Reporting from Paris, Tenn. — The candidate is prepping for the biggest night of his campaign. In 24 hours, he'll line up next to his competitors to address the voters. It's his chance to make his case, to expose rivals' hypocrisy, to prove he belongs in this race.
But tonight, huddled with advisors in a borrowed conference room on the outskirts of Memphis, Donn Janes, independent candidate for Congress, cannot quite figure out what to do with his hands.
Your gestures aren't working, his campaign manager tells him. You're fidgeting with your notes, says his speech coach.
At the moment, Janes' hands are holding a slice of pepperoni pizza and a can of Bud Light. With his rumpled button-down shirt and gold tie clip, he looks every bit the middle-aged suburban dad and computer geek that he is, and not a whole lot like the next congressman from west Tennessee.
Janes is hoping that's a good thing this election year. Like many others, he thinks a surge of anti-Washington sentiment could create an opening for an outsider. A year ago, the "tea party" movement helped shake him awake, he says. He'd been living his life — a happy marriage, a stint in the Navy, three kids — while others were making decisions he didn't like. He decided this was the time to change that.
So began one ordinary guy's personal experiment in American politics. In the year since he filed as a candidate for Tennessee's 8th Congressional District seat, Janes has cut back his consulting work and spent as much of his own money on his campaign as his wife, Candace, will allow: about $600 a month. He still believes he can win. He just needs to catch fire.
This week's lopsided victory by Rand Paul in a Republican Senate primary in Kentucky offered renewed hope for neophyte candidates. But Paul, running with tea party backing, had a famous name and a fundraising network. Janes is still struggling to be noticed, and to get the hang of campaigning.
"How long have we been addicted to foreign oil?" he asks, extending his beer hand out to his side, as instructed.
Having mastered the gesture, he loses his train of thought. "OK, let's do that one more time."
There isn't a single moment that brings a man with a mortgage and a daughter in college to cut his $6,000 monthly income in half and run for office.
There are the long political conversations with a like-minded father in-law. There are hours spent reading news online and getting frustrated by government spending and the rising national debt. There is New Year's Eve 2008, when he wrote "I hope to run" on a blog, and the morning when his boys, ages 13 and 14, piled onto their parents' bed to say: Go for it. There's the visit to Amazon.com to buy the book "How to Win a Local Election."
"It's the military in me," says Janes, a 45-year-old computer consultant. "I wanted structure and a plan. I wanted to know what I was doing."
The book led Janes to analyze the election returns from the district, in the northwestern corner of Tennessee. Congressman John Tanner, an 11-term Democrat, had won handily. But Republican presidential candidates performed well in this rural district, where about the only thing breaking up the chain of Baptist churches along the highways is the occasional Methodist church.
In the spring of 2009, Janes made the rounds at Republican meetings. He described himself as a fiscal conservative who would freeze government spending and work to balance the budget.
Soon he got a call from a country lawyer and political insider asking to meet him. Janes and Jeff Ward, a veteran of dozens of local campaigns, ate fried catfish and talked politics for two hours. Ward, who says the state Republican establishment is full of "sissies" and "trust fund babies," saw a "smart, serious, stand-up" guy in Janes.
He told Janes that if he became the Republican candidate, he would need to wage guerrilla warfare. This would be a county-by-county fight. Janes would be considered a newcomer — his family moved to Tennessee less than 10 years ago. That could be a problem, Ward said. Many people vote for a candidate "just 'cause their daddy did."
"You have to understand the game. And he seemed to understand," Ward said. "He saw big picture and he saw nuance. A lot of people don't. A lot of people come up with silly ideas about why they're running. Not Donn. A groundswell of people weren't telling him to run. God didn't tell him to run. He just thought it was the right thing to do. I think I gave him a check that day."
Janes left the lunch thinking of his how-to book. "Chapter Six: Talking to an Old Hand."
Last summer, Janes heard rumors that another candidate would jump into the August 2010 Republican primary. A farmer, he heard, was raising lots of money, maybe as much as $100,000. That was serious money in these parts, Ward told him.