A 435 Strategy is political shorthand for a plan to field a candidate in each of the 435 congressional seats, no matter how hard it may be to win some of them. Done properly, this strategy forces the other party to spend money on seats that were previously deemed strong holds, leaving them less to defend swing districts or to seek new pick ups. These races also help bring new people to the party and makes it easier to win county and state races within the district.
Done properly, a 435 strategy is of immense benefit to any political party. Not done properly, this exercise is sometimes more harmful than good.
Hard to win seats will inevitable field two kinds of candidates: A) Sincere people who want to make a difference in their district and B) Political novices who are in it for the glory or for the thrill. And then there are hybrids of the above.
Primaries in seats that lean your party’s way are often, but not always, hard fought and contentious. The main ideal is to come together after the primary. This is routine, if not ideal, in politics. While it certainly should be avoided if possible, it’s generally the kind of stuff that people in the game don’t sweat.
Primaries in 435 races are usually a distraction. It’s easier to defeat, or at least make inroads, against an entrenched incumbent by putting up one credible face and set of ideas, then by running a whole slew of separate campaigns against the incumbent.
Simply put, you can run one man or one woman against even Steny Hoyer. That candidate can work the district hard, unfettered and with the full support of all activists within his or her party. Such a candidate would make continuous inroads and be a huge recruitment asset. Newt Gingrich averaged that it would take three runs to win such a seat, the first to make a dent, the second to build name recognition and the third to win. Following such a path is probably essential in most cases.
Or you can try it another way. You can run 15 candidates against Steny Hoyer. Sure, only one would survive the primary, but the others would prevent any serious groundwork from being accomplished until mere months before the election. Each camp will be preoccupied in shoring up voters within its own party with no ability to do critical outreach in preparation for the general election.
Such crowded, yet hard to win, races also inevitably attract a number of sideshow candidates who distract from the overall message. Furthermore, the very nature of such a race is ripe for divisive splits that make an already impossible seat even harder to win. In such cases, damage can actually be done to the party overall.
Sometimes 435 race primaries are beneficial. They may weed out early candidates who were harmful or ineffective. They may introduce better candidates who can rally larger numbers of volunteers to the cause, but such cases are rare and potential candidates need to think hard before causing a primary (or enlarging one) in such a race. If you want to change the direction of your party or accomplish something for your district, enter a primary for a race that’s naturally winnable instead.
Another thing to watch for is lopsided volunteer recruitment. If a new candidate is able to recruit significant volunteers from within the 435 district, that’s great and speaks to the strength of that candidate. They may even attract support from other districts. But when the latter happens, proportion becomes important. You don’t want volunteers who live in a swing district to leave that district short in order to help a 435 race. If this happens in large enough numbers, it might be time for the candidates to flip seats, but you don’t want to lose a seat just in order to make inroads in another.
Certain areas have many 435 seats. In such cases, the various nominees should work together on message, technical aspects of the campaign, events and volunteer recruitment. This allows for the strengths of each campaign to feed all of the others. It also makes for a more winnable strategy without affecting the swing districts.
All in all, effective 435 campaigns with the right candidates are huge assets to either party, and eventually result in some surprising wins. But these races must be handled with extreme care and it takes the right kind of candidates to lead the road.