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

So you've been bitten by the politics bug. 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.

So what now? How do you run for Congress? It's not all that complicated, actually.

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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 really need to ask yourself is this: 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 you should be asking 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 whether there's already a well-funded incumbent, who's got the support of the party, seeking re-election to the seat you want; whether you can get people not only to support your candidacy but also write some checks to your campaign; and whether you can 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 she starts raising lots of money; starts doing what appears to be campaigning; purchases advertising to "publicize his or her intention to campaign;" or refers to herself 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've got to fill out the necessary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.

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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 spokesman or handler is worth her 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 blog post away from the public eye, thanks to the work of opposition researchers.​