The September primaries in Rhode Island made national headlines when a wave of progressive electoral challengers unseated conservative and establishment Democratic incumbents across the state. This string of victories marked a left advance in a longer-running struggle between the traditionalist wing of the Rhode Island Democratic Party and an increasingly powerful coalition of progressive candidates, caucuses, and political groups. Nationwide, left candidates have won important electoral victories in Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, and other state and local races across the country. While we may have lost the presidential primary, there is good reason to believe we’re winning the battle for the party’s grassroots at the state and local level. 

My own organization, Reclaim RI, played an important role in the most recent victories for progressive candidates. All four of the state house candidates that we endorsed and worked to elect — incumbent Senator Sam Bell and insurgents Leonela Felix, Meghan Kallman, and David Morales — scored convincing wins in House and Senate primary elections. We were able to quickly build a new organization using existing relationships, identify a political opportunity that scaled with our capacity, and foster the organizational discipline to follow through on our commitments. Our experience demonstrates that even a young organization can quickly become a meaningful political player if it chooses its fights wisely. Here’s how we did it.

 

Identifying Our Opportunities

Reclaim RI was founded by a group of former Rhode Island organizers who came together during the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign. After sending busloads of volunteers to New Hampshire and helping to run two field offices in Massachusetts, our plans to win our home state were dashed by Joe Biden’s sudden and surprising victory in the Democratic primary just as the coronavirus pandemic shut down everyday life. We knew that, without the Bernie campaign, the relationships, organizing structure, and list that we’d worked hard to build could disappear. Inspired by the example of 2016 Sanders successor organization Reclaim Philadelphia, we decided to shift our focus to bringing a Sanders-style message and field operation to state politics.

Our origin story — and an account of the early challenges we confronted as we publicly launched our organization amid a nationwide uprising demanding racial justice — has already appeared in The Forge. When that essay went to press, we knew that we would have to adjust our model to better support movement demands around police and prison defunding. We also realized that we had an important contribution to offer: while many of the struggles around police funding have taken place at the municipal level, a significant portion of the state budget in Rhode Island is allocated to policing and, especially, to prisons. As our state confronts a massive projected budget shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic, we have made the case that funding for the carceral state should be cut, not essential government services.

But we knew that we needed to prove ourselves as an organization before we could have an impact on the state budget and that meant choosing the terrain on which to fight. Rhode Island offers a key opportunity for small but motivated groups to have an outsized impact in local elections: the state’s overwhelming Democratic voter majority means that primary victories ensure general election victories for many offices. In Rhode Island, the Democratic party wields super-majority control of both houses of the General Assembly as well as the governorship. But the state Democratic Party has long been run by a close-knit network of right-wing Democrats, many of whom hold views now far out of step with the mainstream of the party. They have campaigned with endorsements from the NRA, the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee, and police and correctional officers’ unions. Despite the dominance of the establishment machine, they cannot possibly defend all their seats when challenged: there are a high number of elected state legislators relative to the population, meaning that many seats are up for grabs. The voter universe and number of committed supporters a candidate needs to identify to win election are small compared to legislative races in other states. Taken together, this means (for better or worse!) that Rhode Island General Assembly elections are often decided by only a few thousand primary voters and, in some cases, by fewer than 1,000. 

Unlike national campaigns, local and, in the case of Rhode Island, statewide races are often won simply by engaging in door-to-door campaigning. After working hard for the Bernie campaign, we’d watched in dismay as all the work we had done in Massachusetts evaporated seemingly overnight when party leaders and voters consolidated behind Joe Biden. The kinds of relatively shallow persuasion conversations we were having with primary voters on the doors couldn’t inoculate supporters against the media onslaught encouraging them to fall in line behind the inevitable nominee. I recall volunteering at a Bernie Sanders campaign field site in southeastern Massachusetts where MSNBC was playing nonstop, with commentator after commentator delivering anti-Sanders messages. If our own volunteers were willfully subjecting themselves to this negative coverage, I thought, what chance did we have of preventing softer supporters from falling under its spell?

Local races give organizers a chance to set the narrative and focus on the candidate and their message. In presidential elections, we contend with political fatigue: campaigns go on forever, and voters are inundated with constant political messages; they are bombarded by calls, visits, and campaign literature and often understand their own preferences as unimportant in a contest in which millions of votes will be cast. State legislative races, when they are covered at all, are the province of just a handful of reporters who rarely have the time to dig deep on all the candidates, let alone craft compelling storylines about every contest. In local races, however, the challenges are almost exactly the opposite: voters often cannot name their elected representatives, know relatively little about how the issues in their own lives translate to state house politicking, and, in some cases, may be only dimly aware than an election is taking place. We were able to use the relative dearth of coverage to make a pitch for better state government to voters: what if the state actually worked to fix what’s gone wrong rather than exacerbating it?

 

Developing Our Strategy

In this election cycle, we hoped to invest strategically in a small number of races and work as hard as possible for those candidates. We wanted our endorsements to matter, to send a signal for future cycles that our involvement would change the landscape of the race and significantly improve a candidate’s chances of winning. We began by forming an electoral committee whose job it was to research the candidates running or planning to run primary races. This was a challenge because, at the time, most of our leaders and members were busy building local organizing committees and fighting an austerity budget: we had to be careful with our capacity and ensure that our electoral, base building, and issue campaigns complemented rather than undermined one another. 

We also harnessed connections with current and former elected officials for tips on which races seemed like good bets. We reached out to a handful of candidates, asking them to meet for a virtual interview with the electoral committee. Like any organization considering an endorsement, we asked them questions about their positions and their values: why were they running, who were they hoping to represent, what had they already accomplished, and did they share our vision for racial, social, and economic justice? Equally importantly, we asked about how their races were shaping up. How many supporters had they already identified? How were they planning to identify enough supporters to win? How much money had they raised, and how were they planning to spend it? In other words: were they running a vanity campaign or mounting a serious and disciplined challenge? Our goal was to identify candidates who could most benefit from the kind of support we were offering. We had neither money nor a big enough platform to reach voters in their districts simply by endorsing. But we did have the ability to make a substantial contribution to their field operations, something that would be critical to any candidate running a contested race.

Once the electoral committee settled on four candidates, it was time to ask our members to ratify our endorsements and work to elect them. Here again we faced a challenge: though the group had been born out of the shared experience of organizing on an electoral campaign, it was not clear whether our members had retained their enthusiasm for such work through July. Watching the end of the Bernie Sanders campaign was crushing. It seemed not to have mattered that the campaign had the most volunteers, the most enthusiastic supporters, and the most sophisticated field operation. 

Moreover, by July, the nationwide uprisings in defense of Black lives had challenged our orientation towards organizing and social change. What if the real transformation of social consciousness and political possibility only happened in the form of seemingly spontaneous mass demonstrations while we had been painstakingly learning to build lists, call voters, and knock doors? 

But we continued to believe in winning elections as an important part of the fight for justice. State budget documents enshrine our society’s commitments — or lack thereof — to healthcare, housing support, and all the other essential social services. Winning a just budget requires replacing unsympathetic elected officials with sympathetic ones. 

Luckily, the candidates whom we had chosen to endorse connected with our members. They appeared at virtual meetings, engaged personally with member questions and concerns, and spoke convincingly about their campaigns and their messages. We developed a handful of volunteer leaders responsible for coordinating with candidates and filling volunteer shifts. 

 

Building Our Operation

We still faced a major hurdle in navigating the coronavirus pandemic. At first, we were not sure if it would be safe to canvass at all or whether voters would be willing to have conversations at the doors. While this is still a live question for Democratic campaigns at every level, Rhode Island politicians and their supporters were eager to get back to face-to-face voter contact as soon as it seemed possible to do so safely. Ultimately, in-person canvassing was crucial to our candidates’ victories. We won by identifying supporters at their doorsteps and turning those supporters out to vote. Our opponents either did not canvass or started canvassing only just before the election, when it was already too late to catch up. We took masking and distancing seriously; none of the volunteers who knocked doors got sick, and, to our surprise, almost everyone we spoke to was happy to talk with us.

We started with a modest goal of filling fifteen canvassing shifts on our first weekend of electoral work and built out our capacity as the election date got closer. Fifteen canvass shifts might not seem like a huge contribution, but, in these races, even small commitments of time and people power can help campaigns hit their contact numbers consistently. In a three- or four-hour shift, a canvasser might knock 40-50 doors; in a universe of 2,000 doors, four or five canvassers might cover a tenth of the doors in the district in one afternoon. The campaigns that we worked with aimed to knock every door several times: partnering with an organization like ours allowed them to focus on other elements of their strategy without spending huge amounts of time on volunteer recruitment. 

We took the task of member engagement and training seriously. Asking members to knock doors was a first step: eventually we also asked them to recruit their friends and family, encouraging them to develop relational organizing skills that allowed us to scale up our operation and fill over fifty canvassing shifts on the weekend before the election. In the spirit of member development, we understood the primary as an occasion for skill building and sharing. We hosted a two-part training series with field staff from the Nikil Saval state senate campaign in Philadelphia (and Senator-elect Saval) and members of the electoral committee of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (including state Senator-elect Jabari Brisport). In the first session, we learned the essential techniques of electoral canvassing: introducing yourself and the candidate, getting the voter’s story, connecting their concerns to the issues in the race, and making concrete asks of voters so you can accurately assess their level of support. In the second, we thought through our organization’s larger strategy. We knew that members would be more likely to come out and knock doors on any given weekend if they viewed that action as part of an ongoing political project that they had a stake in, and so we prioritized communicating both our electoral and larger political strategy to members in trainings, meetings, and internal communications. 

Equally importantly, we built key partnerships with other organizations whose strengths complemented our own. Two of our candidates, incumbent state Senator Sam Bell and state representative candidate David Morales, had been endorsed by the Providence DSA. Both our leadership and our general membership have strong ties to the DSA chapter, which had already spent months supporting Morales’s insurgent candidacy. We quickly realized that by coordinating volunteer and member outreach with the DSA, we could more efficiently schedule shifts and develop leaders. Both operations grew in capacity from this partnership, which helped Morales fully canvass his district three times over.

We also partnered with the Rhode Island Working Families Party, which had endorsed a slate of candidates across the state (including Sam Bell, Leonela Felix, and Meghan Kallman). While many local candidates benefit from running people-powered, homegrown campaigns, that doesn’t mean local races can’t use more campaign expertise. Through the primaries, WFP offered strategic guidance on campaign materials and voter targeting as well as crucial digital and electronic infrastructure that allowed our volunteers to reach voters beyond the doors. Our partnership with WFP on Leonela Felix’s campaign in particular helped us achieve more than either of us could have individually: while WFP contributed campaign strategy and infrastructure, we provided the muscle, knocking more than two thousand doors in her district alone.

 

Next Steps: Bringing Momentum to the State Budget Fight

The results of all four elections offer a convincing vindication of our strategy and our organizational model. We accomplished more than we set out to, and we are now a larger and more powerful organization as a result. We recognize that at least some of our successes are contingent on conditions that aren’t always replicable: we took on winnable races with generally lackluster opponents and got a boost from starting in a presidential election year in which liberals and progressives alike are highly motivated to vote. It may not always be possible to win so decisively, but we are working to consolidate our success and parlay it into greater institutional power. We are lucky to be part of a growing left electoral infrastructure encompassing groups like DSA and RI WFP, as well as the Providence chapter of the Sunrise Movement and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, another grassroots organization whose candidates notched eight primary victories. 

Initially, our leaders worried that the electoral campaigns might detract from our organizing against an austerity budget. And so we worked hard to win electoral victories that would send a clear anti-austerity message, redounding to the budget campaign’s benefit. Electoral, movement, and issue work do not need to be a tradeoff if you work hard to integrate them into something bigger and more powerful. 

Still, the budget fight will test our leverage as well as our ability to organize. The state faces an $800 million shortfall, and without a new federal coronavirus relief package, lawmakers will seek to fill the hole with drastic cuts. Already, Democratic governor Gina Raimondo has begun unilaterally withholding promised aid to cities and towns. We and our partner organizations propose another solution: we can raise revenue by instituting a modest tax on the state’s top earners and save crucial social services by drastically cutting prison spending, using the state’s unspent rainy day fund, and carefully prioritizing the state’s billion dollars in unspent CARES Act money. The alternative — a housing, employment, and healthcare crisis on top of a pandemic and economic crisis — would be a human catastrophe and an unspeakable moral failure. We have built a strong organization, and we have cultivated strong partnerships with political allies. Now we need to use them to save the social spending that Rhode Islanders depend upon. 

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