by Kellen Squire
From the time I first announced my run for the Virginia House of Delegates last year, I knew I had an uphill battle on my hands. My opponent, an almost twenty-year incumbent and the Republican Caucus Chair of the House of Delegates, hadn’t been opposed for almost a decade, and started with a war chest darn near three quarters of a million dollars- an awfully impressive sum for a Federal candidate, much less for one chamber of the Virginia General Assembly.
Me? I was just a sarcastic and perpetually under-caffeinated emergency department nurse, with no political connections or experience whatsoever. But I was bound and determined to make a stand, and completely unwilling to let him go unopposed again.
So I took a look at my potential paths to victory, because I wasn’t interested in a boutique campaign. Given the malicious way our district was gerrymandered, knowing I was going to be outspent 10:1, and the way the incumbent had himself dug in like a tick, one strategy came up over and over again as our only chance.
Organize like hell. Organize like nobody had never been seen before in the Commonwealth of Virginia- or certainly, at least, not ever seen before in our chunk of rural Virginia. There was no way we were gonna be able to outspend our opponent; there was no angry mailer or hit-piece commercial that would lead us over the finish line in first place. A back-to-basics, grassroots driven field organization was the only thing that gave us even a puncher’s chance to win on Election Day.
Now, that’s easier said than done. Because unless you have enough money to pay for an army of field staffers, it meant I’d have to recruit and rely on a group of dedicated and passionate volunteers, willing to come out into these bright-red territories that nobody had EVER canvassed before.
And that’s where Brandon and Davis come in.
Brandon and Davis are from deep-blue Northern Virginia; their House of Delegates race last year had no serious challenger, and there was no chance that then-Lieutenant Governor Northam was going to do anything but run up the score in their neighborhood. So, rather than sit back and relax, their immediate question was: where do we chip in to make the biggest difference?
There were other races that were “bigger” and “sexier.” Danica Roem’s district was a helluva lot closer to them, and while the polling said she had the edge, there were no “safe races” last year of the seats we were trying to flip. My good friend Lee Carter was engaging almost the same strategy I was, but he was in a district that Clinton won; she’d barely broken 39% in mine. Instead, they made the trek down the road, to our dark-red district, and threw themselves in head-first knocking doors with us.
There’s really no understating how much of a difference Brandon and Davis made. They showed up in the wake of the Nazi attack on Charlottesville, which drove our entire campaign to a wrenching halt. We had initially scheduled our season-opening canvass for that Saturday, but when it became clear that things were devolving quickly out of control as that August weekend creeped closer, we decided to just cancel the entire weekend, with a TBD on a new date.
The trauma that weekend inflicted on our community ground our campaign to almost a dead halt; aside from having worked in the ER that entire day, it took our team almost two weeks to gear things back up to full bore. And when we canceled our canvass, people had made other plans- I mean, c’mon. They had lives. Work. Families. So when I got word from our field director we had people offering to drive down to canvass in Elkton, Virginia- where Obama and Clinton had barely cracked 20% – I thought maybe I’d heard her wrong.
What you should understand about Elkton is that it’s turf that had been gerrymandered into the district by the incumbent Republican in 2010, specifically because he was concerned the previous way the district was drawn had been trending “bluer”. After all, he’d “only” won 68/32 in 2009, the Tea Party wave year. So- thanks to his position helping Ed Gillespie with drawing districts for Operation Red Map- he cut out every single “blue” leaning precinct he could (save for one split precinct he tried to literally draw his buddy into) out of the district. Instead, the district lines were sent over the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley… to one of the best-performing GOP precincts in the state.
I thought, surely, nobody from Northern Virginia would come and knock in as bright red a district as this. But, nope, sure as heck; one late summer Saturday morning, Brandon and Davis showed up at the Elkton McDonalds, right on time… and offered to walk a turf around downtown Elkton that hadn’t been hit by any Democrats in modern history.
My standard MO in precincts like this was to knock all the hard turf myself, and leave the “easiest” stuff we had for the volunteers. I’m an ER Nurse, and as anyone who’s worked in Triage for years can tell you, unflappability is a key trait to have. Which suited me well out on the trail, as people would rail at me, sneer, call me a “baby killer” or a “traitor”- and it’d just wash over me without me breaking a sweat. I can only half blame ’em for it; after all, the folks there had been told by both political parties, effectively, that they were worthless. The Democrats said it by effectively not even showing up for decades, and the Republicans by laughing and saying “Pffft! Sure, we don’t care about you, but what’re you gonna do- vote for a Democrat? AHAHAHAHAHA!” So there was a lot of pent-up discontent that got let out at me, and I didn’t take any of it personally. Like I said, I live it every day in the ER.
But I’ve got an excuse and the experience for it- Brandon and Davis didn’t. But they wouldn’t be dissuaded. In fact, they ended up taking the toughest turf we’d cut that weekend, which I almost didn’t let them do. But the two of them insisted, and whenever possible, I always let my volunteers do whatever they felt the most passionate about, because the best way to burn volunteers out is to force them to do something they don’t want to do. I was sure it’d scare them away, and they’d be gone- never to be seen again.
Instead they knocked their entire packet out- and went back for more. Not just that Saturday, but the next one. And the next one. Greene County. Albemarle. Fluvanna- heck, they took on a Fluvanna turf around US Route 15 that was quite literally unwalkable, and, once again, finished a packet where eight doors an hour was moving at breakneck speed.
While they had heartwarming stories to share coming back to our campaign office, about folks who were flabbergasted any campaign would give enough of a damn about them to come to their door, there were other, less heartwarming stories as well. They once came back after having been “escorted” out of a neighborhood by a few folks in a pickup truck. I engaged in a heated discussion with, and almost fired, my field director for that one when she refused to tell me the turf they’d been walking, because I intended to jump in my truck and fly over to find and, ahem… politely engage folks who were intimidated enough by our progressive message to resort to those sorts of intimidative shenanigans. One of the problems being a politician and an ER Nurse: we’re naturally protective, sure, but we generally have a very low tolerance for bull, a trait seemingly not well suited for politicians.
Knowing the kind of territory Brandon and Davis worked, I’m certain that’s not the only time such things happened- but they handled it with an aplomb that went above and beyond what anyone could expect. And we wouldn’t have been able to blow our organizing benchmarks out of the water without their help; there’s no way. They allowed me to send some of our “newbie” canvassers, who’d never been involved in politics before the age of Trump and were just dipping their toes in the water, to “friendlier” territory. They enabled me personally to hit terrain that people called me insane for even trying to hit- the absolute most back-breaking parts of our rural district. To send our paid staff out to our key turnout precincts.
And while we came up short on election day, we made our opponent spend almost half a million dollars fighting us off- money that, because of his job as the caucus chairman, was his responsibility to send to other Republicans across the Commonwealth. He spent it here, against us. He had to outbid Northam and Gillespie for ad space on local TV, space they’d bought weeks (if not months) before, because he was so worried about us.
None of it- none of it– would’ve been possible without Brandon and Davis, and every single person like them who made up our army of volunteers. And they haven’t stopped, either; Brandon has been volunteering with Abigail Spanberger, and Davis with Leslie Cockburn and Elaine Luria. And their example is a big reason why I’ve taken a page out of their book and helped everywhere I can, chipping in and touching every single contested Congressional race in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but particularly races like Karen Mallard’s in Virginia Beach, or like Jennifer Lewis’ in the Shenandoah Valley, the only open seat in Virginia this year, as she fights against a candidate that makes Sarah Palin look like Rachael Maddow.
And the key takeaway here, I think, is that it doesn’t take any special talents to make a real difference. No experience necessary, no expansive resumes or fancy letters behind your name. It was just a group of relentlessly normal, average, everyday working folks that played an outsized role in the success we had last November across the Commonwealth. And not just in our race, but in Harrisonburg, where Brent Finnegan had the best performing precinct change in the entire state. In Culpeper, where Ben Hixon ran a hard race against current US Senate candidate Nick “Abortion Industry” Freitas. And in Albemarle. In Floyd. Rapppahanock. Culpeper. Prince William. Farmville. New Kent. Louisa. Chesterfield. Chesapeake. Hampton.
It’s their hard work that’s made them about to be directly responsible for 400,000 people getting access to health insurance right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They’re the ones who showed the rest of the country what was possible when neighbors work together.
What it looks like when the spirit of small towns, of close-knit communities- being in this life together, pulling for each other- carries over into our politics.
What it looks like when good people stand up for their principles and say, with one voice, indivisible, enough is enough.
What it looks like when we are at our best.
So I charge each and every one of you reading this, because the Republic needs you- go out. Find a candidate, be they front runner or underdog, bright blue inner-city or deep red and rural, that speaks to you. And do what you can- knock doors, write postcards, make phone calls, offer advice; it all helps, every little bit of it.
And you could end up being the same catalyst for change that Brandon and Davis were.
Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Barboursville, Virginia, and former candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. An avid outdoorsman and connoisseur of horrible dad jokes, he currently serves as a co-chair of the New Virginia Way PAC, supporting progressive candidates and initiatives dedicated to an inclusive economy and community that secures liberty and justice for all.