Lessons learned: Kelli Dunaway’s candid take on running for office

First-time political candidate Kelli Dunaway thought she had a shot at unseating Ann Wagner, the conservative Republican Congresswoman from Missouri’s 2nd District. She never really got the chance.

Dunaway dropped out of the four-way Democratic race in the St. Louis area last month, but she learned some valuable lessons from her attempt. In a recent interview with Occasional Planet, she candidly shared her insights into what she did wrong, how the political system worked against her, and what other female candidates can do to overcome the obstacles.

“The bottom line was that I just couldn’t raise as much money as the other candidates,” she said, noting that in our political system, money raised is the measure of viability for a candidate. “I kept hearing—from potential donors—‘You are not raising enough money,’ and ‘You are not visible enough’—from grassroots supporters. It was a Catch 22.”

But more important than her fundraising totals are the reasons behind her inability to wring cash from donors.

“It’s a structural problem,” said Dunaway, a a single mom with two young children. “The system is set up so that only two kinds of people can successfully run for office: People who are wealthy, or people who are retired. There’s no place for a single mom. I was trying as hard as I could. But I felt anxious and stressed, because I was disappointing everyone. I wasn’t a good Mom, I wasn’t a good employee, and I wasn’t a good candidate.”

“There just wasn’t enough of a support system for a candidate like me,” she added. “I thought women would get excited about a strong capable woman taking the risk of running. I thought they’d help me more—be surrogates when I couldn’t be at events, give a little more of their time to help when my family responsibilities made being a candidate extra difficult. That didn’t happen enough.”

“Now that I’ve done this,” she said, “I see that no one benefits from the system as it is. Even if you win, you’re going to spend 20 hours a week on the phone raising money. It’s grueling, and it’s not good for anyone.”

Dunaway acknowledges that her opponents worked the system more effectively than she did. “They lined up donors early. They got endorsements from the Missouri Democratic elite. They made better connections earlier in the process. Maybe if I’d have been doing what they were doing a year before announcing my candidacy, I’d still be in it,” she said.

Dunaway admits to being frustrated by her opponents’ ability to get those “power elite” endorsements. “It was unfortunate that women in power didn’t really give me a chance, because I got into the race later, and they had already decided to back my opponent. But I was surprised that they were supporting a 29-year-old male. I got into the race in the first place to help make Congress more reflective of the overall population. Congress is only 20 percent women. I wanted to be part of the change. I thought having a woman in the race this time would give us a shot to put a Democrat in that seat.”

Issues—or, rather, the lack of them—played a role in Dunaway’s truncated campaign, too. An unashamed progressive, Dunaway wanted to talk about guns, reproductive rights and other hot-button topics, so she posted her views on her campaign website. That tactic, she learned, defied conventional wisdom. Other candidates, she learned, just ask for money—they don’t take public stands on issues on their websites.

“I am not just about money. The issues are important to me,” she said. “I don’t listen to establishment advice. We’re at a critical time in our history—we need to talk about these issues. But I learned that you get more money when you do not talk about these things. We are democratically electing a kleptocracy—donors see issues as a distraction. Other candidates keep their views on issues beneath the radar, because that’s what the donors want them to do. It’s sad, but that is the system.”

The solution, said Dunaway, is for more people to care about what is happening. “As of now, we leave it all to the donor class,” she said. They make the money decisions and that determines who runs. The people who care about issues—like me—are on the outs: we’re the weirdos.”

Dunaway says she has learned her lessons the hard way, and she seems resigned to the notion that, to be successful, future women candidates will probably have to play the system according to the current rules of engagement. Will she run again? She’s not sure what’s next for her, other than a general idea about helping to empower women.

“I want to help position women to take 50 percent of the seats in Congress—50 percent of everything: board rooms, executive suites, all the areas of power,” she says. “The last thing America needs right now are more privileged, Harvard-educated men.”