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Democratic Activists Could Tip the Scale in Close Races — But Then What?

Grassroots groups have been organizing on the ground for nearly two years

Protesters wave to cars outside of GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney’s office in Utica. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters wave to cars outside of GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney’s office in Utica. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

UTICA, N.Y. — On this particular Friday, the protesters outside of Rep. Claudia Tenney’s office were having trouble holding onto their signs. 

The wind whipped around them as a dozen activists did what they had done every Friday for the last 18 months: stand on the grass between French Road and the small brick office building and hold signs in opposition to the first-term GOP congresswoman.

Tenney’s 22nd District and the neighboring 19th District in upstate New York are home to two of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents. Here and across the country, grassroots groups are looking to harness Democratic energy to defeat these Republicans on Election Day. 

But challenges await these activists after the election, including how to sustain the energy fueling Democrats if they win back the House. And even if these activists remain engaged, they run the risk of further dividing the party by pushing Democrats in power to embrace liberal policies.

With those challenges looming, the activists continued their weekly ritual of protesting outside of Tenney’s office late last month.

The group, made up mostly of middle-aged and older women, were greeted by encouraging honks and waves, but also an occasional obscene hand gesture and one taunt of, “Get a job hippies!”

A few hours earlier and 150 miles away, two dozen activists in Kingston gathered at their weekly protest outside of GOP Rep. John Faso’s office in the 19th District, carrying signs that declared, “Fire Faso.”

While the number of ;people attending the weekly protests has waxed and waned, their constant presence has served as a reminder that, this year, it’s Democrats who are angry and activated.

On the ground

What began as weekly protests and group meetings quickly shifted to a focus on the upcoming elections. Some Democrats newly energized as a result of President Donald Trump’s election started their own Indivisible groups, which is a national movement to resist Trump’s agenda.

After organizing a march in Albany to coincide with the national women’s march in Washington, Dustin Reidy had an idea. He wanted the 19th District to hold a voter registration drive 50 days into President Donald Trump’s administration.

So Reidy drove around Faso’s sprawling district talking to Indivisible groups and other progressive groups that had sprung up, and eventually a few dozen leaders all connected on the Slack app. 

Reidy launched NY19 Votes, a group focused on flipping Faso’s district. On a bitter cold day in March more than 400 people across the district knocked on doors and registered voters.  Meanwhile Democrats had started to jump into the primary, which grew to a seven candidate field.

Signs from the
Signs from the “Faso Friday” protest in Kingston. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

While the candidates were battling with each other and communicating with Democratic voters, volunteers with NY19 Votes were making calls and canvassing, talking to voters about health care and other issues. They were  specifically targeting voters not registered with any party, who make up more than one quarter of voters in the district, who might not have heard from a Democratic campaign until after the June primary. 

As a result, a small army of volunteers were trained and ready to work for the eventual Democratic nominee, attorney Antonio Delgado.

“We have folks that, when we first started, had never knocked a door in their life,” Reidy said in a phone interview. “And now they are the kind of folks that are leading voter canvasses and leading volunteers and training other folks.”

The progressive activists were divided among primary candidates. Indivisible Ulster had endorsed Dave Clegg, for example. While there is still some lingering resentment from the primary, activists at the “Faso Friday” protest said they were ready to work for Delgado.

Tom Brown, a 55 year-old retired teacher who attended the protest, backed Clegg in the primary but was “enthusiastic” about supporting and doing field work for Delgado. He and his wife Ann are progressives who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary.

“If there was once upon a time in the world a Hillary/Bernie split, we are the Bernie people and we are all in,” Brown said. “Period. Full stop.”

Democrat Anthony Brindisi didn’t have to contend with a crowded primary to take on Tenney in the neighboring 22nd District. Though he may not be as liberal as some of the protesters outside her office would like, Jen DeWeerth, a leader of Indivisible Mohawk Valley, said that wasn’t a problem.

“We want to win,” she said. Deweerth said her group and others had also started reaching out to voters before Brindisi jumped in the race. And many of these Democrats are new to volunteering with campaigns.

Like Marlene Bissell, a 62 year-old retired small business owner from Munsville who was standing outside of Tenney’s office. She volunteered to man Brindisi’s field office in Cazenovia and phone bank for him.

“None of that is in my comfort zone,” Bissell said. But she is doing so because she remembered hearing the news that Trump was elected and feeling guilty that she assumed he couldn’t win.

“I can’t complain about it if I don’t do something about it,” she said.

Bissell went on to describe how she felt a responsibility for her four grandchildren, her eyes filling with tears as she described two of them experiencing lockdown drills to prepare for a potential school shooting. “It just shouldn’t be.”

Early energy

The burst of energy fueling the women’s march in D.C. and related marches across the country naturally shifted to an electoral mission, said some leaders of national progressive groups.

Ezra Levin, a founder of Indivisible, said groups attempting to hold their lawmakers accountable were frustrated by the GOP attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and a lack of town hall meetings.

“If they’re refusing to listen to you … it’s time to replace them,” Levin said. There are currently between 5,000 and 6,000 active Indivisible groups across the country. 

Protesters gather weekly outside of GOP Rep. John Faso's office in Kingston. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters gather weekly outside of GOP Rep. John Faso’s office in Kingston. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

National and local grassroots activists said the shift early on to contacting voters laid the groundwork for increased turnout in special and local elections. In New York’s 19th District, Democratic federal primary turnout doubled from 2016 to 2018.

Ethan Todras-Whitehill, the executive director and co-founder of Swing Left, which connects volunteers to their closest swing districts, said the personal contact with voters could be crucial in races decided by slim margins. Swing Left estimates its volunteers across the country are making  more than 100,000 door knocks and phone calls to voters every week.

Republicans say the heated battle over recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has energized their base, but national groups on the left also saw an increase in activity.

Ten times as many volunteers signed up for Indivisible shifts in the days following Kavanaugh’s confirmation, increasing from 600 volunteers over a five-day period before the vote to 6,000 volunteers over a five day period after the vote. Between 300 and 500 volunteers were signing up every hour through Swing Left after GOP Sen. Susan Collins announced she would support Kavanaugh

“All this activity that people are doing is going to make a real difference,” Todras-Whitehill said.

That intensity on the Democratic side is not without controversy. Tenney said anger among the electorate has culminated in nasty online comments wishing her Marine son be killed and harassment of her supporters.

On Wednesday, Faso’s campaign circulated a Free Beacon article that included audio of an organizer instructing volunteers heading to the 19th District not to post on social media that they are from New York City.

But Todras-Whitehill of Swing Left dismissed concerns about the optics of volunteers going into a neighboring district as theoretical.

“Largely the people knocking doors are fairly similar to the people in the district,” he said.

Both Brindisi and Delgado’s campaigns have been working with grassroots groups in their districts, as well as down-ballot candidates to bolster their field efforts. The coordinated campaigns in the 19th District are on track to have 40 different “staging locations” in the final weeks before the election run by volunteers getting out the vote.

After November

National and local Democratic activists are working to make sure that energy is sustainable past Election Day.

Levin said the Democratic energy and focus on elections was analogous to the conservative tea party movement in 2009 and 2010. The grassroots tea party movement is less energized today and Levin said Democrats wanted to make sure that wouldn’t happen on the left.

“The lesson for us from the tea party is when billionaires and corporate interests fly in and try to take over our grassroots movement and direct it towards their own end, then the energy dissipates,” he said.

Local activists are also hoping to harness the energy on the ground past November.

Kathleen Hayek, the chairwoman of the Delaware County Democratic Committee, said at a Delgado event in Bovina that she is already recruiting candidates for next year’s local races, asking grassroots activists who would be good contenders.

“I guess Nov. 7th will be the start of another hurdle,” Hayek said.

Even if Brindisi and Delgado are victorious in November, some of the activists participating in the weekly protests said they would remain active to push for progressive priorities.

“It’s not going to be that Antonio gets in and the activists go home,” said Christine Dinsmore of Saugerties.

Dinsmore, a 67 year-old retired psychologist, is working for a local sheriff candidate and attended the Friday protest outside Faso’s office. She had just been discussing plans for the Friday after Election Day with an organizer with Citizen Action of New York, which leads the weekly protests.

“After we win will be here ready to have a party,” Dinsmore said. “… But we definitely will be here that Friday.”

Correction 5:38 p.m. | Indivisible previously misstated the number of their volunteer sign-ups, which an earlier version of this story cited.Watch: All You Ever Wanted to Know About Health Care Ahead of the 2018 Midterms

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