Reflections on a blue wave: How progressive activists drove a historic victory

Several progressive Democrats won this week. But even when they didn't, activists drove the blue wave to victory

Published November 11, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Sharice Davids; Colin Allred; Lauren Underwood (AP Photo)
Sharice Davids; Colin Allred; Lauren Underwood (AP Photo)

What makes this midterm wave election different? With all the caveats and confusion still hanging in the air after this week's victories (and defeats), what stands out? The role of grassroots activists, working through new and old organizations, certainly played an outsized role. Matt Ewing of Swing Left says he has seen that happen before — if not quite on the same scale seen this time around. What stands out for him is the generational leadership impact, which could fundamentally change the course of history.

“In 2006, I was with and we took back the House, and that was an amazing time,” Ewing told Salon this week. “We were trying to end the war in Iraq. We were trying to get our country off of this militaristic footing, and taking back the House is enormously important in sending that signal.

"As I look at what is different this time, I do feel like what you're seeing is we didn't just take back the House, we elected a next generation of leaders. And many of them are women, they’re people of color, they’re progressive. They’re people who were successful because they're able to clearly articulate who they were and what they wanted to do. And that to me is very exciting.”

Then Ewing turned to specifics. “You look at someone like Lauren Underwood in suburban Illinois, she's got a great political future in front of her,” he said. Underwood is a 32-year-old African-American nurse and health policy adviser, elected to Congress this week from the majority-white Chicagoland district where she grew up. “Our members came together to put a check on Trump, that's why they were there," Ewing said. "We need to fire Paul Ryan. But in the process we elected people like Lauren who will be a force to be reckoned with for decades to come.”

Ewing led MoveOn's election strategies in the 2006 and 2008 wave years, the same role he played for Swing Left. The point he was making was to integrate two contrasting frameworks that confront us — the national crisis of democracy represented by President Trump, to which the resistance  responded with a resounding midterm victory at the polls, and the Democratic Party's internal crisis that allowed Trump to win in the first place, which the party has yet to fully address. That led progressives to issue their own post-2016 autopsy report, “The Democratic Party in Crisis,” which I wrote about last year, and a follow-up report I covered last month. Unless the party can deal with its own internal problems, it seems ill-prepared to capitalize on its midterm success and deal with the national problems that Trump exploited to gain power — problems he’ll continue to worsen in the days ahead.

Ideal answers may not be available, Ewing said, but the election may prove a crucial turning point in our history, around which some answers will start to emerge.

“We will look back at this election as the election that brought us these future Democratic champions, people who are able to articulate fresh points of views, who come out of diverse communities, who represent diverse communities,” he said. “To have all these great leaders coming to Washington is going to be really exciting. We’ll see it play out over the decades. As freshmen, when they arrive, I don't think it will happen overnight. But there's too much talent, too many great leaders, not to leave a mark.”

Yet it would be a mistake to downplay the serious problems the Democratic Party continues to ignore, other activists told me. “This would have been a far more emphatic blue wave if not for a party leadership that encourages and enforces timid and tepid messaging,” autopsy co-author Jeff Cohen told Salon. “Polls show the full progressive agenda – free public college, increased taxes on the wealthy, infrastructure and green jobs programs, etc. -- is overwhelmingly popular with voters as a whole, not just hardcore Democrats. The Reuters-Ipsos Pew poll showed 51 percent of Republicans supporting Medicare for All. 

“But too many Democratic candidates were still mouthing platitudes – as Democrats have for decades – about ‘making healthcare more accessible and affordable,’ and then complaining when their Republican opponents lied by claiming they, too, want those with pre-existing conditions to get access to insurance,” Cohen continued.

“Needless to say, ‘Medicare for All’ means just that. Everyone gets health care, whether with pre-existing conditions or not. Health care is a right. When Democrats promote these broad, moral appeals, it creates enthusiasm. Look at the connection Bernie [Sanders] made with swing voters, including in states like West Virginia, when he talked on a moral level about so much economic hardship amidst so much wealth.”

Cohen’s point is hard to dispute. It was the unapologetic boldness of Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke that made them such inspiring  figures. All three may have fallen short of initial success -- although the Florida and Georgia outcomes remain unclear -- but they have redefined the battlefield in significant ways, helped strengthen party infrastructure and provided role models for others to learn from. As Norman Solomon, another Autopsy contributor, said:

Turnout is crucial, and progressive candidates often propelled it. Even when dynamic statewide campaigns didn’t win -- as in races for governor in Georgia and Florida or for U.S. Senate in Texas -- grassroots momentum brought in voters who arguably tipped the balance in numerous down-ballot races. Some Democrats who’ll become members of the House in early January can thank Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke for generating the enthusiasm and turnout that made it possible.

Swing Left’s record

What Swing Left has done deserves recognition on its own. Solomon cited the “tireless work by a very large number of independent progressive groups, online and on the ground,” as the “most overlooked significant development of the midterms.” Swing Left volunteers knocked on more than 2 million doors the last weekend before the election, concentrated in the most crucially contested districts. Altogether, Swing Left volunteers made about 5 million door knocks and 2.5 million phone calls to voters in 84 swing districts over the course of the campaign cycle. (Those are actually low estimates, because not all contacts were tracked, and Swing Left's efforts sometimes merged into campaigns.) Democrats won 47 of those races, with eight still undecided.  

Swing Left also raised more than $10 million for Democratic candidates from over 73,000 grassroots donors, with a median donation of $25. In a cycle that will see billions in campaign spending that might sound puny, but it’s designed to pack a punch. Swing Left developed the idea of “district funds,” escrow accounts established for whichever candidate wins the Democratic primary. Because more competitive primaries can leave campaign coffers seriously depleted, this money comes just when it’s needed most to keep campaigns going without breaking stride.

Here are a few specific races Swing Left highlighted, where a Democrat flipped a previously Republican seat:

  • Virginia 10: 140,000 door knocks, 35,000 calls, and $130,000 raised for Jennifer Wexton
  • New York 11: 185,000 door knocks, 13,000 calls, $121,000 raised for Max Rose
  • Kansas 3: 21,000 door knocks, 24,000 calls, $278,000 raised for Sharice Davids
  • New Jersey 7: 277,000 door knocks, 12,000 calls, $158,000 raised for Tom Malinowski

“Organizers have a thing they call a field margin,” Swing Left co-founder and executive director Ethan Todras Whitehill, told Salon, the morning after the election. “There were a lot of races last night that were well within that field margin, the sorts of races where the voter contact effort that our volunteers put together can really be decisive in terms of swinging that race.”

Those figures are conservative estimates of Swing Left’s true impact, because of its ability to supply support early, at crucial junctures. Getting people motivated and in the field early can in turn change perceptions of a given race and improve fundraising.

“I think there’s a lot of things that we did that we won't really know the full impact of,” Whitehill said. “There's a lot of races where we gave them hundreds of thousands of dollars immediately after the primary, when nobody legally was allowed to do that, because we were holding the stuff in escrow for them,” He said. “Anecdotally they can tell you how helpful that was, but how do we quantify that impact overall? It's really hard.”

For example, “a lot of the California [House] races were super contested primaries, and those are also some of the races where we raised the most money,” Whitehill said. “We had candidates like Katie Hill spending down to their last $30,000, and we give them a big boost for, like, $200,000.” On top of that, Swing Left had volunteers who had been canvassing in those districts every weekend since February 2017. “So they were able to start a field program much earlier than you normally would, because we built in advance there.” 

Steve Pierson started as a Swing Left volunteer in that district — California's 25th, in suburban L.A., where Hill beat incumbent Rep. Steve Knight by more than 3 percent — and became Swing Left’s Southern California field director during the primaries. “Katie [Hill] was in ways symbolic of this new breed of candidates that stepped up for the first time,” he said. Before running for Congress, Hill was executive director of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), which became California’s largest nonprofit provider of homes for the homeless under her leadership. “Swing Left did over 250,000 knocks and dials in that district, and it raised over $350,000 there,” Pierson said.

A series of seismic shocks

The blue wave didn't just sweep away faceless Republican backbenchers like Steve Knight. It took down major GOP establishment figures and well entrenched figures on the right-wing fringe, even as it raised up new stars.

One of the biggest moments on election night came in Virginia's 7th district, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger beat Rep. Dave Brat, the Tea Party rebel who had defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary. That early win made clear -- at least to those paying attention -- that the media's initial "no blue wave" narrative was false.

Swing Left registered around 70,000 door knocks in Virginia 7, in the northern and western suburbs of Richmond, but again had a larger impact. Because of their efforts, Whitehill says, Democrats realized that Virginia 10 was probably safe, and many activists who had originally mobilized in that Northern Virginia district to defeat Rep. Barbara Comstock instead went south to knock on doors for Spanberger. “If you were in D.C. and you looked for a canvassing event, we were going to push you to Abby Spanberger even though it was a farther drive," he said. "That's where your time could have the greatest impact, even though it took a bit more of it.”

Swing Left started with the intention of helping to funnel activist energy from blue bastions into swingable House races that were relatively nearby. But it wasn't meant to be a one-off bright idea, more an innovative experiment. It started with a relatively conservative list of districts, including some narrowly-held Democratic districts that might need protection. But as volunteer numbers swelled, new districts were added, including Texas 32 in suburban Dallas, where Colin Allred defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions, now the outgoing chair of the House Rules Committee.

Chris Ferguson saw a tweet about Swing Left the day before Trump's inauguration in January 2017. He and his partner signed up to host a house party on March 4, when the nearest target district was Texas 7, outside Houston (where incumbent Republican John Culberson would also be defeated). From the beginning, he said, “We decided as a group that we're going to focus our energy on Texas 32." There were three reasons: Those who lived in the district knew that its demographics were changing; second, Clinton had won the district by almost two points; and third, Democrats had failed even to run a candidate against Sessions in 2016, “so we were really frustrated by that lost opportunity.”

This time was strikingly different. “We were really fortunate to have a bunch of strong [Democratic] candidates step up and run,” Ferguson said. Indivisible and other grassroots groups joined in as well to host candidate forums and a unity fundraiser at which all the candidates committed to supporting the eventual nominee. “I think that helped make a big difference," he said. In this once-solid GOP district, it wasn't all that close: Allred defeated Sessions by more than six points.

A similar story unfolded in Chicago. “At the time we got started, in February 2017, Swing Left didn’t even think the [Illinois] 6th was a swing district," said Connie Meyer, one of three co-leaders of Northside Chicago Swing Left. "They thought it was out of reach.” That district was held by Rep. Peter Roskam, who had never won less than 59 percent in his previous five re-election campaigns. So activists were asked to canvass the narrowly-blue 10th district instead.

“As soon as the House health care vote was held," Meyer recalled, "some of us recognized that all the House members that had voted to repeal Obamacare had just put themselves in a vulnerable position.” That included Roskam, who “famously hadn't held a town hall in something like a decade,” Meyer said. “He’s not available to his constituents. He doesn't want to hear what they have to say.” Roskam was also a chief architect of the 2017 Republican tax bill, which “was really energizing to a lot of folks,” she said.

Unseating him drew a lot more activist energy than defending a blue seat had. Along with two other Chicago Swing Left groups, activists covered more than 100 canvassing shifts, some of them “in howling wind and rain,” Meyer said. What made it possible was The Coalition for a Better Illinois 6, which came together from dozens of groups that had sprung up in the district around the time of Trump's inauguration.

Meyer spoke about an “ecosystem of different resistance groups in Chicago, and how they played a role and played next to each other. For example, Swing Left versus Indivisible -- I always saw them as incredibly complementary,” she said. “You had Indivisible, whose mandate is different in every single place where it pops up, and incredibly wide-ranging in what it focuses on, and takes care of the reactive stuff like when the tax bill passes or when there needs to be a protest. Whereas we in Swing Left are doing the more proactive, long-term, long-ranging stuff: voter registration, canvassing a year ahead of the election, the sort of stuff that is less immediate. But I thought those worked really well together.”

As the election neared, Swing Left groups "sort of organically" stayed focused on Illinois 6, “because we had been doing that for a long time,” Meyer said, while “Indivisible Chicago really ended up taking an interest in Illinois 14, and played a huge role in flipping that for [Lauren] Underwood. It's been really interesting, and I think inspiring, to see how these different groups have formed this ecosystem and are working together.”

New York was the center of a similar situation, with attention initially focused on swing districts in New Jersey, when retired Staten Island attorney Barbara Kent first got involved. But then her own district, New York's 11th, was added to the list. For years, that has been the only Republican district in New York City; Kent says she can remember only one Democratic representative in her lifetime. “I told them it would be the hardest race to win, but it could be done,” she said. On the evening of Nov. 6, that was the first "Republican-favored" list to go blue on the New York Times' list, as Democrat Max Rose defeated Rep. Dan Donovan. 

Alan Sunkel was Swing Left’s regional coordinator for Kansas' 3rd district, where newcomer Sharice Davids wound up defeating incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder by nine points. He and his wife saw an article about Swing Left in the New Yorker in January 2017, and got involved immediately organizing the local group. That district is on the Kansas-Missouri border, “so we had people from across the line come and help us,” he explains. Swing Left held two candidate forums during the six-candidate primary campaign, where there were six candidates, plus a fundraiser to benefit the Swing Left district fund.

Davids has gained national attention because of her colorful background: She is the first LGBT Native American elected to Congress, and is both a graduate of Cornell Law School and a former mixed martial-arts fighter. Her appeal in Kansas 3, Sunkel said, was primarily as someone connected with the place she had come from. “She didn't take any hard positions, she just talked about how she wanting to represent the district," which is relatively diverse and comprises both the poorest and most affluent counties in the state. 

Swing Left’s 2018 highlights

I asked Ewing to highlight Swing Left’s three most noteworthy accomplishments.

“First was understanding that there's a group of people who understood that winning back the House is important, and they were ready to get to work surprisingly early,” he said. “We had volunteers who have been knocking on doors ever since March of last year in their swing districts -- not March of this year, but March of last year.” This produced amazing foundations for campaigns to build on.

Second, he pointed to Swing Left’s ability to help activists be more effective geographically, along the lines of what Whitehill said about the Brat-Spanberger race in Virginia 7. “I think the role a group like Swing Left can play, of helping you understand where you're going to have the highest impact, is something our members really appreciated.” Ewing said.

And the final element, Ewing said, was “translating the ancient art of canvassing and voter contact and fundraising to a whole new crop of volunteers who don't know what any of those words mean, but just want to have an impact. So we launched Swing Left Academy, which is sort of a digital first training club,” he said. (You can read more about it here.)

Swing Left was created with a specific and time-sensitive goal in mind: Flipping control of the House in 2018 midterms. But in the process of doing that, its activists did much more. “The progressive infrastructure just grew much stronger,” Ewing said. “We now have groups of leaders, people who are now seasoned canvass team captains, who had never done this before. But they're not done. They’re ready to keep going.”

Reflections from authors of the Democratic "autopsy"

Strengthening the grassroots like that can help in addressing the Democratic Party's internal problems. I summarized these last month:

There's a lot wrong with the Democratic Party, most of which is pretty easy to understand: There's too much corporate influence, which can be seen in a multitude of ways. There's too little party democracy, too little thoughtful engagement with young people, racial minorities and social movements, too little done to encourage voter participation and too little thought given to the many different costs of war, and to finding alternatives.

So what do the "Autopsy" authors have to say about the midterm results? Pia Gallegos drew attention to New Mexico where “there was a Blue Tsunami,” as she wrote:

All five of New Mexico U.S. Senators and Representatives are now Democrats, including our new Representative in the southern, more conservative, part of the state where progressives intensively canvassed on the ground for several months. Two of our federal representatives are women, three are people of color.

Democrats also won every statewide election in New Mexico, plus wide margins in both houses of the state legislature. “The party could not have succeeded in this way without progressives working within the structure of the party and outside of it, strategizing, working on the inside of campaigns, knocking on doors, and making phone calls,” Gallegos said.

Another co-author, Donna Smith, sounded a warning: “Any vision of the need to embrace suburban voters by being the party of blue Republican-lite values and policies would be an enormous mistake.” She was “pleased overall that so many highly qualified women and nonwhite progressive Democratic candidates prevailed in the midterms,” she said. “It shows the strength of the movement for change inside the party and the power of progressive ideas to move voters to the polls.

The party’s own leadership must embrace the progressive movement as its mainstream and not its fringe,” Smith added. “Protecting and lifting working-class and poor voters must be the clear agenda of all who call themselves Democrats.” 

Norman Solomon added an important note of nuance, saying that progressive energy was crucial to the Democratic victories this year, even in cases where progressives' preferred candidates didn't win. "Our autopsy reports emphasized that the Democratic Party can’t win a majority of elected offices unless it provides compelling reasons for core constituencies -- vitally including people of color and the young -- to vote for candidates, not just against the Trump regime," he said.

"That kind of process doesn’t mean strong progressives will usually win -- for the foreseeable future, nationwide, most of them won’t -- but there should be no doubt that this year’s upsurge of bottom-up enthusiasm from progressive constituencies had very significant impacts on the election, not only for Congress but also for state legislatures and governors. The longer-term impacts of promoting genuinely progressive policy proposals (such as the ones listed in the ‘Voter Participation’ section of the latest Autopsy) include reframing and moving the overall political discourse in a progressive direction.”

What's most important for activists on the road ahead? “The political journey ahead for the next two years can be understood as guided by two imperatives -- fighting against the right wing, including in elections, and fighting for genuine progressive policies in government and throughout society," Solomon said. "It’s definitely not enough to do one without the other.”

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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