Democrats campaign for races they can’t vote in

Julia Preszler

Sitting at a mahogany-colored table in a house on a quiet street in Newton, Leo Hannenberg click-click-clicked in rapid succession on his clunky Panasonic Toughbook. With each click, he fired off a text message to someone in Texas, asking whether they would knock on doors to support Democratic senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke before the midterm election.

A few feet away, Bryan Barash, 35, absentmindedly tapped “send” over and over on his phone while bending down to pet a spunky black-and-white dog. A few women sat on armchairs in the living room and called voters around the country, reading off a script on their laptops. At the dining table in the another room, campaigners wrote postcards to drive support for state-level candidates in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

The volunteers are part of a small Newton- and Brookline-based group, Rise Up MA, that popped up after the results of the 2016 election rolled in. They are just one of dozens of groups in Massachusetts that campaign for races they cannot vote in — outside of the Commonwealth — hoping to secure Democratic majorities in legislative bodies nationwide.

“It’s an act of faith,” said Hannenberg, a 59-year-old medical IT retiree. “All the campaigns tell us what we are doing is making a difference. Compared to doing nothing, it feels like a better option.”

The Sister District Project, an effort launched after the 2016 election that coordinates volunteers in 18 states and the District of Columbia, selected some of the candidates Rise Up MA campaigns for. The group, which supports candidates running for state legislatures around the country, is helping campaigns for 24 candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Sister District Project identifies its candidates based off of their ability to flip a state legislature blue as well as their potential to be Democratic leaders in the future, said Michelle Ottaviano, 46, who serves as co-captain for the Massachusetts and Rhode Island chapter.

Ottaviano, who became politically active after the 2016 election, said she campaigns for candidates in races around the country because laws passed in other states affect Massachusetts. She cited the Iron Pipeline, a phenomenon where smugglers buy guns in Southern states with weaker gun laws and bring them to Northern states.

“If people ask why I am calling about their state election, I say it’s because its very important to me,” Ottaviano said. “The laws going on in your state affect me.”

Since Massachusetts is already solidly liberal — with 117 Democrats and just 34 Republicans in the state House of Representatives — many progressives here feel like their campaigning efforts are best spent elsewhere.

“Massachusetts definitely has opportunity for improvement but the situation we’re in is a lot better than other states,” said Keri Dogan, 45, co-founder of Rise Up MA. “It seems like there’s got to be more we can do in places that aren’t Massachusetts.”

Dogan said she feels like she has a larger impact on lower-level races than on federal ones and enjoys educating voters on upcoming elections.

“The best calls are the ones where people don’t know an election is coming up,” she said.

While Democrats campaigned for candidates around the country, Republicans remained focused on races in-state, said Rachel Kemp, a woman in her 50s who serves as the Massachusetts GOP state committeewoman for the second Suffolk District. She said the party has been battling between more moderate Charlie Baker supporters and those who would like to see the party take a more conservative, pro-Trump stance.

“We have enough to do right here,” Kemp said.

She is worried that the U.S. House of Representatives will flip to a Democratic majority.

“If the House flips then we’re going to have a major distraction which will be the Democratic attempts to impeach the president,” she said. “We need to focus on our economy, on our education.”

On the other side, Democrats are concerned that Republicans, who control both legislative chambers in 32 states, have tipped the scales in their favor through gerrymandering and voter suppression measures. Liberals care about a slew of issues from immigration to healthcare, but for those actively campaigning, the balance of power is at the forefront of their minds.

“Without our democracy, none of the other things really matter,” said Monica Burke, 45, the head of Indivisible Acton, a group made up of about people who live in and around Acton that supports Democratic candidates.

Back in Newton, Hannenberg is worried about being able to preserve a two-party system in this country if Democrats do not take a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying for him “it’s 2018 or bust.”

“If we don’t get at least one branch of government, I think it’s over,” he said. “It sounds alarmist, but I do believe that’s true.”

This motivates the lifelong political activist to spend his evenings sending text messages to voters in Texas. The responses vary. “Don’t have time to knock on doors, but you have my vote,” one texter said. “Sorry voted for Texas Ted,” said another.

O’Rourke has attracted nationwide attention, raising more campaign funds than any other U.S. Senate candidate in history and twice as much money as his Republican opponent, incumbent Ted Cruz. Nearly half of the $25 million in itemized donations to the Beto for Texas campaign were from states outside of Texas, according to Time Magazine’s analysis of receipts posted by the Federal Elections Commission. Massachusetts residents have contributed $819,175, putting it in fourth place in terms of donations, behind California and New York.

The O’Rourke campaign declined to comment and the Cruz campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

When the votes are tallied Tuesday night, the campaigners will learn whether the door knocking, phone calls, texts, postcards and long hours are worth it.

If they can flip the House, Hannenberg said, “I’ll feel like our head will be above water, but I don’t have an expectation that we’ll be out of the woods.”