many of the skills he needs to be a good senator. Being an astronaut, on the other hand, is a huge accomplishment (and very cool!), but doesn’t involve many skills that will be helpful in a Senator role. Instead, Senator Kelly’s applicable skills have mainly been honed through his advocacy for gun law reform.
Truth be told, your professional experience isn’t as important to most voters as what you can offer the Senate seat you’re running for. Even more important is that you develop a clear, compelling message for voters—a message that shows you can give voters what they want.
An issues page on your website is very helpful to that goal. In fact, having a clear presentation of the issues that will inform your policy-making is key to telling voters your story.
At the same time, you can’t just throw up a bunch of text with a laundry list of what’s generally important to you. You need messaging that conveys you have a plan for what to do with the office. You also want your message (and issues page!) to answer some key questions in voters’ minds:
- What would you do differently than the incumbent or opponents?
- What are your philosophy and lived experience?
- How will those elements translate into your work as a Senator?
A run for Senate can be pretty costly, and the cost is only getting more expensive each election cycle, especially for Democrats. In 2020, Democratic Senate candidates spent $280 million more than Republican candidates.
Remember when looking at prior candidates’ budgets came up a bit earlier? Understanding the budget of past elections is really going to help you get an idea of what type of budget you’ll need, which will ultimately inform you of how much money you’ll need to raise for your Senate race.
The FEC has detailed spreadsheets with financial data from congressional candidates during the 2020 election cycle. There you’ll find financial information for both the House and Senate candidates, broken down by receipts, disbursements, cash on hand, debts owed, and more. Once you have these totals, you can start piecing your budget together based on staff, operational, and other costs (e.g., advertising, polling, fundraising events, etc.).
To give you some real-life context, below is a chart that shows you how much money was earned by each of the top 5 earning Democratic candidates for Senate in 2020.
All but Amy McGrath earned more than $100 million over 2 years leading up to the 2020 Senate elections. That’s a lot of money! In fact, the examples above outpace most of the 2020 primary presidential candidates.
In general, though, challenger Democrats collected fewer funds from PACs than Republican candidates. McGrath, for example, brought in $353,988 in PAC-related funding, while Mitch McConnell brought in $3.6 million from PACs. Of the 10 candidates that accepted the most from PACs in 2020, only one was a Democrat. This trend is particularly pronounced with challengers (versus incumbents) who are not yet a proven commodity and cannot rely on a large amount of PAC or institutional money.
Why does all this information matter? Well, it highlights the importance of individual and grassroots fundraising in modern politics. Some of the differences in where funds come from will be related to the FEC’s campaign contribution limits for federal elections. However, there has also been a shift in many Democratic campaigns—away from corporate money and interests and toward grassroots contributions.
There’s not a set list of staff you need, given that campaign staff can vary quite a bit for U.S. Senate campaigns. Below, though, you’ll see a few key roles you’ll want to fill:
- Finance director: The finance director should typically be the first hire for your political campaign because they manage the fundraising. This role also includes conducting donor research, setting up a finance plan, and organizing fundraising events/phonebanks, and following up with potential donors.
- Campaign manager: A campaign manager will be responsible for managing and coordinating all staff and consultants on your campaign. The campaign manager will also help with making key decisions, handling day-to-day tasks, and keeping the campaign (and you, the candidate) well-organized.
- Field directors: Field directors manage voter outreach for your campaign. They’re in charge of overseeing volunteers who participate in canvassing, phonebanking, and Get Out the Vote efforts. If your campaign is like most Senate races, you’ll likely need to hire 2-3 field organizers to oversee a higher number of volunteers.
- Treasurer: A treasurer can help your campaign stay in compliance with political campaign finance laws. This position is usually a part-time one for U.S. Senate races.
That being said, you won’t necessarily need a full campaign staff right away. The staff needed to run in a primary election is much smaller than what you’ll need for the general election. For example, you won’t need field directors until about 6-9 months before the election. Top-tier senate campaigns often see a staff between 20-50 people for the general election.
For additional information on what staff positions you might want to fill (and when), see our blog on political campaign staff. Your campaign budget will help you understand what kind of staff you can afford. But generally, staffing costs shouldn’t exceed 10% of your overall budget.
Now that you understand the scale and scope of campaigning for Senate, it’s time to discuss the process of setting up your campaign. First up are the administrative aspects of establishing your campaign.
Many administrative tasks must be tackled to make your campaign an official organization and to roll out your campaign’s branding. Here’s a list of the most essential admin tasks:
- Register as a political committee so that you can fundraise.
- Get an EIN number from the IRS.
- Set up a bank account for your political campaign.
- Register to be on the ballot.
- Collect donor lists and find a fundraising CRM like ActBlue or Numero.
- Set up your website, social media accounts, etc.
Most of the list is geared toward getting you ready to accept political contributions. However, there’s one more vital step before you can start fundraising.
Before you can start fundraising, you need a solid list of potential contributors. You can start with all of your family, friends, and acquaintances (both old and new).
Look for basic information about them:
- Who are they?
- What do they do for a living?
- How much have they given and to whom?
- What connections might you share with them? (i.e., shared home towns, alma maters, acquaintances, etc.)
Taking the time to find this information allows you to forge a connection with them early into your introductions, which will make them more likely to contribute to your campaign. Building a rapport with people helps!
Fundraising is the only way you’ll run a successful campaign. And having a strong fundraising plan in place—before you start campaigning—is crucial to your success. It’s best to start fundraising with your own network of family, friends, and acquaintances, but you’ll also need to forge new connections.
This step is where having a strong message and interesting fundraising ideas can help. The bottom line is that you’ll need to find ways to broaden your social circles and convince strangers to support your candidacy.
Feeling overwhelmed? It’s okay! Plenty of professionals are out there who can serve as consultants to help you manage your campaign.
Political consultants are professionals who work with multiple campaigns to help advise and/or run the campaign. Consultants are paid positions, but the consultants themselves can work with a firm or be freelancers.
Some consultants offer general campaign management experience, and some specialize in specific areas of the campaign. Whatever the case, consultants can help you with any number of areas. Here are just a few examples:
- Completing admin tasks
- Organizing fundraisers
- Maintaining financial compliance
- Conducting donor research
- Creating/placing TV spots and/or sending mailers
- Managing social media
There are four key ways to gain support for your senate campaign:
- Fundraising: Your earliest efforts will focus heavily on reaching out to every contact you have and encouraging them to reach out to their contacts. Fundraising often starts well before your name is on the ballot and continues until Election Day.
- Endorsements: Gaining public seals of approval from high-profile individuals or businesses will boost your campaign’s visibility. Celebrity endorsements help, but endorsements from other politicians, local businesses, community leaders, and so on can also be quite helpful to your campaign.
- Canvassing: Knocking on doors and talking to people face-to-face helps your campaign reach more potential voters. The benefit is two-fold: you not only get a prime opportunity to receive feedback on your campaign but also encourage more action from voters. Direct interaction with voters creates a more personal connection between them and your campaign (and helps the GOTV efforts that are so, so important right before Election Day—as you’ll learn below). When running for Senate, you absolutely must have a strong field team to help with canvassing in your state.
- GOTV: Get out the vote efforts don’t start until right before the election (usually 4–21 days ahead of time). These efforts are geared toward encouraging voter participation. At this stage, it’s less about changing minds and more about encouraging action. GOTV efforts can take the form of canvassing, phonebanking, or running TV, radio, or social media ads.
Well, if you win, you’ll obviously need to prepare for your first day on the job as a senator. And win or lose, you’ll need to be prepared to decide what to do with leftover campaign funds. (We’ll address what to do if you lose, too, because—as you’ll learn—losing doesn’t mean the end of your not-yet-started political career.)
It’s possible that once the campaign ends, some funds will remain in your campaign bank account. You can do a number of things with these funds:
- Use them to pay off remaining debts from the campaign.
- Donate them to other campaigns or PACs within your party
- Keep them and transfer them to your next political campaign.
Ideally, your run for senate will be successful, and you’ll transition from campaigning to working as a Senator. But should you lose, don’t be discouraged! Losing has always been a major part of the campaigning process. Even seasoned politicians lose campaigns from time to time.
Joe Biden, as a key example, ran for president three times before winning his 2020 presidential campaign.
Bernie Sanders has also lost many elections, including 2 senate elections, 3 gubernatorial, 4 house, and 2 presidential primary elections. In 2000, he lost the Democratic primary for a seat in the House of Representatives and then won the general election by running as an independent. He repeated this same pattern in 2004 by running as a progressive.
Despite losing elections for these specific offices, he has served in the House and Senate for a combined 30+ years and was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for 6 years.
You’ve certainly got a lot of information to process, but we think it’ll give you a lot of momentum as you establish your Senate campaign. Good luck!