When Activists Run for Office

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 5, 2015 · 10:03 AM EST

Spending time, energy and money on campaigns is one thing. But some political activists go a step further, contemplating whether to become a candidate themselves.

California could see two such cases in the next few years, with environmentalist Tom Steyer and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas potentially finding themselves in position to run for office.

But a national profile doesn’t automatically translate into local support.

Steyer spent more than $75 million, mostly through his super PAC NextGen Climate Action, trying to influence the outcome of the midterm elections. When Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced her decision last month not to seek re-election in 2016, Steyer considered but ultimately declined the opportunity to run for an open seat.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t eventually take the leap.

“My decision about whether to engage from the outside or seek elected office came down to a single question: How best can I fight for a level playing field at this point?” Steyer wrote on The Huffington Post’s website. “Given the imperative of electing a Democratic president — along with my passion for our state — I believe my work right now should not be in our nation’s capitol but here at home in California, and in states around the country where we can make a difference.”

He will get another opportunity in 2018, when Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown will be term-limited, again. But another liberal activist may get a shot at the campaign trail before then.

Moulitsas started the Daily Kos blog in 2002, and grew it to a prominent voice on the left. Daily Kos has endorsed more than 150 different candidates over the past six cycles.

If and when Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee vacates her Northern California seat, Moulitsas, a Berkeley resident, will have an opportunity to run for the 13th District. Lee has been mentioned as a potential ambassador to Cuba.

Moulitsas described Lee as a “great congresswoman” to The New York Times and told the paper, “My goal in life is to promote progressive values and policies. How I accomplish that goal is always changing, and it will keep changing in large part based on the opportunities before me.”

Of course, running as a Democrat in a Democratic district or state is a different calculation than the one Stephanie Schriock faced last cycle.

When Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced his decision not to seek re-election, Democrats searched for an alternative. Schriock, who was raised in Montana and managed Sen. Jon Tester’s successful campaign in 2006 for the state’s other seat, looked like a natural option. As president of EMILY’s List, Schriock was experienced in recruiting and backing abortion-rights-supporting Democratic women for offices across the country, as well as raising money and discussing issues — but she declined to run.

“Montana raised me, and it will always be my heart,” Schriock said in a statement at the time. “I would love to say yes, but this is not the right time. There is so much work to be done all over the country fighting on behalf of women and standing up against a concerted effort to roll back the clock on our freedoms and opportunities.”

Passing on the race was probably the right political move. Then-Rep. Steve Daines easily defeated his Democratic opponent, 58 percent to 40 percent, in a very good year for Republicans.

Some activists have taken the plunge, and it hasn’t turned out well.

In 2006, former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia. He lost in the Republican primary, 56 percent to 44 percent, to Casey Cagle.

Howard Phillips was a national conservative leader of a previous era. After serving in President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, he left the Republican Party and founded the influential Conservative Caucus in 1974. Phillips ran for the Senate as a Democrat in Massachusetts in 1978 and finished a distant fourth in the primary. Phillips also ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1992, 1996 and 2000.