From cigars to chicken wings, an election is an experience like no other

People who work on campaigns experience November much differently than the rest of the world.

As election day approaches, we tend to be low on sleep and high on passion, and by this point, fairly convinced that the fate of the free world depends on our efforts.

From Labor Day through the month of October, campaign staff work around the clock, and are pushed to the limit.

Election official Germaine Gooldrup greets voters in Waterville in November 2014. Jeff Pouland | BDN

You tell yourself in October “Just a few more weeks,” as you try to come to grips with your erratic sleep schedule and your horrible diet. By the beginning of November, as your personal relationships strain and your brain fogs with fatigue, it becomes a more desperate, “Just a few more days.”

Your mind has turned to jelly, your eyes are red, and your nerve endings are burnt to a bitter crisp. This state of mind can alter your decision-making skills, allowing your inner 12-year-old a seat at the table, to create moments of beautiful madness in the rush toward election day.

One October, I found myself talking to security guards on top of an airport parking garage, nervously explaining why I was lingering there in the middle of the day with camera gear. Some slick talking bought me enough time to film a political opponent getting out of a private jet she wasn’t supposed to be on.

Another year our campaign team ended up on the street in Fort Kent, and we could see the local Democratic Party field office through a big bay window on their building. The workers were doing a whole lot of nothing, so “John from Portland” gave them a call and ripped into them for not working hard enough. I and my GOP co-conspirators nearly laughed ourselves to death on the snowy side of the road as we watched the equally-fatigued Democrats scamper around the office in reaction to the call from “HQ.”

After being stuck in a Bangor hotel in a snowstorm on the way to The County during one campaign’s final weekend, I won an impromptu chicken wing eating contest in front of dozens of cheering diners at the Lakeview House in St. Agatha when we finally made it to Aroostook. Other years brought other excesses, none of them helpful to the fatigue or the unhealthiness of campaign life, but 100 percent worth it for the morale boost and the memories.

I like to smoke cigars on victorious election nights, and I have some great photos of friends and colleagues standing in the cold November air with stogies burning bright. In 2014, one such gathering occurred at the side entrance to the Eastland Hotel in Portland. As our band of brothers (and sisters) reveled in a double-digit win, a black Suburban loaded up and pulled away from the hotel. The SUV slowly passed, and we realized it was Rep. Mike Michaud in the passenger seat, moments after losing his campaign for governor. Even in what must have been a very dark hour, Michaud’s face brightened and he gave us a happy wave — a gesture emblematic of the class Michaud always showed even in the toughest times.

Election night can be rough. In 2011, I sat at my desk alone with a warm six pack of beer in a paper bag, refreshing the newspaper website for results as the campaign I worked on cratered in humiliating defeat. In 2016, I sat on the curb of a Portland side street and smoked cigarettes at 1 a.m. with the field team in the depressing aftermath of our loss, which came in the shadow of an emerging national political disaster.

Win or lose, we’re fortunate to work in a profession that allows such total, passionate immersion in a task, and to be thrown into combat with people that end up your best friends for life. And if you hang around Maine politics for long enough, you get to know some amazing people you never thought you’d be in the same room with. Some of my best friends are people I’ve gone head to head with in campaigns, and the realization that your political enemies can be personal friends is one that will make you better at your craft, and far better as a human being.

As we roll up on another election day in Maine, there are dozens of campaign workers out there, counting the minutes and watching the numbers. In a few days, like the end of a circus, campaign workers will take down the proverbial tents and pack up their gear, and look ahead to the next opportunity to make a living fighting the good fight.

It’s a tough profession, but for campaign junkies, there’s no better place to be in November.

Good luck to everyone out there working on campaigns this election day. Only half of you will win, but you’ll all be better off for the fight.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.