How I ran for a U.S. Senate seat, and what I learned

Investigative reporter John Dougherty writes about his surprising Arizona campaign

  • John Dougherty before his candidate boot camp (above) and after (left).

    John Dougherty
  • John Dougherty, standing by his biodiesel-fueled campaign bus on election night, just before changing to a suit for his concession speech.

    Emily Jones/
  • Dougherty tapped an old friend, Tom Robertson, who was political cartoonist for a Flagstaff weekly Dougherty owned in the 1990s, to come up with hard-hitting cartoons for his ads and T-shirts.


Like many other journalists, I've often secretly longed for a chance to serve in the place of the hapless politicians I skewer. Last April, after more than 30 years of longing (and skewering), I plunged into a four-month crash course in running for office.

The political climate in my state, Arizona, was tumultuous. The Legislature had passed an immigration bill that sought to intimidate undocumented workers into packing up and leaving. The state's budget crisis was among the worst in the nation. Even Arizona's top politician, four-term Sen. John McCain -- the Republican 2008 presidential standard-bearer -- was struggling, challenged in his party's primary by a hard-charging Tea Party candidate. McCain, who is 74, was also vulnerable from the left. I looked at my state's politics and thought: No point in aiming low.

A quick-strike insurgency campaign by a hard-boiled investigative journalist might succeed. After all, 21 years ago I scarred McCain's reputation by exposing the Keating Five scandal: how McCain and four other senators pressured regulators to go easy on a major campaign donor, Charles Keating, who ran a savings-and-loan into bankruptcy and bamboozled thousands of investors. If I made it through the Democratic primary and McCain survived his primary, I could rub his nose in the old scandal, and perhaps his infamous temper would erupt.

Crazy? Certainly. And so I signed up for a three-day Wellstone Action! campaign boot camp in Las Vegas. Wellstone Action! is a nonprofit dedicated to progressive social change, essentially carrying on the work of the late Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, a political science professor, engineered a great grassroots victory in 1990, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz even though Boschwitz outspent him 7 to 1. Wellstone was killed in a plane crash just weeks before the 2002 election, and his children founded Wellstone Action! the following year.

Once in Las Vegas, I shaved off my grizzly beard and lopped off my shoulder-length white hair. After all, this was boot camp! And that's what it felt like. I got excellent training in grassroots campaigning and an opportunity to discover whether I had the fire-in-the-belly fortitude required of a candidate. I wrote and delivered stump speeches that were sharply critiqued by Wellstone staffers, and held mock press conferences as they played the role of skeptical reporters on the trail of yet another scandal.

Then I talked it over with my wife, Liz, my two grown sons and my ex-wife, Barbara. We were fired up for a real battle, but we could not foresee all the obstacles. On April 29, I filled out and mailed the Federal Election Commission forms. Then I called a former colleague at the Phoenix New Times, who broke the story online with a "believe it or not" take on my candidacy.

Arizona's Democratic Party had not groomed any big-name candidates to challenge McCain; the party has suffered a power vacuum since 2009, when then-Gov. Janet Napolitano joined the Obama administration instead of hanging around to run against McCain. I was encouraged by the fact that the only other Democrat in the race was Rodney Glassman, a 32-year-old former Tucson city councilman and former congressional staffer who was virtually unknown outside Tucson. Glassman had ridden the coattails of his family's prosperous Fresno, Calif., agribusiness operation. He was even a registered Republican as recently as 1997, then shifted his allegiance to the Democrats.

High Country News Classifieds