Let's say you're on the city council of your hometown, population around 25,000. You decide to run for mayor because there are serious issues you'd like to tackle.
The water and sewer systems need an upgrade, which may result in a half-cent tax hike. Other infrastructure needs include sidewalks and sprucing up the weedy city park. You'd like to hire two or three more police officers.
You'd like to recruit a few small retail chain stores and maybe a manufacturing company to come to town to ease unemployment. You'd like to annex that new housing development on the edge of town in order to expand the tax base.
You get along well with other council members of both parties, and the current mayor is stepping down to focus on his dry cleaning business. You're a businessperson yourself, and respected around town. Your four years on the council have enabled you to understand how government works, and you know how to negotiate compromises that benefit the community.
Seems like a good time to throw your hat into the ring.
A few days after you announce for mayor and take out a modest ad in the local newspaper, you get a challenger. That's fine, because that's how democracy works.
Except your challenger is the builder of the new housing development on the edge of town, a man with a shady past and no experience in government. Residents of his development have complained about shoddy construction and the desire for city annexation so they can get rid of their tainted wells and leaky septic tanks.
The developer has derided this as a big government solution to private problems, although he has not addressed the problems.
The developer takes out full-page color ads in the local paper, making the publisher of the small daily very happy. The developer throws weekly rallies at his palatial home, serving free barbecue, hot dogs, and hamburgers.
He is endorsed by the former mayor of a nearby town, an attractive woman who quit halfway through her term to run a regional beauty pageant. The former mayor's daughter, a former pageant winner, has two illegitimate children by two different fathers. The former mayor's son was recently arrested for domestic abuse. She blames "liberals" like you for her son's depression, leading to his arrest.
She says the Almighty is leading the developer's campaign as she leads the crowd in a chorus of "God Bless America."
In his speeches, the developer offers no specifics about what he will do as mayor. He says things like, "I'm really rich," and "I could shoot people and I wouldn't lose a vote."
Meanwhile, you lay out a sensible plan in consultation with other council members based on economic projections and town needs. You talk of buying a new fire truck to replace the one that breaks down.
Your opponent holds a rally at the firehouse and hands out fire hats to children. He says he will cut taxes. He derides you as "not one of us," even though you have lived here for 30 years, and he has not.
Three weeks before Election Day, the local paper endorses the developer and releases a poll showing him ahead of you.
You meet with concerned residents and members of the Chamber of Commerce. "What are we going to do?" they ask.
"How can we stop this man from becoming our next mayor? He's buying the election. New business will shun us, our schools will decline, and our community will suffer. It will take years to dig out from this mess if he's elected," they say.
"I know," you tell them, wearily. "I know."