Franccesca Cesti-Browne is a Democrat running for a seat in the Florida House. During an online fundraiser last week, she talked up her ties to her Miami district, noting her service as a Girl Scout troop leader and highlighting Florida issues such as the health of the Everglades and the state’s troubled unemployment system. This was only remarkable because she was talking to people who live in New England.
Cesti-Browne has been endorsed by Sister District Project, a group that links Democratic legislative candidates with donors and volunteers who live in safely blue districts but want to assist campaigns elsewhere that are competitive. About 20 people from the group’s Massachusetts-Rhode Island chapter connected with Cesti-Browne over Zoom, contributing about $3,000 to her campaign.
Out-of-state donors aren't new, but in a year when almost all campaign activity has by necessity moved online, having a physical connection to a state or district is no longer a requirement for any type of participation. Now, rather than knocking on doors or showing up at county fairs, legislative candidates are sharing their messages with people they’ll never represent.
“With the increase in online campaigning, campaigns have a much larger swath of donors they can tap into across the country,” says Tori Taylor, co-executive director of Swing Left, a group that directs Democratic donors and volunteers to legislative, presidential and Senate races in a dozen “super states.” “In-person contact is not going to be as readily acceptable as it was in years past.”
Both Swing Left and Sister District Project, along with a number of other Democratic groups, rose out of the ashes of the party’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election, tapping into the increase in activism and engagement among Democrats during Donald Trump’s presidency. They see a clear opening this year to get more people engaged in state races, when most of the legislators involved in redistricting will be elected.
“While some of these races are very local, they can still have national implications that make them very important to you,” Taylor says. “No matter where you live, gerrymandering has an effect on you.”
For years, Republicans have been better organized at the state level, with Democrats mostly fixated on national elections. The new groups are seeking to remedy that, but they haven’t made up their party’s fundraising gap. The primary outlet for support of GOP legislative candidates, the Republican State Leadership Committee, raised $10.5 million in the second quarter — nearly double the haul at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee ($5.8 million). The Republican Governors Association also outraised its Democratic counterpart, although not by as much.
While Democratic donors all over the country are donating millions to U.S. Senate races in states such as Arizona, Kentucky and Maine, it seems they’ve yet to get as excited about this year’s contests for governor.
“Much to our frustration, Democratic donors, large and small, still place vastly more importance on federal races,” says David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “Are we getting liberals in California or New York to engage in the middle of the country? Not yet.”
The Nationalization of State Politics
Turner notes that people are still willing to vote differently for governor than they do in national contests. There are eight Democratic governors in states Trump carried in 2016, including victories for the party last fall in the otherwise bright red states of Kentucky and Louisiana. Four Republicans are governors of states that supported Hillary Clinton four years ago.
The same is not true about legislatures. Currently, the GOP controls the legislature in every Trump state (with an asterisk on the coalition-run Alaska House, where there’s a Republican majority on paper). Democrats control the legislature in every Clinton state, with the sole exception of the Minnesota Senate.
The vast majority of legislators represent districts that their party carried in the last presidential vote. “While there is still significant ticket-splitting between federal and state legislative races, it has continued to dwindle since the turn of the century,” says Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, an elections forecast site.
Legislators always like to say that they have their own identities, that their constituents know who they are and can stop and talk to them at the grocery store. The reality, however, is that most people can’t name their own legislators. “Survey after survey shows that even people who spend hours a day on national politics know next to nothing about local politics,” says Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Federal politics have become the sun around which everything else revolves. Voters are likely to vote either R or D, depending on their inclinations, with less room for centrist Democrats in red states or centrist Republicans in blue states to carve out their own niches.
“State legislative races are almost entirely an artifact of the president’s popularity or unpopularity,” says Sam Rosenfeld, a political scientist at Colgate University. “Already the campaign effects you see downballot seem much more muted than they were in a less nationalized and less polarized era.”
Right now, people don’t want to stop and talk at the grocery store. They might not even recognize their state representative in a mask. And there’s little to no chance for legislators to make themselves known by speaking at high school graduations or service clubs.
“Candidates have lost their superpower, which is knocking on doors,” says Daniel Squadron, executive director of Future Now, another group seeking to elect Democratic legislators.
There’s No Place Not Home
Squadron notes that as in-person organizing faces obstacles, virtual organizing has become easier. “It does open up that geography and the networks to everyone who has Zoom or a Web browser,” Squadron says. “Volunteer engagement is vastly increased in both potential and importance.”
It’s also easier to raise money. Many campaigns have outsourced their donation collection to third-party sites — ActBlue for Democrats, WinRed for Republicans. It’s easy these days for candidates to get big names to show up for a 20-minute appearance on Zoom, since there’s no travel involved. Some political celebrities are making multiple appearances per night.
Minnesota Sen. Matt Little attending a high school graduation party in 2016. With the pandemic impacting how he campaigns, the legislator shared his perspective on how things have changed: "We are safely talking to as many people as we possibly can with social distance and masks when appropriate. On fundraising, I don't think COVID has affected that at all. Honestly, I think people are relieved they don't have to physically attend any more fundraisers." (Photo: David Kidd)
But donors drawn in by big names aren’t likely to care much about the dynamics of a local district. They are committed to their party and want it to win, even in places where they may never set foot. “More and more of the donations to candidates are coming from people those candidates don’t represent,” says Hopkins, the Penn political scientist. “Now candidates have to figure out how to get somebody’s attention in a new world that is online, so there’s less incentive to focus on a particular place.”
The Wisconsin Democratic Party raised a record $10 million during the second quarter, with donations coming into the presidential battleground state from around the country. Some donations were as little as $1.50, but about $2.5 million came from the governor of another state — J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.
Out-of-state donations will further nationalize legislative elections. Money will be particularly important in legislative races this year, Squadron says, given the absence of traditional campaigning. “Digital ads and mailers and television are more expensive than shoe leather,” he says.
It Pays to Have Friends
As a longtime activist, Aleta Borrud has been knocking on doors for 20 years. Now, as a Democratic candidate for the Minnesota Senate, she can’t.
She's backed by Sister District Project, which is helping her raise money and get her message out. She’s received donations from California, New York, Massachusetts and other states. “I was surprised even before Sister District came in that I got a very large donation from somebody I’d never heard of in Ohio,” she says.
But Borrud understands something obvious: She has to win votes from people who actually live in her district. She knows yard signs don’t vote, but she believes they lend her campaign visibility, along with supporters wearing matching t-shirts along roadsides.
To a large extent, she is having to rely on other people to make her case for her. It’s what campaign consultants call relational organizing — getting people to vouch for candidates to their friends and acquaintances. With luck, those people in turn will hit up their friends. “You bring in supporters and ask them to reach out to the people they already know and have conversations through email or posts on Facebook or text,” Borrud says.
There’s still no substitute for being able to draw on local connections, but successful campaigns have to find support beyond the candidate’s immediate friend circle. We’ve all learned that a person calling up to sell a product might well be sitting in Manila or Bangalore. Now it’s possible that people calling voters in Miami could live in Massachusetts.
The people attending the Sister District fundraiser for Cesti-Browne acknowledged that they have no special connection to Florida. Some flubbed the Florida trivia quiz that kicked off the event. One participant said “Florida feels like a foreign country to those of us born in Boston.”
But several committed to participate in phone banks for her anyway.
“Anything you can do to help us connect with voters, especially in these times when we can’t knock on doors, that is the best thing you can do,” Cesti-Browne said.