Commentary: The serendipity of running for political office

For a lot of years I’ve been watching a group of talented, successful, young (compared to me) Republicans who I’ve thought would make excellent high-level elected officials. I’ve expected at least a few of them would be elected to a top office.

But the reality is that most of them, while being plenty ambitious, may never win political office.

So, I’ve often wondered: Why does political fortune smile upon some prospective candidates, and not others? Some people seem almost to fall effortlessly into running successfully for governor, or Congress, or the U.S. Senate. But others, who might be even more qualified, never quite get a good chance to run for office, or do not win if they do run.

It’s an interesting question. It’s not just a matter of talent, or preparation, or funding. It’s hard to see any rhyme or reason why some are successful and others are not. It’s as much serendipity as hard work and qualifications. Being in the right place at the right time.

Take, for example, these folks: Kirk Jowers, Natalie Gochnour, Derek Miller, Randy Shumway, Jason Perry, Theresa Foxley, Justin Harding, Mike Mower, Greg Hughes, Thomas Wright, Abby Osborne and Spencer P. Eccles. And a number of state legislators and former legislators.

These are people I’ve been watching for years. They are frequently mentioned as prospective candidates for various offices. Of them, only Hughes and Wright have run for a top office (governor) and, while they were highly qualified, neither came close.

And then there is Blake Moore, who came out of nowhere, a relative unknown, to run and win a congressional seat in 2020. And Spencer Cox, a little known rural state legislator who was a surprise pick for lieutenant governor. He leveraged that lucky appointment and is now Utah’s governor.

I’ve been asked a number of times by capable people to assess their chances of running and winning a political office. I discuss with them these questions:

  • Do you really have enough “fire in the belly” to run and not look back and press forward with enthusiasm no matter the odds?
  • Does your family situation allow you to run and serve?
  • Does your job and financial situation allow you to campaign full-time for months, and can you raise substantial amounts of campaign money?
  • Is the seat open? If not, do you have a realistic chance to defeat the incumbent? Who else is likely to run and can you defeat them?
  • Are you willing to work harder than at any time in your life?
  • Can you handle the nastiness of politics? Can you handle defeat?
  • Do you have a vision for what you want to accomplish in office and do you have a well-articulated philosophy of government?

Even if all of these questions are answered positively, a lot of luck is required. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time – and being prepared. Everything has to fall into place. There are always more good candidates than slots available, especially with GOP dominance in Utah. Incumbents stay in office for many years. Open seats are few and far between.  

Still, sometimes it makes sense to throw caution to the wind and run even with little chance of success. Every once in a while lightning strikes and the impossible happens.

So will any of the prospects mentioned above ever win elective office? Two have run and several others have come close to jumping into a race. All of them have excellent current jobs and great situations. The reality is that, despite being great prospects, probably none of them will become governor, U.S. senator or member of Congress.

But, who knows, perhaps someone will beat the odds.