Will Suburban Activism Pave the Democratic Path to the House?

Will Suburban Activism Pave the Democratic Path to the House?

If they’re to retake Congress in 2018, Democrats need their newfound activist hordes to focus on health coverage—and diverse, upscale swing districts.

March 27, 2017

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This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

On an unseasonably warm Friday evening in late February, more than 100 residents of Virginia’s Tenth Congressional District filled the gymnasium of a community center in Sterling, one of the sprawling towns of Loudoun County in the exurbs of Washington. Constituents had for weeks been trying to get Republican Representative Barbara Comstock to go beyond the controlled environs of a tele-town hall and face her constituents in person. They mounted daily call-in campaigns and protests outside her district offices, asking her to attend. In the end, she was a no-show, saying she had a long-scheduled event at the same time.

One by one, district residents went before the microphone, listed their hometown and ZIP code for the record (often with a pithy comment about not being a paid protester) before asking questions on a series of pressing issues—national security, President Trump’s conflicts of interest, immigration, education, environmental protections, and, most prominently, the future of the Affordable Care Act.

In response to each question, one of several volunteers would parse Comstock’s voting record and public comments to piece together her position. Oftentimes the resulting answer was incomplete or evasive. When there was a clear position—whether for rolling back environmental regulations or boosting school vouchers—it drew jeers from the crowd. One older woman repeatedly held up a sign that read, simply, “Boo!”

Randall Benton /The Sacramento Bee via AP

Members of Indivisible attend a town hall meeting with Republican Representative Tom McClintock at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, California, on Saturday, March 4, 2017. 

Toward the end of the evening, Janine Murphy-Neilson of Herndon stepped up to the microphone in a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirt and talked about her husband, who has chronic myeloid leukemia. “Prior to [the] ACA, I was frantically worried about his preexisting condition and the $8,000 a month that his prescription would cost without insurance,” she said. “I would like to know how much is it going to cost to repeal and replace, and how do you justify that expense when Republicans would do absolutely nothing to try to help make this a better-working [law] for the American people?”

One of the health-care policy volunteers referenced comments Comstock made during two of her recent tele-town halls about how to pay for the ACA replacement, which amounted to vague platitudes about the need for “small-business pooling,” making health care “patient-centered,” decreasing Washington bureaucracy, and promoting tort reform and wellness incentive programs. The crowd was not satisfied.

 

BARBARA COMSTOCK MAY BE PART of a newly endangered species. She was re-elected in an increasingly purple district that swung strongly for Hillary Clinton by 10 points in 2016 after going for Mitt Romney by just over one point in 2012. While she carefully casts herself as a moderate Republican, Comstock has voted with Trump 100 percent of the time thus far—which, according to a ranking by FiveThirtyEight, makes her the House member third-most out of line with the way their district voted.

With the Trump administration and the Republican Congress both off to the rockiest of starts, and with progressive and Democratic activists mobilized as never before, Democratic strategists hope, and increasingly believe, that Comstock and her peers—the 22 other Republican House members from districts that Clinton carried in November—can be defeated in the 2018 midterm elections. Longtime activists and first-timers are eager to target those who aid and abet Trump’s agenda. They’ve become newly attuned to every quote and vote of rank-and-file House Republicans.

But protest is one thing; strategic electoral activity is quite another. The question before Democrats is whether this surge of grassroots activism can evolve into a well-organized, effective political movement that can sustain itself till the midterms—and avoid devolving into cacophonous disarray of protest without politics.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, there’s been no shortage of activism on the left. The opening salvo was the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, drawing more than 500,000 to the nation’s capital and millions more around the country and the world. Since then, participants have organized more than 5,000 “huddles”—small, neighborhood-based meetings to plot the next steps of resistance.

Another cornerstone of the activist surge has been the Indivisible Guide, a document compiled by former congressional staffers offering suggestions on how best to engage and pressure your member of Congress. The team behind the guide sought to mirror the successful grassroots pressure of the Tea Party protests that in 2009 caught Democrats completely off-guard.

In the age of Trump, with people hungry for ways to engage, the relatively basic civics primer published by Indivisible’s founders has resonated as the guiding document of the resistance. It has been downloaded more than one million times and spurred the creation of several thousand local Indivisible chapters, with at least two in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts, according to the organization. In turn, these local groups have organized massive call-in campaigns, actions outside representatives’ district offices, and public town halls.

In Lovettsville, Virginia, a small and affluent enclave in Comstock’s district, Kristen Swanson, who owns a pottery studio in town, reached out to five women in her life right after the election who, like her, were not very politically active, but were distraught by the results of the election. With no idea of what to do, they started brainstorming.

Midway through December, Swanson stumbled upon the Indivisible Guide, printed it out, read it about 20 times, and thought to herself, “This is it; this is what we do.” In early January, she organized the first meeting for the Lovettsville Indivisible—12 people showed up and, by virtue of doing so, became the steering committee. Soon after, she initiated contact with Comstock’s office and set up a meeting. In four days, she—along with other nearby Indivisible groups—rallied 58 people to discuss concerns about the Republicans’ plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They arranged for constituents to tell their stories to Comstock’s staffers and put together a packet detailing personal experiences and concerns about repeal.

Swanson’s story has its counterparts all across the nation—most importantly, in districts like hers that could swing Democratic in 2018. In the Republican Representative Ryan Costello’s suburban Philadelphia district—which, like Comstock’s, was carried by Clinton—Claire Witzleben, a stay-at-home parent with a master’s degree in health-care administration, has been organizing weekly protests since mid-January outside Costello’s district office in West Chester. One week the protest topic is Trump’s alleged connections to Russia, the next it’s the president’s deportation plans or the ACA repeal. Before the election, Witzleben admits, she didn’t know the name of her representative or even what district she lived in. Trump’s victory, she says, quickly woke her up. Now, Witzleben and Tammy Harkness, an engineer, are the lead organizers for one of the area’s local Indivisible affiliates, dubbed the Concerned Constituents Action Group, which organized a town hall meeting for Costello on the last Saturday of Congress’s President’s Day recess. For both women, this was their first time engaging in political organizing.

Government Printing Office/Public Domain

Despite being re-elected in 2016, Representative Barbara Comstock's pro-Trump voting record contrasts sharply with how her Virginia district voted for president. 

Costello’s Sixth District, as Democrats describe it, “looms like a dragon descending on Philadelphia from the west,” carving jaggedly through the towns of suburban Chester, Berks, Montgomery, and Lebanon counties. It’s a mostly white district that mashes up very wealthy suburbs with more rural pockets—and one that Republicans have held, despite consistent targeting by Democrats, since redistricting in 2000. Costello, a second-term member, wiped the floor with his Democratic challenger in 2016, winning by 14 points. However, Romney-voting Republicans ditched Trump en masse, giving Clinton a narrow victory in the district of just over one-half of one percentage point. If that didn’t put Costello on notice, he’s now feeling the heat from organized constituents as well.

Some 400 people filled the auditorium of the local high school in Phoenixville, a small borough of Chester County, on the weekend after President’s Day. Many of them lined up to direct questions to a photo of the absent Costello that had been taped to a podium on the stage. As in Sterling, a number voiced concerns about Trump’s alleged ties with Russia and spoke passionately about their personal experiences with Obamacare and fears about losing coverage for themselves or their families. About an hour into the town hall, after several dozen questions had been posed to Costello’s photo, a woman in a salmon-colored shirt and jeans walked up to the microphone and said, “I’ve been looking at your picture … and have been thinking to myself, you know, it’s really a possibility that this guy isn’t going to watch this tape; it’s a real possibility that he’s going to ignore all these people in this room and what they’re saying.”

“What I want to say to you very, very sincerely from my heart, is that this is a movement, and it’s not going to go away,” she declared, instantly drawing a standing ovation. If Costello wanted to be re-elected, she added, it would be wise to listen to what his constituents were saying.

Congress’s first recess of the year was also the first opportunity for anti-Trump activists to focus their indignation not just at Trump, but at representatives who will come before voters in 2018. With members of Congress headed back to their district, it was these groups’ first major chance to translate energy from Facebook pages into real life, and palpable electoral politics. Like Comstock and Costello, many Republican representatives avoided in-person interactions with angry constituents by holding tele-town halls or by announcing last-minute town halls in remote areas. Members who did show up often faced down crowds that were demanding answers. Videos of constituents dressing down their members of Congress quickly went viral; speculation over whether this was the first act in a Tea Party–style takeover quickly followed. “If it fizzled, if there was nothing to show for it during the recess, then it would have allowed Republicans in Congress and Trump to continue moving forward with their agenda,” Indivisible co-founder Angel Padilla says.

 

WITH 23 DEMOCRATIC SENATORS, many from red states, up for re-election, hopes of taking back the upper chamber in 2018 are slim, if not nonexistent. The likeliest chance of breaking Republicans’ unified control of the federal government lies in the House, where Democrats will need to pick up 24 seats to wrest control from Speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP. History tilts in Democrats' favor. Since 1982, the president’s party has lost an average of 28 seats in first-term midterm elections. If Trump’s approval ratings remain in the gutter, he could drag down even more House Republicans. But midterm turnout generally skews older, whiter, and more conservative, and the GOP benefits from the heavily gerrymandered districts they drew for themselves in 2010.

“Looking at the House right now, it might seem like Republicans’ structural advantages are insurmountable,” says David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report. “If we look at what we saw in 2009, no one really thought Republicans had a chance—and they took back 23 more than they needed to.”

Democrats are already trying to tap into the early grassroots energy flowing from the Women’s March, Indivisible, and all the assorted activism. Less than two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the party’s House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), recognizing the need to take advantage of the early grassroots energy, funneled money to state parties to hire full-time organizers in 20 of its top Republican district targets. Dubbed the “March into ’18” accountability project, organizers will recruit local volunteers and try to build a more formal coalition with groups already mobilizing in district. The DCCC also announced it added 635,000 supporters to its list in January alone—a 20 percent growth of its total base.

The Democrats’ path to a majority begins with the 23 seats—mostly well-educated and higher-income suburban districts—that voted for Hillary Clinton but elected Republican House members, including Comstock’s and Costello’s. These types of seats are seen as must-wins.

The 23 Clinton-Republican districts are marked by more diverse populations than the national average or a higher percentage of residents with college degrees than the national average—or both. Eighteen of the 23 have an above-average share of college-educated whites, and eight of those seats have a higher share of both minorities and white college grads. As The Atlantic has reported, such so-called “hi-hi” districts already form the core of the Democratic House caucus: Democrats hold 87 of the 103 districts that fit that profile.

Costello’s district, for instance, is far whiter than the national average; about 86 percent compared with around 77 percent nationally. However, 42.5 percent of the district’s adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with about 33 percent nationwide. Its median household income is $80,000, almost $30,000 more than the national average. Comstock’s Northern Virginia district has become notably more diverse over the years. In 2000, Loudoun County, where the district is centered, was 82 percent white. Now it’s about 70 percent white. The district is also one of the wealthiest and most well-educated in the country. More than 54 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and its median household income is nearly $115,000.

John Flores/Creative Commons

So far, about 300,000 people have signed up to get involved in Swing Left, a project that aims to match liberals concentrated in deep-blue districts with their nearest swing district and coordinate in-district volunteer campaigns. Here, residents of New Jersey's Seventh Congressional District attend a Swing Left house party. 

Half of the 23 Clinton-Republican districts are found in bluing Texas and California suburbs. If there’s one place that epitomizes the type of areas where Democrats need to start winning House races, it’s Orange County, California, long the epicenter of Republican politics in the Golden State. Four Orange County Republicans—including Darrell Issa, who might just be the most vulnerable member of the House, Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, and Dana Rohrabacher—are seen as beatable by Democrats. Their districts all voted for Clinton, as did Orange County as a whole—the first time the county had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide victory.

Absent a dramatic change in the Democrats’ political messaging, House analysts think the well-educated and diversifying suburban seats that are moving toward Democrats will be better bets for a 2018 shift than the blue-collar and more rural seats that have been slipping away from the party. It remains to been seen, though, whether Romney Republicans’ distaste for Trump will trickle down to the House. “I’m not convinced that the Orange County Republican who voted against Trump is ready to throw out Mimi Walters or Ed Royce,” says Nathan Gonzales, the editor of the political analysis newsletter Inside Elections.

In total, the DCCC has cast an ambitiously wide net of 59 target districts to start from, including a second rung of ten flippable seats that Clinton narrowly lost by four points or less. “I don’t think it’s that realistic to be targeting districts that Trump won by more than 15 points,” says Wasserman. His rationale goes back to the 2010 Tea Party wave; Republicans picked up 66 seats, but not a single one that Obama had carried by more than 15. Wasserman says that the DCCC list of 59 includes about a dozen seats that Trump won by 15 points or more, which he says are not realistic targets. However, he points out, there are 92 Republican seats that Trump won by less than 15 points. Many of those are unwinnable, either because of local political dynamics or an incumbent’s high favorability. But there are also incumbents with unique weaknesses—whether it’s ethical or, perhaps, a particular proximity to the administration—whom Democrats hope to pick off from the herd.

Recruiting viable Democratic candidates not only in the top targeted districts but in as many races as possible will be critical. The party has often struggled with recruits, investing big money in promising candidates through the DCCC’s Jumpstart program—which provides early campaign support—only to come up short on important turf like the Philadelphia suburbs. In 2014, the DCCC made an early call to back Kevin Strouse, a then-34-year-old Army and CIA veteran, as one of its eight Jumpstart candidates to run against a top target, Mike Fitzpatrick of suburban Pennsylvania’s Eighth District. Despite the support, Strouse only narrowly beat another promising Democratic primary opponent, and then lost to the incumbent by more than 20 points. Of the 23 challengers Jumpstart backed that year, only two won.

In Comstock’s district, a long list of potential candidates are already lining up in the hope of challenging her. So far, Tenth Congressional District Democratic Chairwoman Patsy Brown has interviewed 11 interested people, while the DCCC and state progressives are reportedly courting Jennifer Wexton, a well-known Virginia state senator in the district, to run. “We have never, ever had this kind of outpouring of people,” Brown told a local newspaper. She’s been on the committee since 1992.

That said, it isn’t obvious that early support for one of several primary candidates by a national party organization would be welcomed by many local activists. The revelations that the Democratic National Committee tilted toward Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries will likely serve as a brake on such pre-primary support in a number of 2018 contests.

For Democrats to win in these districts, they need to dramatically expand turnout among non-voters and low-propensity voters who will choose Democrats if they actually get to the polls. They also need to attract some Republicans. Sam Wang, an elections statistician and neuroscientist at Princeton, estimates that Democratic congressional candidates would need to win the national vote by 7 to 12 percentage points to wrest control from Republicans. Democrats pulled off those margins in 2008, but that was in a presidential election year with a popular candidate at the top of the ticket. That was also before the Republican gerrymandering that followed the 2010 census.

Analysts say it would require a massive political event for the Democrats to overcome such a stacked deck. One of those ground-shifting events could be health care. If the GOP succeeds in repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cause about 24 million people to lose coverage over the next ten years—14 million in the first year alone. It doesn’t take a political genius to see how this would endanger Republican incumbents across the board. In the hours after the CBO released its ominous scoring of repeal-and-replace, the DCCC sent out a rash of press blasts condemning Republican members on their target list—including Comstock, Walters, Minnesota’s Erik Paulsen, Colorado’s Mike Coffman, and New Jersey’s Leonard Lance—who have voiced support for repeal.

“When something is about to be taken away, it’s more salient. That’s an enormous opportunity,” says Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University professor who studied the rise of the Tea Party movement on the right. “If [Republicans] proceed with repeal, it’ll be important to dramatize what the costs are going to be for actual human beings in each district.”

Analysts have already begun crunching those numbers—and they don’t look good for Republican prospects. According to a Daily Kos analysis, there are 51 congressional districts where the estimated number of people expected to lose coverage with the repeal of the ACA outnumber the Republican incumbent’s 2016 margin of victory, including a number of districts that Clinton carried. In Darrell Issa’s district, which he carried by fewer than 2,000 votes, there are more than 60,000 people who are projected to lose coverage.

In Comstock’s district, which she won by about 22,000 votes, 30,000 constituents are projected to lose health insurance. In Costello’s district, where he had a landslide victory, there are nearly 40,000 people who are primed to lose coverage as well.

The hardest-hit districts would be in cities and white working-class, pro-Trump areas, while many of the more upscale Clinton-GOP districts, where far fewer people benefited from Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies, would be relatively less affected. In fact, the Ryan replacement plan would disproportionately benefit people in those districts, as it is designed to deliver tax credits to people at the high end of the middle class who are currently phased out of Obamacare subsidies, and would also deliver major tax cuts to earners in the top tax brackets who were subsidizing the costs of the ACA.

The 2018 elections, then, could likely turn not just on how effectively the Democrats can turn out their base but also on whether the Republican crusade on Obamacare—combined with a mish-mash of other Trump-related issues—will be enough for Republican Trump defectors, or reluctant Trump voters who’ve become fed up, to vote Democratic.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Constituents show their disagreement as Republican Congressman Leonard Lance answers a question during his town hall meeting at the Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, New Jersey, on Wednesday, February 22, 2017. 

That will require a lot of effort from Democratic and progressive activists—and not just in swing districts.

 

INDIVISIBLE IS NOT THE ONLY GROUP that materialized out of the post-election ether to facilitate strategic activism. A trio of friends with no formal background in politics or organizing launched Swing Left, a project that aims to match liberals concentrated in deep-blue districts with their nearest swing district and coordinate in-district volunteer campaigns. “We obviously hit some kind of a nerve,” Ethan Todras-Whitehill, a writer and tutor from Western Massachusetts who came up with the idea of Swing Left, told volunteers during a February call.

So far, about 300,000 people have signed up to get involved in Swing Left, and 15,000 have volunteered for district leadership positions—including in each of the 52 districts Swing Left has targeted to keep or flip to the Democrats. “We want to get people invested in their local swing districts. We want you guys to know your local swing district representative better than you know your own representative,” Todras-Whitehill said. About 6,000 people volunteered to do research and compile in-depth dossiers on each swing district.

Wearing jeans and a red and black half-zip, Dan Schramm stood up on a chair in the corner of his living room and introduced himself to the dozens of people who were milling about, sipping drinks, munching on snacks, and talking politics. It was the first Saturday of March, and Swing Left had asked volunteers to host house parties for people interested in the organization, talk about the swing district they have targeted, and get volunteers lined up for upcoming canvassing trips. Schramm and his wife, Amanda, had decided to host one in their neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C., a city that had given 91 percent of its vote to Clinton. The attendees were targeting Comstock’s Tenth District seat, the far outskirts of which just barely touch the District’s western boundaries several miles from Schramm’s house.

That weekend, there dozens of Swing Left house parties in the District and throughout Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. Across the country, there were more than 600 house parties scheduled, with more than 11,000 total RSVPs.

Like many liberals, Schramm had thought Clinton had the presidential election in the bag. “I didn’t do much,” he told me, saying that, like many, he wondered, “Who could possibly vote for Trump?” He now hopes, though, that Trump’s election is propelling people who previously weren’t all that engaged in politics to get involved, and turn out to vote in the midterms.

That’s Swing Left’s top priority. In Schramm’s living room, people signed up to volunteer to lead monthly voter registration and canvassing trips to Comstock’s district, in coordination with volunteers and progressive groups that reside there.

The group will stay out of Democratic primary contests. “Conceptually, we see ourselves as the campaigns-in-waiting for the eventual nominees. Our goal is to have busloads of volunteers ready to work for them,” says Swing Left organizing director Matt Ewing.

If the path to Democrats winning back the House starts anywhere, it just might be in those Swing Left living rooms and at those Indivisible town halls.

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