For all the money and spin involved in special elections, the outcome rests heavily on the quality of the candidates.
That’s why Democrats have called in Seth Pendleton for the party’s four recent special elections in New York and Pennsylvania, including last month’s upset in New York’s 26th district.
Pendleton, 47, is the former director of training at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Helping candidates stay on message in debates, in interviews and on the stump is the crux of what he does, but Pendleton said the key to being a successful candidate is simply being authentic.
“Sometimes, yes, my job is to keep candidates from saying something that will blow up, that will make unintended headlines,” Pendleton said over lunch near his office in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. “After that triage — of making sure they know what they should and shouldn’t say — it’s figuring out the things that they say are true to them.”
Media training is something Democrats and Republicans alike say is invaluable for candidates. Firms such as HDMK and Pendleton’s 4C Partners, which was formed two years ago by four former DCCC staffers, offer media training as part of their range of services to campaigns and clients. Both major parties’ national committees contract with firms to provide training for candidates and staff.
“Campaigns can be well-funded and well-organized and well-directed, but they will succeed or fail on the power the candidate brings to the debate,” said HDMK’s Terry Holt, a Republican consultant. “The personal characteristics that come out — it’s all about tapping into what’s already there.”
Pendleton agreed. In Democrat Kathy Hochul’s victory last month in New York’s conservative 26th district, Pendleton and media consultant Jon Vogel, who also worked for Hochul, agreed the candidate started out with a lot to build from.
During their first conversation in training, Hochul explained to Pendleton that she was a “diner person” — that she made her campaign staff stop at every diner they drove by so she could just chat with folks.
“When you hear that, you know that this is a person that at the foundation level just likes people,” he said. “In the work I do, if they like people and they are comfortable talking about what inspires them and the things that are part of their personal narrative, that is a really hard combination to beat.”
Pendleton, the only Democrat among a family of seven growing up outside Philadelphia, said his mother has always used the abortion issue as her litmus test for candidates. However, she is also a big fan of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who supports abortion rights.
He recently mentioned to her that by her own standards she would vote in a hypothetical matchup for Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who opposes abortion rights, over Brown.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.