by Kellen Squire
My run for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017 ended with me getting blown out on election night, 60%-40%. There were precincts in Rockingham County, Virginia where I barely broke 10% of the vote; Greene County was not a whole lot better. We were dramatically outspent, our $120k going up against almost a half million, which our opponent raised in five-digit increments. It was a year of campaigning; of hardship, heartache, sacrifice…
…and it was a complete and total success. We were more successful than Amy McGrath, who raised over $90 million in her run against Mitch McConnell (EDITOR’S NOTE: in the end, McGrath got just 38.2% of the vote, losing by nearly 20 points). More successful than Sarah Gideon, who raised $80 million to lose to Susan Collins. In fact, we succeeded beyond our wildest imagination on the path towards the fever dream of a goal we conjured up almost a year earlier:
Flip control of the Virginia House of Delegates, and protect the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I won’t rehash late 2016 here; I think we all know how we felt then. It’s what drove me, in January 2017, to convene a rag-tag group of people together with almost nothing in common – an adult literacy specialist, a mechanical engineer, a former correctional center counselor, a university economist, a Catholic school employee, a stay-at-home parent, and, of course, a redneck ER Nurse – save that we all knew the danger the new Administration posed, and were determined to do whatever we could to stop it.
One small problem:
None of us knew what the hell we were doing.
The sum total of our accumulated professional political experience was the time I’d spent with Obama Rapid Response all the way back in 2008, as well as being an occasional front-pager on Democratic blogs like DailyKos, MyDD, etc in the late aughts. Even that experience was tenuous; the work we’d done exposing the McCain staffers who’d been astroturfing the PUMA (“Party Unity My Ass”) crowd seemed like child’s play compared to the weaponized efforts we’d seen leveraged against Secretary Clinton. Aside from that, though, none of us had done more than knock a few doors here or there.
We had an inkling of the odds against us. A “Blue Wave” was the last thing anyone could’ve considered at the time, especially here in Virginia. The Virginia GOP controlled 64 out of 100 seats in our House of Delegates – just shy of veto-proof majority – and had full control of the Virginia Senate. But we’d all refused to sit on our hands at that point. Honestly, our complete lack of political experience didn’t phase anyone. If anything, it made us more determined to act, because we didn’t know all the things that you “weren’t supposed to do”.
So, all we had to do was flip seventeen seats in one of the most gerrymandered legislative chambers in the country, in order to give Democrats a legislative majority that they haven’t had for decades.
Piece of cake.
And when I say “gerrymandered,” I mean gerrymandered. The Charlottesville, Virginia area had been packed and cracked mercilessly into four separate districts by Operation Red Map in 2010. The most egregious example of this was the 58th District, represented by Delegate Rob Bell (R). Bell, who first arrived in Richmond during the Clinton administration, had then run unopposed a half dozen times. This allowed him (thanks to Virginia’s non-existent campaign finance laws) to raise millions of dollars without having to spend any… which he then redistributed to Republicans both across the Commonwealth and the country. In fact, in 2017 he was selected as the Campaign Chair of the Republican Caucus – meaning it was his job to cut as many checks as it took to keep and expand the Republican majority in Virginia.
While this made him an obvious target for our little group, the 58th District was, according to Virginia-based election prognosticator Charles “Chaz” Nuttycombe, the most maliciously gerrymandered in the entire state. Thanks to his position working with Operation Red Map, Delegate Bell literally drew his own map. The lines ducked and bobbed around the city of Charlottesville, expertly excising parts of neighborhoods that Republican data collectors had identified as “too liberal,” and stretched them from the James River all the way across the mountains to the Shenandoah Valley.
Unlimited cash, an almost two-decade long incumbency, election lines he’d drawn for himself… the going conventional wisdom was that you’d need someone pretty dumb to run against Rob Bell.
Thus my 2017 campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates began!
From the very beginning, we knew we couldn’t wage a “traditional” political campaign – and that we’d be on our own to get it done. Hell, when I called the Virginia Democratic House Caucus and told them who I wanted to run against, the first question they asked me was “Are you serious?!”, followed quickly by “Can you write yourself a $250,000 check?”, and then muffled guffaws when I said no, of course not, I was a nurse.
So we came up with a three-pronged strategy:
1) All Politics Are Local: There are truisms that are relevant to any political campaign, and experience that works across the board – but we firmly believed that all politics are local, and it requires local control and a local touch on messaging and campaign infrastructure to truly be successful. This is what we focused our campaign around.
2) Training: We wanted to find grassroots activists and volunteers, to give them as much knowledge and experience as we could. Voter contact, marketing, messaging, volunteer recruitment, digital organizing; we wanted to train people, so they could use that experience in future races.
3) Unconventional campaigning: We knew we couldn’t win a toe-to-toe fight, so we had to take every weakness and make it a strength. Bell had donors who could write six-digit checks on a whim; we aimed to rely on an army of individual donors giving five, ten, twenty dollars at a time. Bell had set himself up as a mover and shaker across Virginia; we could focus all our efforts right here at home.
And, perhaps most importantly, he couldn’t afford to be seen taking us seriously. If the sharks in the water smelled even the tiniest drop of blood, it would create a “feeding frenzy”. So we wagered that if we timed everything juuuuust right, we could catch him, make him panic, and then force him to throw everything but the kitchen sink at us in an effort to save his own hide.
We knew the odds were against us – but we also knew that every dollar he spent on us helped run cover for the candidates running across the Commonwealth; in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Prince William County. We knew we could punch way above our weight class.
Someday, I’ll write a book about everything that happened in between that first meeting and election day. The team we assembled to run our campaign was second to none. It was an unholy combination of the A-Team, Kelly’s Heroes, Super Troopers, and the Marx Brothers. It got our campaign through a lot of ups and downs (downs in particular), and they’re the only reason our plan went off without a hitch. Truly, I feel like I was the least important person on our team, because nothing I did could’ve happened without those folks’ support.
We organized like hell! We had thousands of voter contacts. We out-organized the Obama campaign. We got people trained. Three of the people on that list above are now elected officials, and that’s not including another two who got their start volunteering with us later in the year. Our campaign staff served as the bulwark for two subsequent Congressional campaigns. Our field organizer ended up running statewide primary ops for a Presidential candidate in ’20, and others served other campaigns in New Hampshire, New York City, Nevada, and Iowa.
And most importantly, we did panic our opponent, who dumped over a hundred thousand dollars in the closing days of our race – money he was supposed to be sending to other candidates around the Commonwealth. And considering how many close races there were (including the one that required a stupid film canister to decide control of the House of Delegates) we knew that our “sacrifice fly” made a difference.
Remember: our success can only be viewed as one part of a bigger whole. If it hadn’t been for candidates, volunteers and grassroots supporters in races across Virginia, it wouldn’t have mattered how much hard work our team put in – it would have been for naught. And that’s the kind of effort we need to engage in every state. The $90 million raised for Amy McGrath averages out to be $90,000 spent in a thousand different races. And most local races – county supervisor, mayor, school board, Soil and Water, on and on – need only a fraction of that amount of money. The more of those candidates we can run, the more they build up one another, and the more everyone benefits from it, up and down the ballot.
None of these ideas are new; they’ve only taken on a newfound importance. As anyone who’s run for office before can tell you, the personal sacrifices entailed in running for office are enormous. I knew what the odds were in our race, but figured that every once and awhile, even a #16 seed can take down a #1 seed. But until recently, it wasn’t normal to expect to have to face a coordinated and organized effort threatening to destroy the lives of politicians, up to and including threatening to kill them.
I can attest to that. In 2017, after I wrote about being in the ER during the events of Unite the Right in Charlottesville, an unlisted number called our campaign phone and simply read aloud the name of my daughter, what school she went to, what grade she was in, and who her teacher was – then hung up. It hasn’t stopped, either; after I wrote an article here about masking, a former Youngkin campaign staffer found pictures of my kids, posted them online, and invited his followers to join him in mocking them.
Even the people depraved enough to publicly insult a five-year-old’s physical appearance understand it’s a concession that you’ve thoroughly schooled them, and they’re terrified of you. But it’s not meant to be a cogent rebuttal. It’s a threat – if we can’t stand up to you, your family will pay instead – and a warning for any other principled folks considering running for office.
And we can’t let people be terrorized away from the idea of standing up for all of us. Our world is on the edge in so many different ways, like climate change, protecting American democracy, right-wing judicial overreach, uncontrolled pandemics; the list goes on and on. A top-down effort to build a bottom-up, grassroots movement is what organizations like the amazing Run For Something have been hollering about for years now. We cannot wait any longer to enact their plan as an official strategy of the Democratic Party, and put our money where our mouth is.
If we don’t, we are ceding this ground to people who intend to get elected specifically to prove how broken they can make things…
… and we are rapidly running out of ground to cede.