North Carolina House candidate Aimy Steele is back on the doors.
”Knocking doors is my superpower!” the Democrat from Caberras County, just outside of Charlotte, told me this summer. At the time, though, Covid was keeping the longtime educator on the phone, not the doors. Now, after the state’s coordinated campaign, which backs candidates from former vice president Joe Biden to down-ballot Democrats, moved cautiously back to the streets in recent weeks, her team has begun a new crusade of socially distant door knocking. And she is thrilled.
“There’s pure excitement to see us,” Steele said. “One woman streamed me on Facebook Live when I came to her door!” The Democrat, who lost by only 2,000 votes last time, had knocked on 300 doors as of last Wednesday, and was still counting.
Last summer, I focused on three women of color who ran for state legislative races in North Carolina, Texas, and Florida in 2018. All three lost, but by unexpectedly narrow margins, and all are running again. They were part of a wave of candidates, disproportionately women, who were trying to reverse a trend that began when Barack Obama was elected in 2008—and Republicans began their comeback by targeting state legislative races. During Obama’s two terms, the GOP won 942 seats. Thanks to new attention, grassroots enthusiasm, some smart funders, and many excellent women candidates and candidates of color, Democrats have clawed almost halfway back. Meanwhile, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida have, rather surprisingly, become hotly contested at the presidential level, and these state legislative fights are also receiving national attention.
A few days before the election, all three women are running effectively tied with their GOP opponents. They’re trailing them in fundraising, but all are competitive, when two years ago, they were most definitely not. This is getting interesting.
Politico has called North Carolina “the epicenter of the epicenter” of this terrifying and awesome 2020 election. All the demographic changes dooming Republicans and reviving Democrats are at play here, in a state Barack Obama narrowly won in 2008 but Democrats lost in the next two presidential cycles. The number of first-time voters and voters of color is on the rise, according to early-vote estimates. But Republicans are voting early, too. The Senate race between Thom Tillis, a Tea Party zealot elected in 2014, and Democrat Cal Cunningham is a virtual tie, with Cunningham a nose ahead in most polls. Former vice president Joe Biden has a narrow lead.
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But North Carolina’s low-key Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, up for reelection, is the most popular figure in the state, and other Democrats hope to grab his coattails. Four African American women are running for statewide office here, and they’ve become a local “Squad” of their own. Meanwhile the state House and Senate have come in for serious attention from regular Democratic organizations, like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, but also the roster of what we used to call “pop-up groups”—they popped up in 2017, after Trump’s election, but have since become serious players, so we need a new term—from millennial-focused Run for Something to Future Now Fund, Sister District and Indivisible, Flippable, Forward Majority, and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Democrats need six seats in the House, and five in the Senate, to make sure the party has a role in the crucial redistricting coming up in 2021. Just last week, The Cook Political Report shifted the North Carolina Senate from “leans GOP” to toss-up. Taking the House, where Steele is running, will be harder, most people agree, but is doable.
As of last Wednesday, when Steele and I talked, roughly 50 percent of registered voters in her district had already turned out, she told me, either voting early or by mail. That’s a huge advantage to her campaign. “We’re able to tell them if their absentee ballot was not received, or rejected,” so voters can follow up, she notes. Meanwhile, her campaign can focus on possible supporters who haven’t turned out yet, and get them to the polls. “And now we can knock on their doors,” she says with elation.
The big early vote also lets Steele focus on the voters she told me in July she was going to turn out, against all odds—the so-called “low propensity” voters: younger voters and some voters of color, whom many campaigns neglect to focus on while motivating more regular voters, even if some of them have voted Republican.
“We are winning with first-time voters,” Steele tells me, looking at her lists. She says she’s running her campaign as planned now. “Everybody’s gonna be shocked and awed on Election Day.”
In Dallas, Democrat Joanna Cattanach is also benefiting from a stunning level of early voting. She’s also a beneficiary of what some of us call “karma”: The Texas GOP’s vicious gerrymandering over the last two decades couldn’t foresee the future. They designed districts like hers, and others in the state, to sequester voters of color and give wide berth to whites—only to see many such districts diversify, in terms of race, age, and gender, while that behemoth of suburban college-educated white people are, at least under Trump, becoming part of the Democratic base. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of racists. Congrats, Tom DeLay!
Two years ago, educator and journalist Cattanach surprised Texas Democrats by coming within 220 votes of incumbent Representative Morgan Mayer. “We feel good, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” she told me by phone Thursday, noting that “today we will surpass the 2018 turnout in the district.” The next day, Texas passed the total statewide turnout from 2016. The very next day, Dave Wasserman of Redistrict tweeted: “Morning update: Texas reporting 9,669,246 votes cast at the close of early voting. That’s 57% of registered voters and 700,020 more votes than were cast in Texas in *all of 2016.*”
Reached by phone as she’s driving to an early polling place, Cattanach says she isn’t relaxing, because she’s seeing “neck and neck partisanship in turnout,” with Republicans energized this year too. Endorsed by Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action, she runs on “choice and commonsense gun laws,” but in Texas that has made her the target of “some gross ‘pro-life’ videos.” Covid is still “an overriding concern,” she says—cases continue to rise, as does unemployment—and she believes the district’s anxiety favors her. And like Aimy Steele, she finds the boon of early turnout lets her focus on folks in her district who are identified as likely or possible supporters, but who haven’t yet cast a ballot.
“I’ve had to call some of them, a lot. They’re excited to hear from me, but they may not feel like their vote counts.”
One voter, in fact, asked her why his vote mattered.
“I was a little taken aback. So I said, ‘Well, I lost this race by about 200 votes. You matter to me.’” He promised to vote. “And that’s why you call all these folks.”
Cattanach was pulling up to an early voting site, where, she told me, people could pose with photos of Ruth Bader Ginsberg while waiting to cast a ballot. I could hear Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing,” pretty loud, in the background. As candidates and voters have been allowed a little bit more socially distanced interaction in these closing days, you can feel the playful, optimistic energy of the “Resistance” rising, and just in time. I let Cattanach get out of her car and meet her people.
I caught Florida Senate candidate Kathy Lewis in her car, too, as she was driving to a Biden rally in Tampa—her district includes some of that city, plus other parts of Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties. She didn’t get to see Biden, though other Democratic Senate candidates got speaking roles. But she’s still rolling along.
The last time I talked to Lewis, she had been inexplicably ignored by the Florida Senate Democrats Victory Fund, despite running stronger than expected in 2018, and looked left for dead, politically. State Senate leaders are banking on picking up two seats, even though that would leave them in the minority—a victory by Lewis, widely considered the third-strongest challenger, would give Senate Democrats a tie. She was even being chided by donors for criticizing the party over its neglect. That changed, quickly. She’s since gotten backing from Emily’s List and Moms Demand Action, Florida’s feminist Ruth’s List as well as eight incumbent Democratic senators (but not Senate minority leader Gary Farmer). Amazingly, she also won the endorsement of the Tampa Bay Times, a crushing disappointment to her GOP opponent, Danny Burgess, who’s still overwhelming her in fundraising.
“Lewis would bring a rich life experience to the Upper Chamber and a history of perseverance,” the Tampa Bay Times editorial board wrote. “She emerged from an inner-city household in Baltimore to become a financial analyst in both the public and private sectors, and a civic leader in school and children’s groups. She has a command of what’s happening on the ground and what should happen at the 30,000 foot level. The Times editorial board recommends Kathy Lewis.”
It’s no wonder that, compared to when she ran in 2018, “I feel something very different” Lewis tells me. “There is so much more positive energy. Every day, at least, someone says to me, ‘Are you Kathy Lewis? I voted for you!’”
An activist who came to politics trying to support a daughter with a disability, Lewis is seeing the toll Covid is taking on many Floridians—but especially the disabled. Many group homes for people with disabilities are having trouble getting reimbursed during the pandemic, and families are afraid loved ones will be evicted. “The disability community is reeling,” she says. As in all three of these houses on the verge, Lewis knows Medicaid expansion would make a huge difference—to her constituents, and to her politically. All these women remember when Virginia came close—a seat away from taking the House in 2017, Democrats nonetheless won Medicaid expansion. It can happen in these states too; Lewis hopes it will.
The GOP-leaning website Florida Politics reported last week that polling shows Lewis’s race is polling essentially tied. Burgess has outraised her, but she’s nonetheless pulled in a surprising $118,000—surprising given the institutional party’s lack of support. “It’s all good,” the Baltimore native tells me. “I just do my job every day. This kind of pressure isn’t pressure to me.”
All three women say it’s all about turnout. Which at this point brings us to Tuesday.
All the so-called “outside groups” trying to support these insurgents, and learn from what they’re doing for next time, are cautiously optimistic. Aimy Steele is not the only “Resistance” candidate to call door-knocking her “superpower;” even some of the best-funded and most sophisticated outside groups have been prioritizing that as a low-tech, high-impact way to fight the isolation that many people felt led to the Trump nightmare, especially in red and purple states. There’s been concern that texting and phone banking, even done well, can’t quite measure up. “Right now it’s hard to know who’s done real ‘relational organizing,’ in a way that will match the impact of knocking doors,” says Daniel Squadron of Future Now Fund, which has put $2 million into Texas and has backed Cattanach, as well as Steele in North Carolina. He looks forward to what we learn next week, and in the weeks to come.
Although there’s always concern that big early-vote numbers for Democrats will “cannibalize” Election Day turnout, which is where Republicans shine, most people believe this year’s early vote is additive. Several people told me to expect higher turnout than the epochal year 2008, when Obama was first elected. Digital media consultant Christine Bachman of Our States Matter says the early-vote bonanza is letting campaigns like Steele’s devote significant resources to courting the infrequent voters many Democrats traditionally write off—and in North Carolina, she has the blessing of state Democratic Party leaders to do so.
“Thanks to NCDP’s vision, we’re able to invest in longer-term conversations and work to engage voters who stayed home in 2016, particularly voters of color,” Bachman says. “We’re able to tailor and test messaging.” The pandemic set a lot of insurgent campaigns back for a while, since in-person canvassing has been a cornerstone of the Democratic state legislative renaissance since 2017. On the other hand, Bachman adds, the public health emphasis on voting early and voting by mail was an unexpected boon “that has cleared the playing field of an unusually high number of early voters, which allows remaining paid media dollars to go even further.”
Democrats feel good about their chances of flipping chambers not just in these three states but also in at least a half-dozen more, from Arizona to Michigan and Minnesota and lately, even Iowa. There could well be some surprises given what is likely to be historic turnout in many states. While most people (with the exception of the president) know it might take days to figure out the winner of the presidential election, it could take even longer to figure out some of the state races. Narrow margins can require recounts, and the unprecedented use of mail-in ballots will almost certainly complicate things. But after years of Democrats’ neglecting too many races like this, these are good problems to have.