Reinventing the Atheist Candidates Project

I spent a significant amount of my December in 2016 thinking about how I wanted to move forward with this concept. As a professional in politics, I’ve worked on campaigns and social change projects for nearly nine years. Earlier in my career, I came to understand that political organizing must start with a few key components to be successful: A sense of community, shared values, and basic infrastructure for mobilization. As far as I was aware, atheists had these, but only within the boundaries of our own communities. We had a few sympathetic officials, but not enough influence to be a serious force for change. I was wrong.

I live in Arizona, a state that’s well known for its crimson color on any electoral map. I’ve had the privilege of working with candidates of all different stripes, but in the deep-red state of Arizona, the bulk of my work, much to my surprise, has been with atheists. The progress here started with the Secular Coalition for Arizona, one of the few fully sustainable and full-time lobbying organizations fighting in defense of our constitutional separation of Church and State. With Serah Blain (current Strategy Director at Spectrum Experience LLC) at the helm, our SCA went from being a beleaguered and battered fledgling freedom fighter to the example of what pro-secular lobbying can do for our movement. The electoral victories began with the election of Juan Mendez to the Arizona State House of Representatives. He gave a voice to the voiceless and demonstrated a path forward in sympathetic districts.

Since then, we’ve seen a groundswell of atheist Arizonans stepping up and running for office. In 2014, atheists ran for two school board seats, two legislative seats, and two congressional seats, with James Woods, an atheist man who was blinded by lack of health insurance signing his paperwork to run for congress while in a hospital bed. While James didn’t win, his campaign team at Spectrum Experience launched him into the national spotlight, addressing issues of health care, gun control, and developing a Humanist response to ISIS. They proved that atheists are Americans and that our issues are issues that average Americans can get behind.

In 2016, the year I began developing the Atheist Candidates Project, I had the privilege of working with eight of the eleven atheists who ran for public office in Arizona. Of those eleven candidates, five were elected to public office. They didn’t run on ‘atheism’ as an issue. They covered drug enforcement reform, private prisons, animal euthanasia rates, obscenity laws, sustainability, education funding, rural poverty, and the ever riveting topic of the effects of fluid mineral extraction processes on rural ground water. They are open atheists, but atheism is NOT what they ‘believe’. For these atheists, atheism was about truth. The truth is, there is no god. Acceptance of that fact inspires them to follow science where it leads, because scientific evidence is the best resource for coming to understand our world better; to lead with compassion, because we have only one life to live and no one is settling the score when we’re gone; and to support sustainability, because we have one shared planet and only human hands can preserve it. This is how we win as atheists. We are not bound to pursue god over good, and frankly, I can think of little that is more ‘American’ than that.

In January of 2017, I lunched the Atheist Candidates Project with the intention of building small networks of candidates, volunteers, and professionals. The scope was limited, but the dream for the organization was enormous. Being the first project of its kind, there were bound to be some bumps on the road:

  1. I planned to manage the project part-time with a largely volunteer staff. We outgrew our capacity in one month.
  2. I planned to provide only networking support. Our candidates needed far more.
  3. I planned to raise money only for a small operation, covering our website, some supplies, travel, and occasional contractors. I personally ran out of money to keep pace with the unanticipated growth.

By March of 2017, we had 37 prospective candidates, all of whom needed support. We were buried in emails, requests to join, and volunteers looking to help a candidate near them. The project, as it was, was paused while I went to work for candidates in my state for the 2018 cycle. In that time, I brainstormed with a good friend of mine, Evan Clark. We kicked around ideas for incentivising professional participation and finding candidates the resources they need to succeed. Ultimately, we realized that the Atheist Candidate Project must expand its scope. This project wasn’t preparing America for atheists candidate. Americans were ready and the project had to rise to meet them.

To accomplish this task, I set aside a few assumptions concerning a project of a much smaller scope.

  • There is insufficient support to develop highly localized campaigns from the ground up:
    The project must focus on building local organizational infrastructure to sustain a large slate of candidates nationwide. With the success we saw in 2017, from Shawnee Rios in Tennessee to Danielle Pellett in Texas, volunteers were not the issue. Training and organization was what was missing, and with the volume of atheist groups around the country, we have a foundation upon which to build.
  • Our candidates, being largely new to politics, could not be expected to run financially sustainable campaigns. Professionals would be asked to donate their support:
    The project can only be successful if our candidates are supporting our professionals. We reimagined what it meant to be an ‘Atheist Candidate’, starting with the relationship between candidates and professionals. The relationship must be mutually beneficial. Through much negotiation, the project will be offering all candidates access to subscription plans that guarantee them time with strategy professionals, campaign managers, designers, lawyers, and others for $30 per hour. Not all campaigns are created equal. Where a congressional campaign may be able to raise $500,000, a school board candidate cannot. That school board candidate still needs support, and while they cannot afford full-time campaign staff, two hours with a political professional for $60 is one hell of a valuable bargain. Participating candidates who choose the free option will still receive volunteer lists, and if we meet our fundraising goals, comprehensive guidance and training on running for office.
  • Candidates can depend on their local political parties and training organizations:
    Yes and no. While the Arizona Democratic Party and its Secular Caucus are welcoming to atheist candidates, the GOP is not. In many states, both major political parties are downright hostile. Many states lack free or affordable training organizations, and those that provide training are selective about who they accept, are expensive, and have few openings. We must train our own candidates.

Our movement is ready to elect atheists, and the Atheist Candidates Project must rise to the task.

Andre Salais, Director of the Atheist Candidates Project, 2018 American Atheists Convention

I was invited to speak at the 2018 American Atheists Convention in Oklahoma City. In my presentation, I told the story of Arizona’s successes in running atheists for public office; I covered the original concept of the Atheist Candidates Project, why we need the project, what was learned in the past year, and what we must change to meet the demand for Atheist Candidates. We have a ton of work ahead of us on a very ambitious timeline




Why we need the Atheist Candidates Project.

We need elected officials who:

  • govern based on facts, not nonsense,
  • understand the value of science in policy making,
  • believe reason is more important than convictions
  • are willing to put GOOD before god.

We need this characteristics in our elected officials because our society cannot persist without them. While atheists certainly do not enjoy a monopoly on these traits, the rejection of superstition is a step in the right direction.

If the law is to apply to all of us, we must share in the responsibility of Creating it.

– Andre Salais, Director of the Atheist Candidates Project

Beyond reason, however, we simply cannot claim to be a representative democracy with such an enormous disparity in real representation. As 20% of the American electorate, we are entitled to representation.

Revising our Vision for the Atheist Candidates Project

  • The First Atheist Candidates Project
    • Emphasized networking, indirect volunteer and professional recruitment
    • Did not provide any organization or training support.
    • Asked that professional donate time where they could.
    • Assumed that demand for atheist candidates would need to be developed over several elections cycles, as was the case in Arizona.
  • Next Steps in our Transition
    • Development of the volunteer network
    • Onboarding of new professionals
    • Recruitment of new candidates for the 2020 cycle
    • A shit ton of fundraising
  • Version 2.0 – November 2018
    • When we reach our initial fundraising goal $90,000, the project will be hiring a full-time development director to speed up our fundraising process.
    • The project will be launching candidate support packages, giving candidates access to subscriptions providing them support from professionals at a rate of $30 per hour. Not every candidate can afford full-time staff, but every candidate needs support. This makes joining the project valuable for candidates and professionals.
    • A web-based portal for candidates to access the volunteer network, guides on free resources for candidates, and step-by-step instructions for running for public office.
  • Version 2.1 – May 2019
    • Finish development of Web-based training and education materials that are specifically designed to prepare atheists for running successful political campaigns.
    • Finish development of training materials and web-based trainings for groups seeking to support atheist candidates.
    • Finish development of comprehensive and unified Atheist Candidates communication strategy, including development of a comprehensive issues framing and earned media guides.
    • Launch of #AtheistsforAmerica hastag and video campaign.
  • Version 2.2 – August 2019
    • Hiring of Regional Training Staff
    • Deployment of the Atheist Candidate Training, Investment, and Organizing Network (ACTION), to begin the scheduling and training of local groups to recruit candidates, manage campaigns, and support grassroots elections activities.
  • Version 2.3 – December 2019
    • Hiring of a National Organizing Director
    • Identification of nationwide target districts and development of national and local targeted organizational strategies. This will include, but is not limited to, identification of viable methods for microtargeted marketing, early identification of key early voting, high-efficacy, and persuadable target populations, and early assessment of organization requirements for candidates.
  •  Version 3.0 – The New Atheist Candidate Project – February 2020
    • Hiring of Regional Organizing Directors
    • Opening of regional field offices
    • Recruitment of regional organizing fellows, volunteer staff, and interns
  • March 2020
    • In-person candidate training begins, with direct recruitment and organizational support. Trainings will include information on the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, basic political communication training, how to obtain endorsements, network development, and voter outreach.
    • Deployment of regional organizational and communications strategies.
  • May 2020
    • Launch of #AtheistCandidate hashtag and video campaign
  • November 2020
    • Win all the thing!

Moving forward…

In the process of making a dream into reality, we are in the implementation phase. We have a road map, but we need your support to get there. By November of 2019, we hope to raise $90,000 to cover our initial growth expenses and pay a full-time development director. Through the end of 2020, building a sustainable Atheist Candidates project will require raising a minimum of $774,000, with our ideal budget sitting at $1,021,000. This is not a small undertaking, but I am confident that our movement is ready to make it happen.

If you want to help, consider donating, host me or one of our candidates on your podcast, ask for an interview, and help us spread the word.