How to Run for Congress

5 Things You Need to Know Before Getting Into Politics

Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi attend the LA Pride ResistMarch on June 11, 2017 in West Hollywood, California
U.S Representatives Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi attend the LA Pride ResistMarch on June 11, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. FilmMagic / Getty Images

You've volunteered for a campaign, become a member of your local party committee, written checks or held fundraisers for your favorite candidates—​all the steps it takes to be taken seriously in the world of politics. And now you think you're ready for the big leagues: running for Congress yourself.

The only federal requirements for the job are:

  • You must be at least 25 years old.
  • You must be a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years.
  • You must live in the state you represent.
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Test the Waters

U.S. Congress inside the House of Representatives
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The first question you to ask yourself is: Do I really want to do this? Running for a high-profile office such as Congress takes some serious intestinal fortitude, and you need to make sure you're up for it. If you're sure, the next question is: Will other people want me to do this? 

The second question is really a way ​of getting to some very important information, such as:

  • Is there already a well-funded incumbent who's got the support of the party, seeking re-election to the seat you want?
  • Can you get people not only to support your candidacy but also write some checks to your campaign?
  • Can you put together an organization that can turn out the votes on Election Day?
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Raise Money

Barack Obama Campaign Ad
President Barack Obama speaks the line "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message ..." in a campaign ad. YouTube

Let's be honest: It takes money to win an election. It takes money to buy television advertising. It takes money to travel across the congressional district to knock on doors and gladhand.

It takes money to print yard signs and flyers. If you can't raise money for a congressional campaign, you'd better hang it up.

You may want to study up on how to start your own super PAC.

In 2012, successful candidates for the House of Representatives spent an average of $1.7 million to win their seats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. That means you'd have to raise more than $2,300 a day during the campaign to compete.

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Do the Paperwork

Twenty-dollar bill
Twenty-dollar bill. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

So when does a potential candidate become a real candidate? The Federal Election Commission says a potential candidate crosses over that testing-the-waters threshold when they:

  • start raising lots of money
  • start doing what appears to be campaigning
  • purchase advertising to "publicize his or her intention to campaign"
  • or refer to themselves as a candidate

So what constitutes raising "a lot" of money? If your campaign account has more than $5,000 in contributions or expenses, you're a candidate. That means you have to fill out the necessary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.

You'll also need to get on the ballot. That will require running in the primary election of one of the established political parties, or working with your state to get your name put on the general election ballot as an independent. Every state has different rules on this. Otherwise, you'll have to run as a write-in candidate.

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Get a Good Press Person

Robert Gibbs
Robert Gibbs was the first press secretary for President Barack Obama. Andrew Burton/Getty Images News

A good spokesperson or handler is worth their weight in gold.

They understand the world of politics, how the media work, particularly how campaigns work in an era of social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which have dramatically changed the way political campaigns are run and how Americans interact with their elected officials.

Every candidate and federal elected official has a press person or handler.

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Prepare Your Family

Bruce Mann, wife United States Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren with grandchildren Octavia and Lavinia Tyagi
Bruce Mann, wife United States Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren with grandchildren Octavia and Lavinia Tyagi. Bruce Glikas / Getty Images

Running for office not for the faint of heart, regardless of whether that office is in the House of Representatives or your local school board.

You should be prepared for personal attacks and understand that you are living in a fishbowl from this point forward, with all your personal information just a tap, click, or social media post away from the public eye, thanks to the work of opposition researchers.​

Sometimes your family members will be pulled into the fray, so they should be prepared and be on board with your candidacy before it starts.

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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "How to Run for Congress." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Murse, Tom. (2023, April 5). How to Run for Congress. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "How to Run for Congress." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).