By Shashi Gupta, co-founder, Win Virginia
Last Tuesday’s election saw Democratic challengers flip at least 15 Republican held seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, including several where no Democrat had competed in nearly a decade. Tremendous credit is due to Gov. Elect Northam’s campaign for his margin of victory, as well as the more than 50 groups from across the progressive movement who channeled money, volunteers, and support to the top and bottom of the ticket.
Democrats have rightly celebrated the election of so many new members to the House of Delegates. But it’s also worth looking at those candidates who didn’t win and lessons we can apply towards taking back state legislative seats in other states.
Earlier this year a group of friends formed Win Virginia, a PAC dedicated to winning back the House of Delegates. Some mocked our belief that the House could be flipped, but those laughs have now turned to cheers. WinVA brought together a group of longtime Democratic donors (the “Blue Angels”) organized around four common principles: 1) compete in every district; 2) act like investors, not donors; 3) promote digital campaigning; 4) approach politics as a team activity. We had two goals: maximize seats and maximize learning.
Here’s what we learned.
Compete in Every District
This year, 54 Democrats stepped up to run in Republican held districts, challenging all but 12 GOP incumbents. In forming Win Virginia, we were determined to make sure House of Delegates challengers received the support necessary to not just run, but compete. It was clear that this year, we had an astoundingly talented class of Virginians called to politics for the first time. We believed that it was essential to support all candidates, from the likeliest to the long shots; otherwise, we would miss our opportunity to “catch the wave.”
Over the course of this cycle, Win Virginia provided over $600,000 to more than 50 delegate campaigns and associated PACs through cash donations, in-kind support, and our donor network. That support from Win Virginia and other progressive organizations expanded the map of competitive races, allowing nominally Tier 3 and 4 challengers to hire more staff and harness the unprecedented progressive energy unleashed by Donald Trump’s election.
It’s not enough just to have a name on the ballot – to truly compete for all seats candidates need resources early in the cycle.
Invest, Don’t Just Donate
In previous cycles, we and other donors would traditionally write a check and then rarely hear from the candidate until we came up again on their call lists. We decided to not only donate to candidates across the Commonwealth, but to make ourselves and our donor network engaged throughout the cycle. We regularly collected metrics from campaigns to assess progress and ensure we were rewarding candidates who prioritized voter contact.
Winnability became one of many factors considered when writing checks, not the only factor. The cash infusion provided to challengers in every district, based on performance, not Partisan Voting Index score, allowed them to continue running strong campaigns. One lesson is that you can’t know if April, June, or even August which races will be winnable in November. Making seed investments early may not pay off until the final six weeks, but we can only know when candidates are given foundational support early and the space to overperform.
Promote Digital Campaigning
It was clear from our conversations with candidates that most would not be able to fund or execute a digital program on their own. Direct mail was often the first expenditure prioritized, and endless hours of call time were devoted to raising money that paid for 20+ mail pieces. We knew modern technology could augment a field program, allowing candidates to find more supporters through a peer-to-peer network and spend more time face to face with voters.
Win Virginia took it upon ourselves to in-kind six new technologies to campaigns, including peer-to-peer emailing and texting, an electronic absentee voting application, and video advocacy software. We were very encouraged by the overall results, especially our texting program; a volunteer run operation sent out 700,000 messages to Virginia voters on behalf of delegate candidates.
We also funded a Facebook digital ad program in the final month that resulted in 5.5 million impressions leading up to Election Day. This program included statewide ads highlighting the progressive agenda, support from President Obama, and a get out the vote (GOTV) campaign. Having both individual positive spots and messages that cut across districts were necessary to take advantage of the anti-Trump environment. It is the sort of message most individual (especially first time) candidates could not fund themselves.
The investments in technology allowed Democratic challengers to reach voters in new ways at a dramatically lower cost per contact.
Politics is a Team Sport
Too often in politics, candidates who don’t win are cast aside. We knew that if Democrats were going to rebuild the party in deep red areas, we needed to support our candidates. This meant writing checks to candidates who were expected to lose, so that they could help activate local volunteers and lift the statewide ticket (in a phenomena being called “reverse coattails”) to ensure an expanded map through Election Day. We adopted a “service” mentality, conducting anonymous surveys with the candidates in September and adjusting our approach based on their feedback. We were encouraged to see in our surveys that several candidates we’d supported indicated they might run again in the future.
Supporting all 54 challengers helped build a bench of experienced candidates for local or state office under a non-partisan map in 2021. It also kept Republican incumbents from shifting their money to colleagues in more competitive races and forced the Republican Party to defend previously “safe” incumbents. For example, this year the Republican Party spent $66,000 in District 27 to shore up Del. Roxann Robinson against a strong challenge by Democrat Larry Barnett. This compares to 2013, when they spent nothing when she was unopposed.
In some cases, Democratic challengers even ran ahead of the top of the ticket – Djuna Osborne, Michele Edwards, and Tia Walbridge being notable examples – or won races considered longshots at the beginning of the cycle, such as Debra Rodman or Wendy Gooditis. All received significant support from Win Virginia and we weren’t alone — progressive organizations such as the Arena, Forward Majority, and countless others donated major resources to flipping these seats.
You can’t just measure success by saying “we won X races out of X+2 we supported” — that’s the wrong metric. By only targeting a few races, you put a giant target on the backs of our most winnable candidates and allow Republicans to focus all their firepower on taking down our your top contenders.
Tom Perriello serving as our CEO, was a tremendous asset in demonstrating politics is a team sport. Tom was tireless, attending over 100 events from Abingdon to Winchester to Virginia Beach and everywhere in between. Another $500,000 was raised in direct contributions to Democratic Virginia candidates and committees through Tom’s efforts. His vocal support and surrogate work for former primary opponent Ralph Northam and all delegate candidates made clear that the party was united.
Prepare to ride the Wave
This “lift all boats” approach doesn’t mean invest the same amount everywhere. In the final weeks we adjusted our contributions to maximize wins, but continued to give to nearly half of Democratic challengers, while making in-kind resources available to all. At the same time, we declined to provide more money to candidates we considered “sure winners” in the final stretch.
This approach requires discipline and an appetite for risk, something we think Democrats can work on. Spreading contributions across all challengers means accepting some losses, but it is crucial if we’re going to restore the Democratic Party to national prominence and earn back the 900 state legislative seats lost over the past decade. Our mindset is, “15 down, 885 to go.” To this end, we are looking at ways to recruit and mentor groups in other States to implement the Win Virginia strategy in the 2018 election cycle.