July 2017Strategy

DSA surge in Charlottesville primary battle had impact

A report on DSA's activism in the Virginia primary election from Michael Payne of Charlottesville DSA. This account first appeared on the {DSA-Activist} listserv soon after the primary in June.

Last Tuesday [June 13] in Virginia there was an election where we had a candidate running for office in a Democratic primary. Thought I'd just provide some quick thoughts on the experience as it may be useful to other chapters.

The candidate we ran was Ross Mittiga. Ross ran for the House of Delegates in our local HoD district. Ross researches climate change and is an environmental activist, and this was his first time running for office. He went up against David Toscano, the Democratic minority leader in the House of Delegates in Virginia. Toscano has been an elected politician in Charlottesville for over 30 years and had $250k+ cash on hand. Ross heavily focused on environmental issues but also highlighted the need for the Democratic Party of Virginia to reject corporate money and embrace a new political strategy that connects with grassroots movements and actively organizes around issues like $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, banning offshore drilling & fracking, etc.

We received a little over 33% of the vote, which was an encouraging result given that this was probably one of the hardest possible races we could have entered. Toscano has been an elected politician locally for over 30 years, is the minority leader, had hundreds of thousands of dollars, etc. We had very little campaign experience and Ross was only a 28-year-old researcher who's just finishing his PhD. Our campaign (and DSA!) made the front page of the Washington Post; we forced Toscano to campaign, change his messaging, call in favors, and develop negative attacks. Our campaign deeply confused and scared the Democratic Party of Virginia -- they now explicitly know that DSA exists as a local political force.

DSA was the main group that supported the campaign. DSA provided by far the most support of any organization -- we wouldn't have been able to achieve what we did without DSA's donor base, phone banking system, and support from other chapters. One of the ways in which DSA helped us the most was by having volunteers from other nearby chapters come down to canvass each weekend. [On four separate trips in the three weeks before the election, Metro DC DSA alone sent 11 different volunteers to help canvass, work polling places, and connect with voters, as reported by Stuart Karaffa, one of the DCDSA organizers. This volunteer surge from DC DSA more than doubled the campaign's volunteer staff.] In a local race, that greatly expanded our ability to reach voters and was a huge boost for the campaign. We were able to build one of the most robust field operations of any House of Delegates primary campaign in the state; we knocked on over 8,000 doors and talked to well over 4,000 voters. Perhaps the most important factor of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the UK parliamentary election was the intensive canvassing that Momentum engaged in; perhaps one possible function of DSA is to have chapters operate as regional networks that work like 'Momentum' in terms of providing canvassing support to candidates & regions that the Democratic Party establishment would otherwise write-off and ignore.

The experience really drove home for us how important canvassing is -- and how hard it is to reach voters. Our canvassing operation was firing on all cylinders for about one month; against an incumbent as entrenched as Toscano, we probably needed at least 6 months of canvassing to have our message fully break through. While media events and messaging were immensely important, canvassing was required to have people hear our message and flip voters; from our perspective, it's canvassing (when it's used to deliver a populist, left-wing message) that ultimately wins elections and changes the political landscape. So many voters are disengaged from the political process or not paying close attention, relying on messaging or support from progressive groups alone just doesn't reach anywhere near enough voters. Because of this, we think any prospective electoral work should begin with a well-thought out strategy of how canvassing will work: What areas will be targeted, how will you recruit a volunteer base, how are you going to get access to a voter database that allows you to create canvass packets, what universe of voters will you target, etc.

Our chapter found it to be an enormously useful experience. The election expanded our base more than any other activity we've engaged in (granted we're still very new). We formed deeper connections with other local groups and are now in a place where other local candidates are looking to court our endorsement, giving us leverage to determine the policies they advocate for. In addition, we were able to use the campaign to advocate for important issue campaigns. We held events about the Fight for $15, stopping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, getting Virginia to 100% renewable energy by 2030, and stopping the construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure in Virginia; because of Ross's campaign, all of these events got significant local media coverage -- one event at city council even got a city councilor to publicly call on our local university (the University of Virginia) to pay all its employees a living wage of at least $15/hr.

Our chapter now knows what running local campaigns entails in terms of managing voter databases, recruiting and managing volunteers, fundraising, messaging, media coverage, etc. And perhaps mostly importantly, we've laid the foundation for an electoral infrastructure that can use the Democratic Party ballot line but circumvent the local Democratic Party establishment -- we are now poised to run candidates for city council and school board who would stand a very real chance of winning. We'd be happy to expand more or answer questions if other chapters want to know more, it was an incredible experience for us!

Solidarity,
Charlottesville DSA 

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