Ellen O. Tauscher: Democrats flipped seven congressional seats by organizing and talking directly to voters about issues that mattered most to them. Tom Epstein: Democrats cannot abandon the rest of the country. To win, they must directly engage with rural voters and focus on issues that matter to them.
By Ellen O. Tauscher
Ellen Tauscher represented Contra Costa and Alameda counties in Congress from 1997-2009, and is chair of Fight Back CA SuperPAC, firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.
I learned important lessons in 1996 when I was the Democratic candidate who flipped a Contra Costa-Alameda County congressional seat long held by Republicans.
My team and I sought to put those lessons into practice when I created the Fight Back California Super PAC and launched The California 7 Project.
We believed the seven Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 were ripe for flipping in 2018, and we were right.
It wasn’t easy. It took the hard work of dedicated activists too numerous to name, but whose contributions have helped shape history.
We believed that the only way we could be successful was if we started running campaigns early and talked to voters face-to-face about the issues that mattered most to them.
We also knew we needed to educate voters about the records of Republican incumbents. That’s exactly what Democrats did and how we ended up flipping every single one of the seven Clinton-GOP districts in 2018.
The untold story of this election is the role that grassroots organizations and independent Super PACs played in winning each of these seats. Fight Back California was the first one out of the gate.
We began by focusing on deep research, starting in Republican Congressman Jeff Denham’s Turlock-area district to understand what voters cared most about.
By late summer of 2017, activists in district-based organizations such as Flip the 49th and Indivisible began registering voters, were knocking on doors and calling people to educate them about the terrible records of these GOP incumbents.
As House Republicans took bad vote after bad vote on healthcare, consumer protection and taxes in the summer and fall of 2017, Fight Back California ran ads calling out each of “The California 7” for failing their constituents.
Soon after, a joint field effort organized by Tom Steyer’s NextGen America and the California Labor Federation took root in all seven districts. During the course of the campaign, they talked to hundreds of thousands of voters.
In early 2018, when it looked as if the huge cast of Democratic candidates in the open primary could result in two Republicans advancing to the general election, Fight Back California released polling that helped thin the fields so that we would advance Democrats to the general election in every one of the seven districts.
In Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County district, where the threat of a Democratic shut-out was greatest, we worked with House Majority PAC and ran ads against former Republican Assemblyman Scott Baugh. That helped Democrat Harley Rouda get into the general election that he ultimately won.
When the general election began in earnest, more California-based groups emerged to continue the grassroots outreach.
Courage Campaign partnered with Flip the 14 to text and call voters in Republican Congressman’s Steve Knight’s district in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and in four Republican-held Orange County districts.
In Republican Congressman David Valadao’s district in Kings, Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties, activists from Communities for a New California and Valley Forward contacted over 40,000 voters. They deserve much credit for Democrat T.J. Cox’s narrow victory over Valadao.
In each of the seven districts, California Democrats worked for over 18 months. We used discipline, communications, and funding from small and large donors to help our seven Democratic candidates get over the finish line in 2018.
Rest assured, we will do the same to help our seven new Democratic members of Congress defend their seats.
We had hoped to do better this year, and we came close.
Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare County won by 44 percentage points in the last midterm election, in 2014. This year, we gave him reason to sweat.
Fight Back California and grassroots groups communicated with over 75,000 voters in Nunes’ district. The Democrats’ candidate, Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Janz, came within 6 points of victory.
Nunes is on notice. We’ll be back. More accurately, we’re not leaving.By Tom Epstein
Tom Epstein, who lives in Orinda, has been involved in politics for more than 40 years as a senior staffer for Democratic officeholders, campaign manager, and public affairs executive, email@example.com. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.
One day in the late 1980s, my father called from our family home outside the central Pennsylvania town of York complaining about a new radio host who had become popular with his neighbors. He wanted to know whether I had ever heard of Rush Limbaugh.
I was living in Los Angeles at the time and said not to worry. No one out here was paying any attention to him. Little did I know that the bombastic radio anchor got his start on Sacramento talk radio.
Three decades later, conservative media including Limbaugh, Fox News, Sinclair TV stations and various websites, continue to distort the political conversation. All too often, they mold opinion, particularly in rural areas similar to where my father lived.
Right-wing media has polarized our politics. In the process, it has helped change the composition of the U.S. Senate and with it, the courts. We Californians are the biggest losers.
California has as many residents as the 22 smallest states combined. Yet they have 44 U.S Senators and we have two. Wyoming gets one senator for every 290,000 residents. California has one for every 19.8 million.
Thirty-five Republican senators represent states that collectively comprise just 16 percent of U.S. population. Those states are far more rural, white, Christian and older than the rest of the country, especially California.
Democrats cannot abandon these states. As I have learned over 40 years in politics, we must compete everywhere. Our democracy depends on it.
Since Electoral College votes are based on the number of House and Senate members in each state, smaller states have an advantage in choosing the President, as we learned again in 2016.
Wyoming gets one electoral vote for every 190,000 residents. Californians get one electoral vote per 720,000 people.
Because the Senate has exclusive responsibility for the confirmation of judges, this imbalance has transformed the federal courts.
When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s muscular exercise of that authority stalled dozens of Obama judicial nominees, including Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.
Now, McConnell is engineering an express train of judicial confirmations that is transforming the federal courts. Since Trump became president last year, nearly twice as many district court judges and three times as many appellate judges have been approved than in Barack Obama’s first two years, when Democrats had a Senate majority.
Because many Republican senators represent small rural states with less diverse constituents, it’s not surprising that all the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee that voted to confirm Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were conservative white men from Southern and Midwestern farm states.
This is especially significant today, as California battles the Trump administration in dozens of lawsuits ranging from immigration to health care to climate change.
Democrats need to compete more effectively in the smaller states that have disproportionate electoral power. This requires a new political and communications strategy that acknowledges the concerns of rural voters while offering a credible positive message that addresses voters’ priorities.
The best way to break through the noise of right-wing media is through neighbor-to-neighbor conversation. Democrats need to identify local supporters in those regions, then train and fund them to do grassroots organizing. That effort cannot end on election day.
To win the arguments about taxes, climate change, fair elections, immigration and regulatory protections, the best messengers are local folks who can discuss the impact of those policies with their neighbors.
I have learned this working in campaigns from Maine to Iowa to Nevada. We must respect the views of people who don’t buy into California’s more progressive positions, and offer an alternative to the misinformation being spewed on the AM dial in places like my father’s and my home in York, Penn.