Campaigning as a write-in candidate is much like starting a marathon a couple of hours after all of the other runners — you can win, but only if you’ve got strong legs, a solid support team and a whole lot of luck.
Democrat Eric Meyer ran a successful write-in campaign in 2008 that led to a seat in the Arizona House, and Republican Lori Daniels won a seat in the state Senate in 2000 after getting booted from the ballot and re-emerging as a write-in candidate.
This year, former state lawmaker Steve May is trying to make a comeback as a write-in candidate for the House in Legislative District 17. He’s hoping that his past experience representing the district and his personal wealth will give him an edge in a Republican primary election that was shaken up when one challenger was declared ineligible by a county judge.
But most write-in candidates wallow in obscurity: Of about 70 write-in candidates for legislative seats during the past four election cycles, only Meyer and Daniels won.
In addition to all of the inherent challenges of running a successful campaign, it’s especially difficult for write-in candidates to earn the trust of voters in a short period and get them to remember the candidate on Election Day.
“At the end of the day you don’t have your name on the ballot,” said Chris Baker, a Republican political consultant. “And so to convince people to depart from the norm… you have to not only let them know who you are in the mailbox but you also have to subsequently educate them on what they need to do at the ballot. It’s a lot to ask people.”
Even May recognizes the difficulties of running a write-in campaign.
“It’s virtually impossible to do,” May said one afternoon during an interview near his condo overlooking Tempe Town Lake.
May is one of about two-dozen write-in candidates on the ballot this year, but the dynamics of the District 17 House race may put him in a stronger position than most of his counterparts.
He is one of three Republicans in the race, but one is relatively unknown in political circles and the other is also a write-in candidate. Another Republican, Augustus Shaw, was removed from the ballot because a judge determined in June that Shaw actually lived in a different district.
May, who served in the Legislature in the late 1990s and early 2000s, threw his hat into the ring after Shaw was disqualified from the ballot.
Money is also a factor; May said he plans to spend $100,000 of his own cash on the campaign. That amount is more than most legislative candidates have at their disposal, and there’s always the possibility that special-interest groups will spend money independently to help him reach the goal, which is what happened when Meyer won his race two years ago.
Republican political consultants said May is a good fit for the district’s issue-oriented, socially-moderate Republican voters.
“He knows the process. He meets the qualification of being well-funded. I think he can fund himself if he needs to,” said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran political consultant who worked for Daniels during her bid for the Senate a decade ago.
May is also a successful businessman who has enough money at his disposal to advertise himself to voters.
“$100,000 in any district makes you legitimate,” political consultant Constantin Querard said.
While he started late, May is hoping to capitalize on two elements that other Republican candidates also hope will sway the election their way: the public’s frustration with incumbents and a perceived anti-Democrat tide.
May, an Army veteran who is openly gay, is running as a fiscal conservative and has focused on what he says are core Republican values — less regulation, small government and lower taxes.
He concentrates less on social issues, he said, although he did help lead the campaign against a proposal in 2006 to ban gay marriage and prohibit the state and its political subdivisions from recognizing legal status for domestic partners.
“District 17 is a fiscally conservative and a socially mainstream district, and that’s who I am,” May said.
In order to win the primary, May must come in at least second in the three-way Republican race. The other Republican candidates are Donald Hawker, and Bob Bush, another write-in candidate.
Even if May survives the three-way GOP primary, he would face a tough general election. But he would have one distinct advantage over his primary run: His name would appear on the ballot.
Winners of the Republican contest will square off against Libertarians Christian Dumitrescu and Damian Trabel, Green Party candidates Clint Clement and Gregor Knauer, and Democrats Rep. Ed Ableser and Ben Arredondo.
Ableser and Arredondo, especially, are formidable foes: Ableser is the incumbent House member, and Arredondo is a popular Tempe City Council member who held office as a Republican for many years before switching his registration to Democrat early this year.
The partisan registration in District 17 is almost evenly split among Democrats (35 percent), Republicans (30.6 percent) and independents (34.4 percent).
The success rate is low for write-in candidates because most of them aren’t serious contenders, according to Querard, the consultant who works with conservative Republicans.
“Most serious candidates don’t run as write-ins,” Querard said. “You will find the occasional write-in candidates that are serious candidates, and I don’t honestly know that their percentage of victory is any better or worse than a regular candidate.”
There are telltale signs of a serious write-in campaign, the consultants said.
One is unequivocal support from a candidate’s party. In some cases, the party will clear a path for a write-in candidate by withholding support for other candidates. It also helps if the party organizes the write-in campaign and provides counsel and financial aid.
Sometimes write-in candidates benefit from another candidate’s misdeeds.
Meyer joined the District 11 House race in 2008 when Rep. Mark Desimone dropped out after he was arrested for domestic violence.
Meyer ran an effective campaign that even those on the opposite side of the political aisle admired. And he, too, benefitted from thousands of dollars in independent spending.
Once a write-in candidate makes it through the primary, the general election race becomes much like any other campaign, Coughlin said.
“If you can get the party’s nomination by virtue of a write-in, and then it comes down to voter-registration in the district,” he said. “If your party is competitively registered in the district, then you can have a good shot at winning.”
Meyer, for example, ended up with 39,114 votes in the 2008 general election — nearly as many as Rep. Adam Driggs, a Republican from Phoenix, received. The two went on to represent the district in the House.
“The biggest difficulty is time,” Meyer said. “You know, my whole campaign was 16 weeks.”
Daniels’ situation was much different. She was a state representative at the time and already had her campaign structure up and running when her signatures were challenged and she was thrown off the ballot.
“Every friend I’ve ever had in the world stood at a polling place and passed out pencils that said, ‘Write-in candidate Lori Daniels,’” Daniels recalled.