D.C. fundraising group takes aim at campaigns across the country

They were part of a grass-roots fundraising group known as 31st Street Swing Left, a chapter of the national organization Swing Left, which is focused on flipping red seats blue.

The group’s members were from all over the country. But they were really anchored in Washington, D.C. — specifically on 31st Street NW, in a red-brick, solar-powered house where the group’s founder, Lisa Herrick, was now asking the hundreds of people to please mute themselves so the fundraiser could begin.

“I know a lot of you want me to tell brown-bear stories,” Gross told the group, referring to his popular campaign-trail tale about once killing a grizzly bear in self-defense. “But instead I’m going to tell you how I’m going to win the U.S. Senate race.”

The Aug. 8 fundraiser showed just how far, quite literally, 31st Street had come since Herrick founded the group in her living room in 2017.

It is one of countless grass-roots fundraising groups pouring cash and energy into potential swing races across the country this election cycle. But the group also stands out for its evolution, growing from a D.C.-area assemblage of 30 political novices knocking on doors to support Democratic candidates in Virginia into a fundraising army of nearly 1,200 members in three years.

Now, here they were, talking to an Alaskan orthopedic surgeon, commercial fisherman and rumored bear-fighter from thousands of miles away — a candidate the group identified as a potential secret weapon in helping to forge a Democratic majority in the Senate.

“This has turned into something I never would have imagined,” Herrick, a clinical psychologist, said of 31st Street’s evolution during the fundraiser.

Tonight, they weren’t planning to merely dump cash into Gross’s coffers. The money had a more purposeful destination: the pockets of Alaska Natives, whom Gross’s campaign planned to hire as community organizers to get out the vote for Gross in some of the most remote Indigenous villages in the Western hemisphere: Hooper Bay, Kipnuk, Emmonak. Places where no roads lead, some only accessible by aircraft or boat, but where the campaign expected thousands of villagers would reliably vote blue.

Herrick urged the potential donors: “Tonight, we really want to hit more than $100,000.”

According to Swing Left President Ethan Todras-Whitehill, 31st Street has since emerged as “far and away” the most successful fundraising group out of approximately 500 local chapters nationwide — in part because of its creativity in strategy, such as in Alaska.

“They’re able to help people understand that this money is going to have maximum impact on who controls the lever of power in this country,” he said.

So far, 31st Street has raised more than $1.6 million this year — the overwhelming majority of which was donated to local candidates in potential battleground states where Democrats are trying to flip state legislatures, according to 31st Street’s political analyst, Jim Shelton.

Gross, in fact, is the only congressional candidate 31st Street is supporting this year. The group has poured most of its energy into downballot legislative races in Iowa and North Carolina, where several thousand bucks makes a much bigger dent for candidates in need of visibility, Shelton said.

Mark J. Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said 31st Street “shows the potential power of so-called regular people getting involved and organizing” — albeit people who have a fair amount of expendable cash.

“National organizations have greater recognition,” he said. “They get much more attention from party elites, media who cover campaigns and from political consultants and the like. But there’s something really powerful about being asked by your neighbor or your friend to get together and start to take action, do something. That’s the story of this group.”

It started with Herrick, who said 31st Street grew out of a feeling of “helplessness” she experienced after President Trump’s election in 2016. Like many shocked Democrats, she wanted to do something, and then she came across a Facebook post from the newly formed Swing Left.

The organization was advertising start-up kits to help political newbies launch their own grass-roots groups, which function independently of Swing Left. All Herrick had to do to get started, she learned, was throw a house party. She liked parties. She signed up to host one, inviting several friends.

“Three weeks later, I learned 30 people were coming to my house on 31st Street,” Herrick said, “and at that point, we were just a group of people who didn’t know what we were doing.”

Herrick’s husband, Drey Samuelson, the chief of staff for former senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), assisted at the next meetings, Herrick said.

And as the group’s political analyst, Shelton soon became its “compass,” Herrick said.

A retired epidemiologist who had worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Shelton was a passionate political hobbyist who canvassed for Barack Obama and earlier, in college, for Hubert Humphrey during his 1968 presidential campaign against Richard M. Nixon. Now he was crunching polling and campaign finance data in vast spreadsheets to figure out where 31st Street’s members could best put their money.

“People in the D.C. area who have worked in government, we know how government can work and should work, and when we see how it’s not working, it drives us crazy,” said Shelton, whom Herrick met through her colleague Mary Pence, a family law attorney and Shelton’s sister, who also helps lead 31st Street.

They cut their teeth in Virginia’s stunning 2017 election, when 15 Democratic legislative candidates flipped Republican seats with the help of numerous Virginia grass-roots groups, dramatically shifting the political landscape. Encouraged, 31st Street went bigger the next year, canvassing not only for Virginia Democratic congressional candidates — including Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton, who all booted Republican incumbents — but also others in Texas, Michigan and elsewhere. Nine out of the 12 candidates it supported won their races in red districts. The group had donated more than $1.4 million.

This year, it’s all about the state legislatures — save for Gross, that is.

Shelton said that they built an evidence-based “power-up” strategy designed to identify candidates who are flying a little under the radar, but who aren’t Hail Marys, either. Using ActBlue, the Democratic online donor platform, they donate to a slate of legislative candidates in potential battleground states early in their campaigns. The idea, Shelton said, is that local candidates connect with voters in a way Joe Biden can’t. And if Democratic voters can be persuaded to come out to vote for their state representatives, they’ll end up benefiting the entire Democratic ticket, he said.

They avoid donating to the marquee favorites already basking in attention and money, so their donations don’t end up as a “nanosecond” of a pricey TV ad, Shelton said. Gross, who has received support from the Lincoln Project, the Republican anti-Trump group, has already raised more than $5 million to his Republican opponent’s $7 million, according to campaign finance reports. In June, the Cook Political Report downgraded the race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.” In this case, Shelton said, fundraising money is better spent on direct voter outreach since Gross already has millions stashed away for advertising.

“We’re very selective about where we want to intervene, and we’re willing to be risk-takers,” Shelton said. “This is a candidate who’s a reach, Al Gross. But we think that if we can come up with enough money to help him with this particular strategy, it might be enough to put him over.”

The political risk, of course, is becoming the bait that GOP opposition might use to accuse their Democratic opponents of being funded by lefty out-of-towners interfering in their local elections.

Tim Wigginton, spokesman for the North Carolina GOP, said the state party jumps at the chance to discredit Democratic candidates taking money from D.C.-area liberal groups. Last month, for example, Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham attended a virtual fundraiser with Virginia grass-roots groups, but missed a debate against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) that week. The state GOP said Cunningham would “rather schmooze with his liberal out-of-state donors” than face the people of western North Carolina.

But for many lower-profile candidates, accepting the help has far greater benefits. Jennifer Kakert, a first-time Democratic Iowa House candidate receiving funding from 31st Street, said the group has been instrumental in jump-starting her campaign, especially in a pandemic during which she can’t host large events. Of $23,000 she raised in a 60-day period, more than $10,000 came from 31st Street, she said.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has been a strange boon for 31st Street, Herrick said — no longer confining the group to house parties and in-person meetings in the D.C. region. On Zoom, Herrick said, “we can reach anybody.”

“People are just telling everyone they know,” she said.

By the end of the Zoom call for Gross, 31st Street raised more than $118,000 — far more than Gross expected.

Halfway across the continent, it will be enough to hire at least 60 Alaska Native community organizers for the last two months of his campaign.

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