How to be an Effective Incumbent or how to Beat an Incumbent  

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, warns legislators to learn from the lessons of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted for misuse of public funds and aids for personal gain.

Monday being the filing deadline for this year’s ballot, I thought it timely to offer tactics and techniques on how to be a more effective incumbent or beat an incumbent.

Generally speaking, the incumbent has the advantage, regardless of the race or year. A smart and resourceful incumbent, in any climate, will find ways to capitalize on their precious incumbency. By virtue of the elected position, access to information, staff and ability to raise money, an incumbent is in a position, on a daily basis, to sell their brand or policies.  A news starved media will pay attention to any incumbent. It is truly shocking how many incumbents don’t jump out of bed everyday looking for the message of the day. In Trenton, incumbents have dedicated and driven partisan staff that can research, draft and prepare for a news event every day for the willing legislator. Not a lot of legislators really maximize this golden opportunity.  With regard to the media, I have long clung to the adage – and so it was best said in that wonderful baseball movie, Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come.  

Things to get attention on any given day:

– Talk on a weekly radio or TV show  

– Mail your district with legislative initiatives/policies 

– Email your database regularly  

– Hold press conferences on bills or issues that matter in your district  

– Testify at a committee on any given bill 

– Visit senior citizen centers, shelters, parks or areas of interest   

– Send out targeted releases calling for good government measures 

– Use social media outlets like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and others to connect minute by minute 

– Utilize ceremonial resolutions to acknowledge births, retirements, awards or just life

For an incumbent money is the name of the game. As a rule, I always had at least $100,000 and most times over $200,000 on hand. It is so much harder for a wistful opponent to gather steam if your war chest is overflowing with cash. Contributors and educated fence sitters will think twice before sending money against a well-funded incumbent.   


Longevity in our business is not your friend. It might sound illogical or counter intuitive but, in political worlds, the longer you are in one place the more you become a vulnerable target – the more votes you cast, the more bonding issued, the more unemployment, the more taxes, the more crime, so on and so on…  

Let’s get started, HOW TO WIN:

Research is your first, second and third most important asset to taking an incumbent down.  It needs to be understood that politicians are never ever very popular. This holds truer today than yesterday. At some point in time, every problem in society can be traced to one vote or one politician. Key point- find that vote and exploit it!  

An incumbent has left a virtual treasure trove of information out there, throw out a large net and starting culling for it.

– Find every speech given and match that to their voting history. 

– Go to voter vault and check out the individual voting record–was there a gap or miss in any primary, board of education, or general election? 

– Check out research or position papers that were written in college or graduate school – the points made 25 years ago might now seem dated or controversial. 

– Check out all publicly available records – driving, background and property taxes. 

– Review all applications for local zoning applications or uses. 

– Review all financial disclosure forms that the incumbents are required to file – look for anything interesting like business interests or holdings. 

– Find every release that the incumbent has done and proof it – you will find a little stretching or overpromising. 

– Go to Facebook/Twitter and do a hard dumpster dive into every posting or tweet.  

(NOTE- most of the above can be done by professional researchers) 

– If the incumbent held other offices, go visit with former colleagues – should the incumbent have been a political climber they were sure to rub someone the wrong way. 

– Take the time to review the work and releases by former opponents of the incumbent – you never know what might be relevant now. 

– Speak with all the individuals who ran against the incumbent, you might learn a lot. 

– Review each and every ELEC/FEC filing and look for suspicious or controversial donations – big oil, a big developer or something that won’t sit well with voters. 

– Pull out every budget the incumbent ever voted on and spend time looking for:  

1) Increase in taxes 

2) Funding for a questionable project 

3) Decrease in public safety  

4) Raises for an unpopular employee  

5) Cuts in transportation  

6) Reductions or increases in consequential departments  

7) Reductions in health care.   

The budget is not a cure all. In today’s society, there is always a need for more money, however, we can’t spend ourselves into a perfect society and there will always be some lingering societal problems or issue.   

If crime is up – blame the incumbent. 

If taxes and spending increases – blame the incumbent.  

If education scores have not increased – blame the incumbent. 

If the district lost out on any funding applications – blame the incumbent. 

If area hospitals have lost funding – blame the incumbent. 

If senior centers didn’t qualify for more money – blame the incumbent.  

Get the point?

If the incumbent will take credit for all the good in the district, that door swings both ways, they will have to accept the negatives in their district as well.  

After you gather and synthetize all the records, votes, documents and research papers, it is time to narrow the hits – you could have 100 negative votes or hits, but you must narrow those to a select few earth shattering head shots, and repeat them over and over….repetition, repetition, repetition. While the trickling out of one vote or one nick at a time is effective to put the incumbent on the defensive, save the real hits for the debates or some other optimal time. Rule of thumb: if the opponent has to defend against something the challenger created – you won the day.

Now that you have the most important asset (information) engaged for an uphill battle against the incumbent, adopt the psychology of a winner and get the campaign into 5th gear.  

– If in a primary, run a full line against your incumbent and go head to head. 

– If in a general, map out the battle plan and execute –GOTV, mail, TV buys, door to door should be top 4 to tackle. 

– Look over election patterns over the last 10 years and capitalize on changing demographics and emerging issues or constituents. 

– Attend every known event and be seen everywhere.  

– Get creative and draw attention to your fledging campaign – people love the underdog, be humorous and self-deprecating. 

– Raise money (I will write a future column on how to do this consuming and important task).  

Message, organization and money will win the day.

I understand that the above is a very simplified outline, but it does provide the bones on how to be a more effective incumbent or how to beat an incumbent.  

Kevin O’Toole is the former 40th District Senator and the current Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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