Letters From the Trenches are letters written by activists for activists, highlighting some of the work that’s making a difference in our world. Our latest installment is written by Jonathan Zucker, founder of It Starts Today.
It Starts Today, like many Resistance organizations, was born at 1 AM on Election Night. But the problem it’s meant to solve is one I’ve been working on for a long time.
What most worried me on Election Night—aside from the prospect of turning the nation over to Donald Trump and a GOP Congress—was how quickly my left-wing friends on Facebook descended from shock and disbelief to infighting. Instead of refocusing our energy from winning the election to resisting the Trump takeover, I saw progressives lashing out at each other as they looked for people to blame.
I have been working in progressive campaign finance for most of my professional life. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed our movement’s greatest weakness: our consistent inability to work together towards our common goals. What we desperately need, and what I’ve been searching for all these years, is a way to unite grassroots Democrats across the country behind Democratic candidates and activists everywhere. On Election Night, of all nights, the idea finally came together:
Support every single Democrat running for Congress through recurring small-dollar donations.
In the months that followed, I assembled a team and we created a simple donation-processing page that would do the job for the next big election—the 2018 midterms.
When we launched It Starts Today in early January, I was blown away by the response: first dozens, then hundreds, and ultimately thousands of people signed up to lend their support. People across the country were realizing that we could move forward as a strong and united front, leaving no district behind and giving every single voter a chance to support a funded, viable Democratic nominee.
As it turns out, “supporting every Democrat” isn’t just a good way to unite the Left around a common cause. It’s the solution to a problem that has been dogging us for decades, but that hasn’t been recognized for the danger it is until quite recently.
Between 1932, when FDR and the Democrats swept into power, and 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans retook the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party had such a firm grip on Congress that, aside from a few swing districts here and there, we effectively stopped having to worry about electoral politics. We could afford to be stuffy and technocratic because ultimately our job on either side of Election Day was the same: making sure that the government ran effectively, and bringing it in line with our ideals where we could. We were a national party and we acted like one, making sure that we were competitive in every district nationwide.
Then 1994 happened. Democrats lost control of Congress, leaving us out in the cold in much of the country. In response, the party sought to recapture the majority it had lost in an understandable way, by targeting the handful of competitive districts that presented the most direct path to electoral success.
We used that same tactic again the next election.
And the one after that.
And the one after that.
Every time, it made sense in the short term. And, every time, this decision to be “strategic” and “efficient” also caused us to abandon more and more districts, essentially ceding them to the Republican party. As a result, each Democratic wave—think 2008—got reversed fairly quickly, as the Republican party rallied around a consistent message and fought back. Meanwhile, each Republican wave—think 2010—became that much harder to undo, as the Democratic Party focused on an increasingly smaller pool of “competitive” districts.
The money raised in the 2016 Congressional elections tells the story of a fractured party. Democratic nominees raised an average of $928k each to fund their campaigns. But, in 206 neglected races, the average was only a paltry $97k—a fraction of what it takes to run a viable, modern electoral campaign. The closer you look, the uglier the picture gets. Of those 206 districts, 128 raised less than $50k, and 78 raised less than $10k. Finally, in 29 districts, the Democrats did not even have a candidate on the ballot, much less money to fund their campaign.
It’s tempting to try to write these races off as lost causes, deep within inhospitable terrain. But many of these forgotten districts were in crucial 2016 battlegrounds—four were in Wisconsin, five in Michigan, ten in North Carolina, eleven in Pennsylvania, and fourteen in Florida—and ignoring them costs progressives far more than individual seats in the House. Just a few thousand more Democratic voters in each of these districts last November, which could have been mobilized by viable and funded Democratic House candidates, would have given us rather different results up and down the ballot.
Russ Feingold, Katie McGinty, Deb Ross, and Patrick Murphy would be sitting in a Democratic-controlled Senate.
We’d have put a dent in GOP majorities in those state legislatures.
And we’d have a different president.
We need to learn our lesson: In races where Democrats don’t compete, we both lose an election and undermine our ability to compete in the future. (Just ask someone like Jon Ossoff, who campaigned in a district that Democrats hadn’t seriously contested since 1996, and who had to build his entire campaign infrastructure from scratch because so little had been done there before. You cannot reverse decades of neglect in just a few months, even with $23 million.) In these districts, conservatism turns into fanaticism, and right-wing voters become entrenched right-wing radicals, because voices making progressive counterarguments have been absent for too long.
At It Starts Today, our vision is to create a network of small donors who, by working together, will provide campaign funding to every single legislative candidate who secures a Democratic Party nomination. Our goal is to create a virtuous cycle: guaranteed funding across the board will attract better candidates, who will inspire stronger voter turnout, which will make every district bluer—maybe even enough to turn the House blue. Even in the districts we don’t win at first, we’ll prove that there is an alternative to the conservative worldview that some parts of the country have been force-fed for decades.
We’ll insulate ourselves against gerrymandering. We’ll give local activists a funded candidate to rally around. We’ll help candidates put together competent campaign organizations. We’ll make the Republicans play defense in places where they least expect it.
And we’ll stop leaving parts of the country behind.
If you want to see Democrats organizing in every district in the country, we need your support now. Please sign up for a monthly subscription with It Starts Today, and help us rebuild the Democratic Party so that it can once again be a voice for every voter in every district.
We hope you’ll join us.
~Jonathan Zucker, the founder of It Starts Today, is a political technologist. He was the first employee at ActBlue (and second CEO) and has collaborated with entities as varied as as Planned Parenthood, Crooks and Liars, Color of Change, the Human Rights Campaign, SEIU, and the League of Conservation Voters on their state and federal campaign activities.