by Catherine Vaughan
Since launching in mid-November, flippable has supported three Democrats running for state legislative office in special elections: Cheryl Turpin (Virginia House District 85), Ryant Washington (Virginia Senate District 22), and Stephanie Hansen (Delaware Senate District 10). Knowing that special elections are notorious for low turnout and therefore are generally more “flippable” than general elections, we worked hard to spread awareness and recruit volunteers and donors to support these races.
“There’s no silver bullet—but if there were one, it would be that we all worked together.”
Our work has shown promise in all three races. While both Cheryl and Ryant lost their races on January 11, their margins of loss were half those of the Democrats who had previously run for their seats. Cheryl lost by just 362 votes, a margin of 5.8%; the previous Democratic candidate for her office lost by 13%.
In Delaware, we scored a major victory: Stephanie Hansen won by 17% and turned out 1,000 more Democrats than had voted in the last general election for the same Senate seat—a remarkable accomplishment, given the difficulty of alerting residents to special elections.
After each election, we had a chance to speak with the candidates and campaign managers. We’re excited to share the lessons we’ve learned—all of which will inform our work as we prepare for upcoming elections.
1. National resources matter—as well as national attention. The campaign managers we spoke to—Joe Diver from Cheryl Turpin’s campaign, Jaden Slagle from Ryant Washington’s campaign, and Erik Raser-Schramm from Stephanie Hansen’s campaign—all emphasized the value we were able to bring simply by raising money. Over the past two election cycles, Republicans have outspent Democrats by 200% in state legislative races (not including "dark money" spent by the Koch brothers and other Super PACs). This means that Democratic candidates need to budget hours each day to “dial for dollars.” Our ability to marshal resources from around the country freed up time for our candidates to actually speak with their constituents and voters. In Stephanie Hansen’s race, we worked with Sister District to raise nearly $140,000, one-third of her total funds raised and over half of her original campaign budget.
Cheryl Turpin told us, “It wasn’t until you guys stepped up that other people got interested in the race. Code Blue came in, did a live interview. Then Daily Kos came in. Once you started it, other people realized it was a legitimate race. The amount of time I needed to spend on donor calls decreased. Every day after work, I’d knock 50-60 doors, then make 200 phone calls every night. Your fundraising helped me knock on more doors and make fewer donor calls.”
2. To be successful, campaigns need resources—both financial and volunteer—even earlier. A key part of our success was bringing attention to these races early. In Delaware, we jumped on the case as soon as Stephanie Hansen was declared the candidate. We spoke with Erik, her fantastic campaign manager, and developed a strategy. Within just a few weeks, we had raised over $100,000.
We were among the first groups to “break” Cheryl Turpin’s and Ryant Washington’s candidacies, but their campaigns were timing-constrained. Because they declared in early December for a January race, they faced a short fundraising window and a campaign period that included the holidays and new year. Ryant’s campaign manager told us, “With special elections, the timing is always late. Money comes in at the end, when it is too late to spend it.”
Cheryl’s campaign manager concurred, noting that he had ordered the campaign’s mailers—which required a 2-week timeline for approval and printing—before the grassroots donations began pouring in from our community members. If Cheryl’s campaign had had earlier access to major funding, they would have invested in more mailers and reached a larger group of voters.
When we asked Cheryl what would have made the difference for her—what would have secured her those extra 362 votes—she replied, “One extra week. And maybe not having a blizzard on election day.”
Why such an emphasis on timing? Cheryl said, “The opposition, Rocky Holcomb, had started campaigning in June...Despite Rocky’s five-month advantage, he won by only 362 votes—in a place known as the second most Republican city in the country. I’m confident that with another week, we could have succeeded.”
3. State and local candidates stand to benefit from even very basic best practices in digital and social media. The HD-85 special election was Cheryl’s first foray into state legislative politics. As a high school science teacher, she was not familiar with the ins and outs of digital marketing. She was lucky to find an experienced campaign manager, Joe Diver, who recruited a social media manager to help her amplify her platform and message. “I had never even considered how valuable social media data is,” Cheryl told us. “I learned how powerful small video clips can be in connecting with constituents.”
Stephanie Hansen and her team were ready to go on social media, and the key to their success was healthy communication with her many constituencies. We built a strong relationship with Erik, her campaign manager, from the start, and the team was very responsive when we asked for updates (which often came in the form of video clips from Stephanie). Erik set up a robust logistical system to manage relationships with groups like ours, and he hired a deputy campaign manager to direct field operations.
4. Different campaigns need different kinds of volunteer input. Many of our users were eager to phone bank for Stephanie Hansen’s campaign, but out-of-state phone banking didn’t play a major role in her campaign’s strategy. By the time we spoke with Erik in early January, his team and local volunteers had already called their phone banking universe 3.5 times. “The one downside of this experience was having to turn away so many volunteers from out of state, because we already had hundreds of phone bankers in state,” Erik told us.
The campaign did need canvassers, however, so we sent out a volunteer email to anyone living within 150 miles of Stephanie’s district. Over 1,000 volunteers canvassed for Stephanie. Door-to-door canvassers had a 32% rate of contact with prospective voters, while phone bankers had a 9% rate of contact.
In Virginia Beach, out-of-state phone banking played a more vital role. Thousands of volunteers made phone calls reminding local residents of the election. We learned a technical lesson from a glitch in the campaign’s phone banking systems, which caused some Virginia Beach residents to receive multiple calls from our volunteers. In the future, we’ll do our best to prevent technical problems of this kind.
5. National grassroots groups like flippable are low-bureaucracy, high-impact, and easy for campaigns to work with. Jaden Slagle, Ryant Washington’s campaign manager, said of flippable: “You were as helpful as you could be—you didn’t require any hand-holding...On these legislative races, staffing is so much shorter. You don’t have time to onboard people and get them up to speed. You came in, asked how you could help, and were able to streamline everything.”
Our ability to quickly raise money from grassroots donors allowed Stephanie’s, Cheryl’s, and Ryant’s campaigns to invest in the resources they needed most—primarily organizers and campaign staff. Our willingness to listen and respond to the campaigns’ needs gave Erik, Joe, and Jaden the freedom to run their best possible campaigns, without undue reporting and oversight requirements.
Erik, Stephanie Hansen’s campaign manager, spoke effusively of our and our partners’ work. “There’s no silver bullet—but if there were one, it would be that we all worked together. We partnered with the DLCC, flippable, and other groups to get Stephanie elected.”
As we move forward, we’ll continue to forge connections with other grassroots organizations, such as Sister District and SwingLeft. We’ll work to coordinate our campaign processes for maximum impact and minimum red tape. Doing so will allow campaign staff to focus on what’s most important: promoting their candidates, debating the issues, and increasing voter engagement.
We are eager to take the lessons we’ve learned to our next race, Jon Ossoff’s campaign for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Although this is a US Congressional race rather than a state one, we believe that the lessons learned in state campaigns can be useful here. With early money, early national engagement, the use of best practices in social media, well-coordinated volunteer efforts, and responsive, streamlined processes, we can flip this important seat and strengthen Democrats’ power in Congress.