Party's over


Champagne glasses overflow and confetti rains over cheering staff in the campaign offices of Election Day winners as they start pondering what their Capitol Hill office will look like and where they’re going to live in Washington, D.C.

But for the losers, it’s not such a pretty picture.

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The e-mails and phone calls stop. The campaign headquarters are deserted. And the realities set in: The electricity and cable in the office need to be turned off, someone needs to scrapbook the campaign buttons and memorabilia — and then, perhaps most importantly, everyone needs to find another job.

Shutting down a campaign, while not the most glamorous part of a race, is just as essential as starting one up, and it should be handled with the same amount of care, said Chip Saltsman, who has worked on campaigns for nearly 20 years, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

“It’s as much of an administrative task to shut down a campaign as it is to get one started,” Saltsman said. “I’m a little old-school. I’ve got my clipboard and I just check things off one by one.”

At the top of that list are tasks like turning the utilities off and clearing out the rented office space, Saltsman said. Alabama State Rep. Jay Love (R) said he put most of the desks, phones and file cabinets he used during his 2008 congressional campaign against Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) into storage at his house after he lost the race.

Similarly, former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) moved all of the leftover yard signs, bumper stickers and campaign literature that once cluttered her campaign office into the barn of her family’s farm — though after serving three terms and then losing her seat in a reelection bid in 2008, she was so mad she wanted to throw it all away, she said.

“You don’t want to throw things away when you’re in that emotional state,” Musgrave said in a telephone interview. “There are things you should save at least for your children or grandchildren.”

Saltsman said he puts one person in charge of creating a scrapbook for the candidate. For Love, that person was his wife.

“My wife is a scrapbooker, and so she kept an item from each campaign, whether it was for or against me,” Love said. “Some people just want to throw it all away, and I certainly understand that, but we elected to keep a lot of what we had.”

Handling a campaign’s finances is a whole managerial beast unto itself, Saltsman said.

“It took us almost a month to get everything to bed,” he recalled of the Huckabee campaign. “And a lot of that is bills. Someone even sent us an unapproved invoice from three months earlier.”

Musgrave knows exactly what Saltsman is talking about. It’s an especially tricky task to keep money in the bank while the campaign is under way, she said, because every dollar can get a candidate closer to a win.

“You have to reserve some money, because invariably there will be some bills hanging out that you didn’t know about, and I wanted to make sure that anyone who had provided us with a service was paid,” she said. “But you’re trying to spend every penny you have to win, so it’s a unique balance.”

Musgrave also worried about the future of her campaign staff so much that she made sure there was enough money in her war chest to pay them all the way through December, while they looked for jobs.

“Some people don’t have a dime left over in their campaigns,” she said. “But we disciplined ourselves in my campaign so we could pay campaign staffers through the end of the year.”

The process of notifying the IRS of the closing campaign can be tedious, Musgrave said, explaining that it took three letters to get the agency to acknowledge her campaign’s closure.

For many campaign staffers, it’s hard to think about clearing out an office’s physical space or settling its books when they can’t even imagine how life will go on off the campaign trail.

“You’re doing 100 miles per hour on Monday and 120 miles per hour on Election Day, and the emotion and the adrenaline are pumping,” said Saltsman, who helped manage Republican Tennessee congressional candidate Chuck Fleischmann’s race this election cycle.

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“Your campaign headquarters is chock-full of people, and the phones are ringing off the hook, and you can’t even focus, and everybody’s going nuts,” he said. “And the next day, you walk in at 10 a.m. and it’s completely empty.”

Love said someone on his staff compared losing a campaign to a death in the family. And Musgrave said it’s impossible not to take the loss personally.

“It’s devastating when you lose,” said Musgrave, who said she always gets physically sick immediately after an election because she’s so worn down. “It was a very emotional time for me. As someone who lost, I felt like a failure. I felt like I had failed.”

At some point, usually after a couple of days, campaign staffers start to rebound from the loss and get their own affairs in order. After dedicating countless hours to the campaign, they often come home to an apartment full of overdue bills and spoiled food, said Joe Brettell, Musgrave’s former campaign manager.

“There’s definitely a whiplash that occurs from everything slowing down,” Brettell said. “You have to get used to living like a normal human being again. I came home after working on Jeff Stone’s campaign [for Riverside County supervisor in 2004], and I found a full fridge of rotten food because I hadn’t been home to use it.”

Part of getting back to normal for Saltsman after Huckabee’s failed presidential bid was picking up cars and clothes from four different states. He would travel back and forth so often during the campaign that it made more sense to leave them in various locations.

Once your personal life starts to look recognizable again, the job search begins, said Chad Manspeaker, who managed Rep. Nancy Boyda’s (D-Kan.) failed bid in 2008. It can be tough, said Manspeaker, who now works as a lobbyist in Kansas.

“You now have 30 friends who all don’t have jobs,” he said. “Everybody scrambles to help each other, but you’re also scrambling for the same jobs. It’s complicated.”

But before worrying too much about their next step, Brettell advised campaign staff who worked with a losing candidate to take a vacation.

“The best thing to do is to go take a little time off,” said Brettell, who eventually landed a job working as Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s (R-Texas) communications director.

“Go live a normal life for a month and learn how to function again, and then really look at what it is you want to do,” he said. “Get outside the Beltway; go somewhere where more people vote for the winner of ‘American Idol’ than vote for president.”