An Outsider’s Guide to Running—and Losing—a California Election

Pete Peterson

Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy


Though Ted White’s classic, The Making of the President, is far better known, the best book I’ve read about what it’s like to run for political office is To Be a Politician by Stimson Bullitt. In the 1950s, Bullitt ran twice as a Democratic Congressional candidate in his home district of Seattle—and lost both times.

“Men and women are drawn into politics for a combination of motives,” he writes. “These include power, glory, zeal for contention or success, duty, hate, oblivion, hero worship, curiosity, and enjoyment of the work.”

I ran for California Secretary of State last year for an even simpler reason: I knew the office was underperforming, and I believed my work and scholarship made me uniquely qualified to fix it.

My decision to run for office was at once logical—and unreasonable.

As a Republican living in Santa Monica, I knew I was a political minority. But I wasn’t prepared for how, as a first-time candidate with limited funds, I would occupy such a tiny planet on the fringes of California’s political universe. How I got from those outer reaches to a spot near the sun is a story of good fortune and hard work (mine and other people’s). The challenges I faced speak to some structural issues in California politics. But ironically, those same issues made it possible for a political “outsider” like me to run in the first place.

A campaign that ended with my earning more votes than any other Republican in California began quietly at a dining room table in Santa Monica. This is how my wife and I make life-changing decisions—like when I decided to leave the private sector to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at Pepperdine. And when, after graduation, one of my professors asked me to head up Common Sense California, a multi-partisan non-profit focused on improving civic participation.

In this capacity, I met our then-secretary of state and also got to know others from across the U.S. These encounters confirmed that people in these positions have a tremendous opportunity to encourage civic engagement and participation at the state level. But I also learned that the California office was doing very little in this regard.

In To Be a Politician, Bullitt cites 19th-century writer James Fenimore Cooper, “whose reading a worthless novel provoked him to quit his work and write a good one.”

My observations of the secretary of state’s office led to a decision along a similar line of reasoning. I never knew that I would win, but always believed that I should.
Looking back, I can say that while ignorance may not be bliss, it can help you make hard decisions. Sometimes exactly the hard decisions you should make.

I was a political outsider without great personal wealth up against an opponent I knew would outspend me (in the end, by 8 to 1). But a decade of sales experience had prepared me to sit in my car or at a dining room table with a laptop and a phone for several hours each day “dialing for dollars.”

Of course, it takes more than making the daily commitment to calling to be successful; I had to persuade perfect strangers to invest in me. As a first-time candidate running for secretary of state as a Republican, this demanded my getting over three hurdles: first, convince the person on the other end of the line that there was a real person named “Pete Peterson” (not always easy), second, convince that same person there is an office named “secretary of state” and, finally that, as a Republican, I really had a chance to win statewide office.

Whether on the phone, or at fundraising events, or through email solicitations, all of these hurdles had to be jumped. In each of these channels, when I was able to make it over the first, I frequently stumbled over the second and third. I remember speaking at a fundraising gathering in Solvang about the importance of the secretary of state’s office, only to be upbraided by one of the guests, “Yes, yes, but as a possible secretary, I want to know your opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict.” This challenge to defining the office and why people should be interested was illustrated by a Pew Research survey published last October, which showed that only 4 percent of Californians could accurately describe what the office does.

But the Republican hurdle was the highest one to cross. Years of defeat had generated a completely understandable malaise on the part of regular donors. Yes, many gave to Republicans outside of California, or to more local legislative or Congressional races, but the thought of a Republican winning statewide in the Golden State appeared as a bridge too far. One major Republican donor offered this during one of my calls: “I’ll write you a small check, but it might be bad luck, since the last four statewide Republicans I’ve given to all lost.” In the end, I made it five in a row.

Still, those who make running for office a career—no matter the party label—see the race course in a more favorable way. My (late) friend Bill Hauck, a longtime fixture in the state’s political, business, and educational circles, warned me about this in 2012. As I outlined my reasons for running, my vision for a transformed secretary of state’s office, and my cursory thoughts on how victory might be achievable, he listened with a bemused grin. “You see that building behind you, Pete?,” he asked, gesturing to the Capitol dome outside his office window. “You know, for most of the folks in there, this is the best job they’ll ever have, and they’ll do anything they can to hold on to it.”

The person who starts on the school board with a plan to become governor has a very different way of thinking about his or her life. A career politician like my opponent can build relationships with donors over many elections, with everyone secure in the knowledge that he’d be there in the future—and probably in an office with even greater influence. There’s also a practical advantage. As a career politician, my opponent could transfer funds from his previous campaigns into the statewide race.

Also favoring the insider—particularly in California—is the substantial presence of the “third house”—a vast network of associations, corporations, and unions with lobbying interests in Sacramento. Most Californians have never heard of the California Infill Builders Federation PAC, the Technet California Political Action Committee, or the California Refuse Recycling Council North PAC, but these groups (and dozens more) contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to my opponent.

Why are these organizations interested in the secretary of state’s race? Viewed in the best light, these contributions come through standing relationships. In many ways, this is the primary skill of a successful career politician—an ability to make particular kinds of political relationships, aligning personal positions on issues with the financial benefits of voting on them.

My opponent had built these relationships over eight years in Sacramento as a state senator and the preceding seven years as a Los Angeles city councilman—on issues ranging from plastic bag bans to telecom legislation. A quick check of donations to his secretary of state campaign reveals financial support from groups ranging from the California Grocers Association to AT&T. (With all the talk these days about “outside money” in politics, the only independent expenditure in my race was a $170,000 project in support of my opponent, initiated by the California Labor Federation—yet another third house organization.)

This fundraising avenue is almost completely shut off for outsiders. It’s not that I didn’t try. Several times I was told by third house leaders I met with that I presented an “interesting campaign,” but because the organization “had a piece of legislation before my opponent’s committee the next day,” they could not be seen supporting my run with a donation.

I hoped some groups might open their wallets when my opponent termed out of office after the close of the legislative term in August. But then my staff and I were informed, “Your opponent has a lot of friends who are not terming out. If we support you, we lose the support of those friends.”

Ah, relationships.

In the last couple months of the campaign, we ran an analysis from the publicly available data of our respective fundraising efforts, and found that while I had raised about 80 percent of our funds from individuals with the remainder from organizations and companies, my opponent had almost an inverse composition: 75 percent from third house groups and unions, and the balance from individuals. Using that data, we created one of the campaign’s more popular infographics. Ironically, we only had sufficient funds to post it to our campaign Facebook page, and send it out via Twitter and email.

I’ve worked on various political reform measures over the last decade, but here I saw how ineffective fundraising reforms have been when it comes to leveling the playing field for first-time candidates. In a recent study, the bipartisan reform organization California Forward—on whose Leadership Council I serve—found that “the most critical deficiency in the state’s existing system is not a lack of data or the legal requirements for disclosure, but a lack of ready access to this information.”

I think it would be helpful for Californians if, for example, when the press cites campaign fundraising totals, those figures were clarified with the inclusion of the percentage that comes from individuals relative to organizational and corporate contributors.

Political insiders also benefit from party relationships. While many of California’s recent reform movements have sought to weaken party influence, the 2014 primary for the secretary of state’s race demonstrated how important party affiliation remains as a signal to voters.

In this election, a well-regarded former Republican, Dan Schnur, ran as an Independent. Dan maintained a deep network of relationships—both political and donor—with what could be called the “institutional” Republican base. Which is why, when Dan entered the race about six months after my campaign launch, I quipped, “I’m not the best known Republican in the race, but I am the only Republican.”

Dan’s presence posed one of my biggest challenges. I had to figure out how to benefit from my party label and organization, even though I lacked established relationships with the Republican donor community. I saw local party-affiliated groups as channels for civic participation, and met with as many as I could. I gave dozens of speeches to Republican women’s groups, county central committees, Lincoln Clubs, and conservative groups.

I am convinced that the work of so many of these groups and committed volunteers—emails to friends, door knocking, and phone calls—played a significant role in how well we performed on Election Day in spite of the significant fundraising disparity. In the primary, with multiple candidates on the ballot, I won the second largest number of votes—with that “R” by my name—narrowly behind the leading Democrat, and so I advanced to the general election. Dan, who ran a strong campaign but didn’t have the “R” next to his name, finished a distant fourth behind three party-affiliated candidates, including Leland Yee, the indicted state senator who had already withdrawn from the race.

Despite this triumph, I struggled to turn my party affiliation into money. Many people—especially Republicans at the grassroots level—are surprised now to learn that the State Party gave no direct financial support to my campaign.

In one sense, this made sense. About two years prior to Election Day, senior party leaders decided to restrict their financial support to state legislative races in the 2014 election cycle. Given the fact that the California GOP had won only two statewide races in the preceding eight years, they figured I didn’t have much of a chance. So they wouldn’t be giving money to me—or any other statewide candidate. Of course, by publicizing this funding strategy—as the party chairman did in speeches to party faithful—he made it even more difficult for those of us running for statewide office to raise money. A couple prospective Republican donors asked me, “If you could just get leadership to say some encouraging things about your campaign, I think wallets would open up,” but I wasn’t able to get that support.

It felt strange. Here I was, a Republican since I was old enough to vote, putting forth a positive, reform-focused Republican message that fit the job for which I was running. And party leaders would barely talk to me. There also wasn’t much transparency in how decisions were made about supporting candidates. This opacity and lack of support were particularly frustrating to my family and friends—most of whom had contributed to my campaign. A few friends—especially Democrat friends—told me: “This is why people hate politics!”

On the positive side, the best part of running was the opportunity to travel the state and meet people. That may sound like political cliché, but it’s true in California.
My mind flashes back to an evening speech I gave at a rally in Del Norte County— in the far northwest corner of California—where a farming family opened their poultry barn to an overflow gathering of 200 people. Other memories include dropping the green flag at an off-road racing event in Lake Elsinore after addressing a crowd of several thousand, and being introduced to a large African-American church in Los Angeles, then having lunch with the senior pastor.

I think back to my experience speaking to smaller gatherings—at a couple’s beautiful home in Solvang, an incredible apartment in San Francisco, a Portuguese restaurant in Bakersfield, and a diner in Carlsbad. I rode a float with a gigantic mechanical GOP elephant through the streets of Valley Center during their Western Days celebration. And I rode in the back of a truck with a woman dressed up as the Statue of Liberty through the streets of Westchester for their July 4th parade.

Working as I do at a public policy school, I’m familiar with the term “selection bias.” I understand that most of these events attracted Californians who were already interested in politics and policy. But it was encouraging to meet so many people practicing the hard work of citizenship, whether walking precincts in San Diego or making phone calls in Torrance.

I was also encouraged by the favorable press coverage of my campaign. It has become a trope for Republican candidates to complain about “the mainstream media,” but I don’t have a single complaint about editorial boards or political reporters.

I earned endorsements from 14 of the top 15 newspapers in California, but the one I will remember most fondly was from the alternative city newspaper, San Diego CityBeat. In their endorsements issue, I was the only Republican to earn their nod. Writing that originally, “we didn’t want a Republican anywhere near the office of Secretary of State, because it oversees elections in California,” the editors concluded, “Peterson backs it [support for public engagement] with his résumé: He’s dedicated his career to increasing public participation in civic affairs.”

Of course, I had the advantage of offering a message that came from my previous work and had appeal beyond my party. I talked about my work on civic engagement, and how we need a 21st century reform movement that uses technology to better inform the public. I also argued that, because of our unprecedented fiscal obligations, the secretary of state should engage the public in difficult discussions about trade-offs and obligations. My message was about a renewed understanding of the vast responsibilities of citizenship. It was not a message of complaint about government or specific politicians, but one that embraces government as an essential institution currently on an unsustainable course.

My outsider status as a Republican running for statewide office in California gave me an opening in the race, but it also served as the foundation for my defeat. In the fall, after an hour-long inquisition by an editorial board at one of California’s largest newspapers, one reporter told me, “I think you did very well here this afternoon, it’s just too bad you’re going to have that ‘R’ next to your name on the ballot.” I agreed to a point, but responded that being a member of the minority party provided a political first-timer like me an opportunity to run for statewide office. I added: “If I were a Democrat, there’s no way a candidate from outside the ‘system’ would get anywhere near the secretary of state’s office.”

You take the good with the bad. On Election Night, I led in earlier returns, but lost the lead around 3 a.m., when votes came in from Democrat-rich Los Angeles and Alameda counties. Interestingly, the final seven point-margin, or about 500,000 votes, could be found in those two counties alone.

In his preface to To Be a Politician, Stimson Bullitt describes the decision to run for political office as “a calling,” one in which a candidate “can aspire to a better scheme of things, a scheme that can be brought to pass with a politician’s help.”

I learned many things on the campaign trail, but my most significant gain was a deep respect for those who make the choice to enter the arena in the first place—never knowing if they will win, but knowing they should.

Originally published at Zocalo Public Square.

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