The odds are long for any candidate seeking to take on an entrenched incumbent, but the path to being financially competitive in a primary is particularly tough for those who dare run without an already built-in network of wealthy family, friends, and co-workers. Though some new companies and organizations have entered the fray over the last few years to help working-class candidates more effectively compete — including a new political action committee launched this month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the path to victory can be even harder for those candidates who can’t afford to dedicate all of their time to campaigning.
Under federal campaign guidelines, candidates running in a general election are permitted to use some of their campaign contributions to pay themselves salaries. The rule, approved in 2002 by the Federal Election Commission, was intended specifically to make it easier for people who don’t come from vast wealth to quit their jobs and campaign.
“Candidates of modest means too often have been crowded out of running for office,” said Michael Toner, a Republican FEC commissioner who sponsored the measure. He argued the new rule “could help people like blue-collar workers, school teachers, and others who don’t make six-figure salaries to run for office.”
“Candidates of modest means too often have been crowded out of running for office.”
As the New York Times reported at the time, the idea of letting candidates pay themselves a salary was actually originally put forth by Republicans, who resented Democrats’ 40-year grip on the House of Representatives. The GOP saw a salary as a way to enable people to challenge incumbents, who were largely Democrats. It took years for the FEC to actually approve the measure though, as commissioners long worried that candidates would just game the system and run for office effectively to make a living. A compromise was reached 18 years ago by putting limits on how much candidates could ultimately take: Candidates can pay themselves at a per-diem rate equal to the salary of the job they had before jumping in the race, or the salary of the office they are seeking — whichever is less. (Today, members of Congress have starting salaries of $174,000.)
These changes have made it easier for working and middle-class candidates to run for office. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman congresswoman representing Michigan’s 13th District, paid herself $4,000 a month while campaigning in 2018 so that she could afford to work just seven hours a week as an attorney at her day job. Jess King, a former Lancaster, Pennsylvania, nonprofit director, likewise paid herself a salary of about $3,800 a month so she could run for Congress full-time; she was the only Pennsylvanian congressional candidate to do so.
Despite these rules, Congress has come nowhere near reflecting the socioeconomic diversity of the American public, a problem especially acute as affluent Americans hold far more fiscally conservative views than the average American. The average net worth of a member of Congress is over $500,000, or approximately five times the median U.S. household net worth. After Ocasio-Cortez was elected, the fact that she was working as a bartender for much of her campaign was treated as a huge novelty in Washington, and it is something conservatives frequently point to when lodging attacks.
Another FEC restriction on candidates who draw salaries makes campaigning particularly tough for primary challengers. Under the rules, a candidate running for office can only start taking a salary once the filing deadline for entering the primary has passed. These deadlines vary by state, but typically come just 2-4 months before the primary election. This type of rule made more sense before the surge of money in politics that has taken place over the last 15 years, which has led to campaign seasons starting earlier and earlier.
Mckayla Wilkes, a 29-year-old primary challenger taking on House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in Maryland’s 5th District, is anxiously awaiting January 24, the date of Maryland’s primary ballot access deadline. Wilkes — a mother of two, a part-time student, and a full-time federal contractor — has been running for Congress since late March. But due to her inability to work without pay and the FEC rules, Wilkes has had to campaign all year while still working her 9-to-5 job.
“I don’t have a choice but to work my regular job too, because I am a regular person running for Congress and so I have to provide for my family while also fighting for the future.”
A typical day for Wilkes looks like this: She shows up every morning to her job as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense. She steps away from her desk during her lunch break to do campaign interviews, and takes more calls and interviews on her way to pick up her kids from school and day care. She drives her children home, cooks dinner, and does call time to raise money from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. She’s not allowed to talk about her campaign with co-workers at the office and outside of her lunch break, she’s not allowed to leave her desk to deal with any campaign-related emergencies.
“It’s really tough; it’s basically like having two or three jobs, if you count me being a parent,” she said. “But I don’t have a choice but to work my regular job too, because I am a regular person running for Congress and so I have to provide for my family while also fighting for the future.”
To start drawing a salary on January 24, Wilkes will have to first prove her income from last year, which means filing her taxes months ahead of the April deadline. “I have been just hammering people trying to get my W-2s, my 1099s, which has been a hassle because most times employers don’t even send those out until the end of January,” she said.
Wilkes will quit her day job once she can start taking a salary. Once she has the ability to campaign full-time, she said, she’ll be able to run more effectively. “It will change things drastically for me,” she said. “It will also hopefully give me a little bit more of a work-life balance.”
She does not have much time: Maryland’s Democratic primary is on April 28. Her campaign has raised approximately $130,000 so far, though December was their biggest fundraising month yet where they pulled in about $25,000. Hoyer, who has been in Congress since 1981, has already raised over $2 million.
Other working-class candidates, also facing the financial squeeze of campaigning, are finding other ways to scrape by during the primary.
Jamaal Bowman, who’s endorsed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, is challenging House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel in the primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District. Bowman announced he was running in June, and for the first six months of his campaign, he also continued to work full-time at a Bronx-based middle school where he’s long served as principal.
During that time, Bowman would try to make both jobs work. He’d canvass at a train station from 6:30-7 in the morning, then go to work from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. After school, he’d leave to do call time for a few hours until 6:30 or 7:30 p.m., and then go to a house party or a meet-and-greet at someone’s home until 9:30. On weekends, he would spend 6-12 hours doing campaign work, meaning he never really got a day off.
Bowman resigned from his principal position on January 1, but he does not plan to take a salary from his campaign coffers, saying he wants to keep the money he’s able to raise going toward staff and other campaign expenses. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to draw a salary until April 2, which is New York’s candidate filing deadline. (The state’s congressional primary is on June 23.) To make it work, Bowman has opted instead to drain some of his retirement savings and to take out a personal loan.
“I have a son in college, a daughter in day care, I have a mortgage, and both my wife and I have student loans,” he told The Intercept. “So it is a huge, huge sacrifice to run. But when you work 20 years in public schools, and when you see the systematic oppression the kids you serve face on a daily basis, and when you yourself come from that oppression, it gets to the point where enough is enough.” Bowman said he hopes the few extra hours in the day he has now will give him more time to spend with his family, which “keeps me fulfilled, inspired, and going.”
Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old progressive challenger taking on Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, is also figuring out how to navigate these financial challenges.
“I can only imagine how many amazing candidates there are out there with potential who just financially are not in a position to run.”
When she was deciding whether to run, Cisneros was working as an attorney at a legal nonprofit. “I knew I’d have to quit my job if I ran because there was just no way I could do right by my clients and do right by the people supporting my campaign,” she told The Intercept. She said the first thing she worried about was her student loan payments, followed closely by the fact that quitting would mean losing her health insurance.
Cisneros lives at home with her parents, had a couple thousand dollars in savings, and decided this risk was one she was willing to take. “I didn’t save a ton, but it’s been enough for me to avoid having to take a stipend from the campaign,” she said. To this day, Cisneros has no health insurance.
Although she could be drawing a campaign salary at this point — Texas’s candidate filing deadline is December 9, and their primary is on March 3 — she’s made the decision to direct all her money to campaign expenses. Her campaign raised $513,000 in the last fundraising quarter, bringing her campaign’s total haul to nearly $1 million. Cuellar has not yet posted his latest fundraising figures, but had raised just over $1 million by the end of September.
Cisneros acknowledges that as tough as everything is, there are some advantages to being a single young woman with no dependents. “If it’s difficult for me as someone who just has to worry about her own expenses, I can only imagine how many amazing candidates there are out there with potential who just financially are not in a position to run.”
These and other candidates, who have all also sworn off corporate PAC money, say there’s a reason Congress has been so slow to enact campaign finance reform.
“The rich have built an economic system to maintain their wealth and power, and there’s a reason why 50 percent of Congress are millionaires,” said Bowman. “This system is rigged, and that’s what we’re fighting to change.”