Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? was a very influential documentary piece. The video displayed a course of events leading up to the 2004 Congressional race in Missouri in which Jeff Smith ran a grassroots campaign in an effort to win Dick Gephardt’s Congressional seat. This film indirectly shows the importance of three components in any given campaign: money, name recognition, and incumbency. This paper will discuss the importance of said components and how Jeff Smith overcame such obstacles in the 2004 Congressional race, only to be defeated by his opponent, Russ Carnahan.
A quote from California’s legendary Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh in which he said, “money is the mother’s milk of politics, describes the importance of money best. Although many key components are needed to run a successful campaign, having the financial resources to outlast your opponents does not hurt. In fact, many candidates that lack the financial resources often fall short of a victory. As the text states, money attracts campaign contributors who, in turn, give more money. For a grassroots political campaign, such as Smith’s, to thrive, having campaign contributors is of the utmost importance.
Jeff Smith found himself in this particular quagmire. At the beginning of his 2004 campaign, he had come out of nowhere to oppose Russ Carnahan among others. Mr. Smith essentially had no financial resources and was forced to campaign on foot by going door-to-door and by making phone calls rather than run television advertisements. In politics, money is normally given to the candidate with the most recognized name, which is also an important component this paper will discuss later. As a result, there is no chance for the “underdog” to gain any ground, let alone win the race. This, in turn, propels into a domino effect in which the candidate with the most amount of financial resources gets televised more regularly and receives even more money from other individuals in Congress. The race, from then on, essentially turns into a “David and Goliath” matchup. Paul S. Herrnson writes that every candidate wages not one but two campaigns – a campaign for resources, or the ‘money primary’, and the more visible campaign for votes. The preceding statement further stresses the point that a candidate with money positively correlates with the amount of success he or she has at running a successful campaign.
Another key component the film discusses is the importance of name recognition. Although the text does not directly mention name recognition as an important part of the political process to being elected, the film does a wonderful job of indicating that it does indeed play an important role. At the time of the 2004 Congressional race, the Carnahan name was one in which everyone had recognized. Russ’s mother, Jean Carnahan, was a Senator for the state of Missouri. Russ’s father, Mel Carnahan, had previously been the Governor of Missouri before perishing in an aviation accident. Also, Robin Carnahan, Russ’s sister, was the Secretary of State for Missouri.
As one can see, there was a generation of the Carnahan name that permeated the residents of the state of Missouri. The documentary stated that name recognition allows candidates to “follow in the footsteps” of his or her relative. The name recognition factor is quite similar to inheritance in that once one of your relatives leaves office, the next relative sweeps in without missing a beat. Furthermore, the film also states that name recognition allows for the culmination of dynasties. As a result, an opposing candidate has virtually no chance to come out victorious and is thus considered an extreme underdog.
As stated previously, Mr. Smith created a grassroots campaign. This was a campaign in which Jeff Smith started with nothing and had to do everything himself along with a few close friends that had no experience in running political campaigns. The campaign was underfunded, under-experienced, but Smith and his volunteers were very effective in running it. As the campaign progressed, these effective tactics eventually led to name recognition and more money being funneled to Mr. Smith weeks prior to the primary election.
The last key component to be discussed, and perhaps one of the most important, is “the incumbency factor.” The documentary stated that once a candidate is elected to office, “the incumbency factor” allows him or her to remain in office as long as the particular candidate wants. In fact, one of Jeff Smith’s volunteers expressed that it was “so much more disheartening that Carnahan will be an incumbent and be in office for a lifetime than Jeff losing a primary.” A clearly winnable seat is one that is open or one without an incumbent running. Furthermore, in most House and Senate contests, however, incumbents will be running, and most of them will be reelected. Incumbents are so difficult to defeat as it is no secret that incumbents have built-in methods of promoting support – through speeches, press coverage, newsletters, staff assistance, and constituent service.
Incumbency is a distinct advantage for a variety of reasons. First, it is the easy choice to voters. They have been in office for a particular number of years and things have been fine. Why would one change? Secondly, an incumbent receives donations during the stint in office. This comes back full-circle to the first key component of money. Third, incumbents receive free postage from their government office. Incumbents also have the benefit, as the text stated, of holding press conferences or town hall meetings to display his or her platform. Lastly, incumbents can receive “pork” projects. These projects allow the appropriation money to your state for various projects such as bridges or buildings.
Jeff Smith had to overcome many obstacles in attempt to successfully attain Dick Gephardt’s Congressional seat. Russ Carnahan had the money and the name recognition to present a formidable challenge to any competitor. Through this film, however, Jeff Smith showed that a grassroots campaign can be successful. Jeff Smith showed the will to win by working tirelessly while Russ Carnahan took his opponent lightly. In the end, however, Jeff Smith was defeated by a smaller margin than anticipated. Money and name recognition helped propel Russ Carnahan to attain Dick Gephardt’s Congressional seat and has held the same seat since. This further enforces the fact that incumbency is a very difficult obstacle to overcome.