In 2017, Virginia was the bellwether of the blue wave: Will it happen again?

Grassroots activism nearly flipped Virginia in 2017. Now Swing Left is back to finish the job — and look ahead

Published September 23, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Virginia Legislative District Map (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
Virginia Legislative District Map (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

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In November 2017, powered by a surge of grassroots activism one year after Donald Trump’s election, Democrats wiped out a Republican supermajority in the Virginia House of Delegates, and came within one disputed ballot and a random drawing of sharing power in a 50-50 chamber — an early harbinger of the 2018 blue wave. Now they’re back to finish the job, aiming to recapture control of both legislative chambers for the first time in 26 years and set the tone for the 2020 election. 

Swing Left, a key player in flipping the House of Representatives last year, has targeted 15 races in the House of Delegates and five in the State Senate. Their main focus is people power, but they’ve also raised more than $550,000 in grassroots donations as of Sept. 11. Just two seats are needed to flip each chamber, and a court-ordered redistricting has made flipping the House much more doable. 

While Swing Left was formed to win back control of the House, some of its Virginia activists were involved in winning 2017 races, and Flippable, a similar organization focused on under-resourced state legislative races, helped win five of the eight races it targeted. The two groups merged earlier this year, and their 2020 “Super State” strategy (which I wrote about here) focuses on both House and state legislative races, as well as U.S. Senate seats in a handful of crucial states. Virginia will tell us a great deal about what’s coming next year.

“We spent a lot of time in 2017 just trying to convince people that state races exist and are important,” said Catherine Vaughan, co-founder of Flippable and chief strategy officer with Swing Left. That’s finally starting to sink in, as the Virginia legislative elections will help set the national tone, not least by assuring Virginia a fair redistricting process for the coming decade, but also by enabling ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, restoring voting for hundreds of thousands of ex-felons, and passing long-overdue gun safety legislation that’s been blocked in the face of past horrific mass shootings.

“What I’m finding is that volunteers are really aware of Virginia’s elections, they know that this is our first opportunity to beat GOP gerrymandering in this cycle,” said Matt Caffrey, Swing Left’s Eastern field director. “The single biggest thing that we’re encouraging folks to do is our letter-writing program. We’re going to be aiming for 150,000 letters into Virginia to likely Democratic voters who don't always vote… to say this election is too important to sit out.”

That drop-off he mentions disproportionately affects Democrats, but this kind of letter-writing “is a tested and well documented tactic that we think will have a really big impact,” he said. 

The focus on boosting turnout among base Democratic voters is solidly in line with the analysis of Rachel Bitecofer, the only expert to predict the massive 2017 Virginia blue wave. [See Salon story here.] “The expectation is that the Democrats are favored here to pick up both chambers,” Bitecofer said, before adding a caveat. “We just don't know for sure until we see the turnout,” which has “historically favored Republicans” in Virginia’s off-off-year elections.

“Democrats have the numbers, they have the atmosphere and they have the advantage, with Trump in office,” Bitecofer said. “They have a ton of advantages, but the one thing that they don't have is top-notch campaign strategy” — meaning one that will drive base turnout in an election with no statewide or federal candidates on the ballot. 

Democrats fell just short of winning the recent special election in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, Bitecofer noted, but that actually bodes well for their chances in Virginia. “Democrats were almost able to overcome an eight-point partisan disadvantage there, she said, and have several plausible pathways to victory in Virginia. Republicans, she added, “are  bleeding in multiple directions.”

Virginia now — no going back

There’s less gerrymandering now in Virginia, with court-redrawn U.S. House districts last year, along with redrawn boundaries for 25 Virginian House of Delegates districts this year. Swing Left has focused three regions within the state, the last two of which saw a concentration of redrawn districts: 1) The D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia, home to 6.2 million people; 2) Richmond’s suburbs in the middle of the state (with 1.3 million in the metro area), and 3) Virginia’s southeastern port region, known as Hampton Roads (1.7 million people). That helps make things “very exciting,” Caffrey said. “Knowing that were playing in a much more even playing field is extra motivation to get out and organize and make sure we win this time.”

Redistricting for the 2020s is just around the corner, and a key figure in the gerrymandering fights, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, is being challenged by a Swing Left-supported candidate in a newly competitive district south of Richmond. “Sheila Bynum-Coleman has done a really great job of drawing attention to how those districts are drawn, how maps have been unfair in the past and how she is mobilizing her community to fight back against that,” said Swing Left political analyst Ryan Quinn, 

“2017 was a unique year for a lot of reasons — there was still a lot of shock” over Trump’s election, said Tori Taylor, Swing Left’s head of political organizing. “These are such important years for building infrastructure for political campaigns and organizations…. It's a great way to make sure were staying engaged all the time, versus every time a presidential election rolls around…. When you see that kind of year-round organizing, and interest-building on the progressive side, you typically see more success.”

“This whole groundswell of activism and energy really started after election night in 2016,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party. “That was the worst night in my life except for somebody in my family passing away,” she said. “The intensity level has continued to hold through 2018 and I have not seen a drop off. I think it's even increased here in 2019 because we are so close to changing the state of Virginia for generations to come. If we take back the House and Senate, it's a total game changer for our kids or grandkids in the future.”

“When Flippable started in late 2016, our mission was to focus people on state races because of the role they played in redistricting, in voting rights, and in policies like Medicaid expansion,” Vaughan told Salon. “A huge part of our goal at the time was trying to take the surge of energy from Trump’s election and direct it toward state races,” she said. “We spent the first half ot 2017 trying to educate people on the importance of states, and we saw a lot of people get excited about, really any opportunity to elect a Democrat, to any sort of office.” 

No one quite anticipated what would happen in Virginia in 2017. “Virginia was still a bit under the radar,” Vaughan noted. “Everyone was estimating between four and eight seats would flip [to the Democrats]. We supported eight candidates that year, and obviously 15 seats flipped! So it was a very different landscape than what we expected. 

“We really learned from that just to be more ambitious, to go after some of those harder-to-flip seats. Our win rate went down significantly in 2018, as we took on a lot of more challenging and riskier races. We’re really glad we did that. It really expanded our sense of what was possible.” 

It also builds capacity for the future. In some ways, what Flippable was doing was continuing the work that the Democratic Party abandoned when Barack Obama shut down former DNC chair Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” after 2008. 

Combining Swing Left’s greater resource base with Flippable’s more detailed knowledge and experience has significantly strengthened progressives’ chances to retake control of critical state legislatures, with Virginia as a poster child for what’s ahead. 

“Swing Left was really eager to move into state races, but wanted to have a strong partner that could do some pretty complicated targeting work,” Vaughan said. “There’s over 7,000 state legislative districts throughout the US. We spent the past three years focusing on how to think about competitiveness, how to think about the importance of these different races that all occur on different timelines, with different-sized districts in different states, based on the balance of power in each of these states.” That’s a lot of different factors to balance, in addition to the competitiveness considerations Swing Left was already familiar with from its work on House races.

There are multiple issues at play this election cycle. Quinn cited gun violence and climate change as important factors  in several of the campaigns, “especially in the Virginia Beach area with coastal erosion and climate change being a major issue in that area.

“We're seeing a lot of these national issues becoming hyper-local for the candidates,” who must “rise to the occasion and be able to speak to them with conviction. Virginia is actually the most endangered portion of the continental United States as it relates to sea level rise, behind Louisiana’s bayou area.”

Three candidates illustrate the battle ahead

For a closer look, Salon spoke with three candidates Swing Left is working with, one from each targeted region. First was John Bell, who served 26 years in the Air Force and has held a seat in the House of Delegates since 2015. A geographically lonely Democrat on the outskirts of the D.C. metro area when he first took office, he is now “surrounded by Democrats,” he said. "So that's radically changed." He's running to represent Senate District 13. 

As a military officer who has served in combat zones, Bell says, "I'm familiar with weapons. and I think it's absolutely insane that you can buy an assault weapon without a background check, I think that it's crazy that for driver’s license we do an in person eye-check, a knowledge test, a background check and a road check, and we’ll sell anybody an assault weapon if they just have some money. We have dangerous weapons available in Virginia, to include grenade launchers, flamethrowers and assault weapons. And no training is required." 

Another aspect of the problem in his district is makeshift firing ranges in formerly rural districts where assault weapons are used. There were seven cases last year where bullets were pulled out of the backs of homes, he told me. "One of them came into a little girl’s bedroom, not even a ticket or an arrest was made. On Labor Day a lady was shot in her backyard. A bullet grazed her arm. Luckily she wasn't seriously injured, but in fact there were multiple children in the backyard at the time." 

Bell had nothing but praise for Swing Left. "First, I’m honored that they’re involved," he said. "They bring a tremendous amount of support and grassroots abilities and different talents to the race. They are great at targeting and contacting voters, they're very helpful in providing skills for  digital marketing and grassroots type of social media involvement, and they do some wonderful things like phone banking to people in the district, and writing postcards. I think voters respond to the passion and authenticity of what they bring to the table." 

Phil Hernandez was raised by a single mom who ran a daycare business out of her living room and was the first in his family to go to college — at William and Mary — after which he served about four years in the Office of Energy and Climate Change in Obama’s White House. After going to law school  and doing "a lot of civil rights work," Hernandez deciding to run to represent House District 100, which includes urban Norfolk as well as Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore. 

His district is “rich in many ways,” Hernandez said. “We have proximity to the world's largest naval base, we have a NASA facility in this district, we have proximity to the third-largest port on the East Coast. At the same time, we have one in three kids growing up in poverty. The median household income is tens of thousands of dollars below the Virginia average. So it's diverse in every sense of the phrase."

Hernandez says Swing Left has been "incredibly helpful" in focusing the historic activist energy. "All that support really helps us to build robust field operations in our communities in a way that's never been done before." He says he has personally knocked on thousands of doors.

"The thing I'm most proud of is just the way were pulling in new people into the political process," Hernandez said. "I'll tell you, 99% of the time when I knock on a door, as a candidate, people will tell me, 'No candidate has ever showed up at my door before. The fact that you're here and want to know what I think is really unusual.' Ultimately you don't just win elections that way, I also think you build durable coalitions to deliver change for these communities."

Sheila Bynum-Coleman has spent decades building coalitions. She was the most talked-about candidate Salon spoke with, both because of who she is, and who she’s running against — the aforementioned Kirk Cox, Speaker of the House of Delegates, who represents House District 66, just south of Richmond.

Bitecofer singled out that district as a key race for Swing Left. “It went from R+14 to R+1.6” as a result of court-ordered redistricting, she noted. “The candidate is really solid, and she's running a top-notch strategy.” There’s no question this is a huge symbolic target: No one I spoke to could remember a House of Delegates speaker being defeated. 

Bynum-Coleman describes herself as a wife and mother of five, a real estate agent, and a community activist and advocate who's "been very engaged and involved in my community for several decades now.” 

"I’m challenging an incumbent that's been in office for 30 years, and I believe that our district has not been adequately represented," she said. "I’ve talked to thousands of people who also feel the same way. They feel like we have the same issues that have gone unresolved for decades." Gerrymandering is one reason community issues go ignored, and gun violence is a prime example. Cox has been a leading impediment on both counts: He led the state legislature’s fight against the remedial redistricting, and shut down all attempts at legislative response to the latest mass shooting.

"Gun violence absolutely has to be one of the most pressing issues in the community right now, along with health care, education and criminal justice reform," Bynum-Coleman said. "My daughter was shot in August 2016 and she survived, but it’s such a huge issue. My friend’s godson was killed on Saturday. We have got to make sure that the streets are safe. Young people are going out to parties and not coming home. Kids are afraid to go to school.... Every week we're hearing about someone who's lost a loved one to an act of gun violence."

Criminal justice reform is another top concern. “We have to find a way to make sure our justice system is fair, it’s equitable and we’re protecting the community,” Bynum-Coleman said. “Right now we have white people committing the same crimes as people of color who are not receiving the same sentences. That's not justice. We have to change our criminal justice system. It's become the new modern-day form of slavery.”

She also praises Swing Left’s involvement. “Swing Left has been a huge supporter, helping to make sure that we have the resources we need to unseat the Speaker,” she said. “We have groups from all over the country invested in making sure that we win this race, and that we change the laws in Virginia when it comes to passing the Equal Rights Amendment.” 

A volunteers’-eye view

The candidates Swing Left is supporting provide one view of its potential impact. The volunteers who power it provide another. Salon spoke with three of them, just to get some flavor of the impact it has in helping people lead more meaningful lives as American citizens, and take an active part in shaping our nation’s future.

Kathryn Kellam and Nancy Purves Pollard formed a Swing Left group in Alexandria, a middle-class suburb in Northern Virginia, in early 2017. It was a totally new experience for both of them.

"Like a lot of people I was very politically motivated after the 2016 election,” Kellam said. “I started doing some research to try to determine a good and meaningful way to get politically active. I really liked what I read about Swing Left, I like the logic of the approach they were taking, in terms of flipping the house, and only focusing on what really mattered." 

She looked for a Swing Left group near her, didn't find one, and held a meeting at her house. It produced a small core group, all but one of them political novices, "so it was really a developmental process for us," she said. "You can do this without experience and you can do this without a big group,  and you can still have a really good impact."   

While Swing Left was focused on the midterms, they couldn't overlook the state legislative races. "Our area is reliably blue and we live in Alexandria, so we went south," and helped elect Jennifer Carroll Foy, a candidate in a central Virginia district. "So that was a learning opportunity for us ... a chance to have an impact and learn what it is to go out and canvass." 

Pollard stressed that "Swing Left is not affiliated necessarily with a political party." Both she and Kellam are independents. "My husband comes from — the old Southern term was a ’yellow dog Democrat’ family, I came from a yellow dog Republican family. We had a mixed marriage but we both became independent voters and we used to vote across the spectrum. If we were really disgusted we would put in write-in candidates. But we both felt galvanized after the [2016] election, that we needed to work towards more progressive candidates."

There are multiple issues fueling the activism in their group: women's reproductive health, treatment  of immigrants and asylum-seekers, concern about the environment — not just about climate change, but, as Kellam put it, “about the fact that the Republican administration seems to want to have dirty air and dirty water.” 

Thomas Kipp is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University and currently a Swing Left college fellow, leading canvasses across the state with fellow students.  His first political experience came when he was seven or eight years old. His older brother was a naval engineering student at Virginia Tech when the notorious mass shooting happened there in 2007. "When his classroom was attacked, we thought he was there." Kipp recalled. Fortunately, Kipp's brother had slept in that day, and was never in danger. "But for hours, my parents were panicking and had no idea what was going on." That gave him an early awareness of the potential suffering or benefit that policies can cause. 

He became involved in organizing almost by accident in 2017, responding to an email about a campaign internship. "Every cycle since then I've been volunteering. I was going out, knocking on doors, talking to voters, making phone calls, and then Swing Left let me take that to the next scale, so I can organize my fellow students,  serve my constituency." 

This does not feel like an “off-off-year” election, Kipp said. "This is my third election cycle as a college student here in Richmond, and the intensity is more than anything I've ever seen before.... There are people with clipboards registering voters every single time I walk the campus going to class. There are people who are tabling for candidates, they're looking for volunteers all the time on campus. There's just this energy and passion that I’ve never seen before. It's amazing that it’s happening in what is traditionally seen as a non-important local election. But people are recognizing that it has national implications this year. "

In an era when social media has been used for the most anti-social purposes to poison our politics and fragment the public sphere, Swing Left is on the forefront of helping people find ways to repair what’s broken, through a combination of old-fashioned tools like knocking on doors and talking to people, writing letters, making phone calls and yes — even using social media for pro-social purposes. They’ve already proven it can be done. Swing Left’s Virginia game plan for 2019 is here.

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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