Paul Tewes on the Past, Present, and Future of Elections

 /  Nov. 3, 2018, 10:12 p.m.

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Paul Tewes is a political operative who has spent more than two decades leading campaigns and building organizations that have defined how modern-day political campaigns are run. He has notably served as campaign director and political director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and as Obama’s Iowa Caucus director during his historic 2008 win. Since then, he has created three successful political consulting businesses. Tewes sat down with The Gate to discuss his political experience and the upcoming midterm elections. 

The Gate: You've spent over two decades as a political operative, managing a large number of campaigns, including Obama's in Iowa. How would you characterize the biggest shift in campaigns and Democratic politics since you've started?

PT: I would say two things: one, the amount of money has just skyrocketed. When I started doing campaigns, a U.S. House congressional campaign raising three-quarters of a million to a million dollars would be unheard of. Now, some of these races are raising 3 or 4 million. This is even after they put an end to soft money. It's really the rise of the small donor—people writing checks for 20 bucks a month—which is just remarkable. 

As to the second thing: I started political campaigns in 1994. In 1994, I was one of eight field staff on a US Senate race—a statewide race in Minnesota. I actually had two congressional districts and was the only organizer. Today in Minnesota, if you were running a serious statewide campaign, you might have 150 organizers on the ground. Prior to [2002], it was mail and paying for phones and TV and radio—and you didn't organize.

Gate: This election cycle we have seen an ousting of establishment Democrats by younger, more progressive candidates. Do you think this is a direct response to our current political environment or more of a check on the President?

PT: I don't buy into the idea of labels of politics outside and inside the party. I don't think most Democratic primary voters do. I think there are moods they have where they're looking for a certain style or a certain tone of a candidate. What's most encouraging to me is that for the first time if you aggregate all the candidates running for state legislative seats and higher, white males are not the majority of candidates. Even more encouraging is people without having run for office before saying "Hey, I'm going to go run for Congress."  I think that this diversity of candidates and experience running for office is a response to Trump and Trumpism. All these people are saying "Listen I don't fit into that” and “I need to be part of the solution." 

Gate: How do you think this diversity of candidates will impact campaigning, organizing, and voter turnout?

PT: I think it'll have a long-term impact. It'll embolden more people who want to run from all backgrounds. That's number one. Number two, it'll bring in a more diverse set of people that are working on political campaigns. In Minnesota, it was a white business. I worked for a great candidate—very progressive—but if I recall, most of our staff was white and had the means to work on a campaign. Even through the 90s, when I worked on political campaigns, it was primarily white. Beginning with Obama, you start to really develop talent in communities of color. The thing with these candidates are, when they are emboldened, people that want to work for them are going to look like more of America and are going to be more emboldened too. 

Gate: Do you think this wave of new candidates are running based on issues or identity politics?

PT: I think that it's probably a combination of both. I think it's the first time in eight years, since '08, that healthcare has been an offensive tool for the Democrats. But I also do think that the more Trump has singled out different groups of people, different communities of people, the more leaders come out and say “I want to do something” and that something's running for office. 

Gate: Is what we've seen this election cycle, this diverse array of candidates, do you think it's indicative of the future of the Democratic party? 

PT: I hope it's indicative of the future of the country in the sense that people from all walks of life, whether you agree with them or not, can feel empowered enough to want to make change. The thing that's most surprising is the rise of the small donor. It used to be 'write a big check' and you would get a few hundred people to write big checks and that's all you needed to do. And now with the rise of the small donor, an elderly person with a fixed income, a student with next to no income, can donate five to ten bucks and feel connected. That candidate knows they feel part of it so that candidate suddenly is speaking to a greater audience of people putting money into his or her campaign. We're probably going to have more people voting in a midterm election in a long time. More young people seem to be politically active than they have been at least in my experience. Those all point to good things for democracy.  

Gate: What do charismatic candidates like Beto need to do to flip traditionally red districts? Is it their cult of personality really the key in some of these races?

PT: No, not necessarily. I've seen boring Democrats win red districts. I think most people just want to feel that they're being heard, that they're part of the discussion and I think Democratic candidates have a tendency to write off slots of voters. Half the battle of a good campaign is just talking to as many people as you can and listening to them. I followed [Beto’s] campaign from afar and he's not afraid to go to places. He understands that you've gotta go out and talk to people even if they don't like you because there might be two or three in the room that do and they have to feel like they have a place to go. 

Gate: What would Democratic control of the House mean in the next two years? What can we expect if the Republicans also keep control of the Senate? 

PT: I don't know. I hope it breeds a level of sanity where [elected officials] realize, 'Listen, we have to do something together here to keep the country moving forward and get people a sense of peace and security in their politics'. I hope with the Democrats it isn't investigation after investigation. There should be oversight and I hope they get things done. I think there's a loud boisterous view on both sides that kind of demand they stick it to the other side, or not compromise. But, I think most Americans have principles and want their politicians to stand for their principles and also work together and respect each other. 

Gate: This election cycle has piqued the interest of a lot of new people to become politically involved. What can people do to fight for their beliefs, particularly in the last week before the election?

PT: Talk to people and listen to people and in a very respectful way. I always felt with Obama, the best conversations that were happening were not conversations necessarily on company time—meaning the phonebank, the canvass. It was people who felt strongly about Obama who were talking naturally around their kitchen table, their water coolers, saying 'listen, I'm voting, here's why' and 'why don't you go with me?' So the most important thing is to be authentic and talk to your friends and family. 

Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

Eric You


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