How You and I Can Influence The November Election: An Interview With Andre Charles, Activate America’s Political and Data Director
This month, Go Green Vote Blue (GGVB) is targeting Will Rollins, candidate for US Congress in California, and Senate candidate Mark Kelly in Arizona. We are guided by Activate America, a national organization that carefully monitors US House and Senate Races. GGVB interviewed Andre Charles, Activate’s Political and Data Director, to understand their strategies for impacting the midterms.
“In the political arena, nothing is predetermined–activists are agents influencing the outcome of the elections,” says Andre Charles, the Political and Data Director at Activate America. Those making calls and writing postcards want to know we are making a difference; Andre ensures us that we are. I interviewed Andre about how Activate America determines priorities and asked about California House races and the national midterms.
Any hope for climate action at the US federal level rests on securing a Blue (Democratic) House and Senate this fall, our top priority. Because the people we need to energize in this election may prioritize other issues over climate, we’re drawing on outrage after the recent Supreme Court Decision reversing Roe v. Wade to educate Democratic voters about the stakes in this election.
While 64% of Americans believe that abortions should be accessible, Republicans claim that if they win the midterms, they’ll ban abortions nationally. In addition, the devastating Supreme Court decision limiting the EPA’s capacity to regulate power plant emissions potentially impacts other decisions. A solid progressive legislative branch must counteract these right-wing rulings.
Choosing and Reaching Targets: The More Times, the Better
According to Andre, the goal of Activate America is to nudge Democrats to vote; in particular, those who reliably vote in presidential election years but have tended to sit out midterm elections. Activate selects races to target by analyzing a series of factors. First, they prioritize the races where Democrats stand a chance of winning, then they prioritize incumbents who have won before. They look at how well candidates are known in the region (e.g., did the candidate hold office locally or at the state level?). They consider races that might be considered a toss-up and determine the percentage of Democrats who voted in primaries in that district.
Activate also looks at each candidate’s history and past voting records They check if the Democratic candidate is raising sufficient money to get their message out and compare the fund-raising capacity to the Republican opponent. Finally, they review the Republican challenger’s electoral priorities, prior voting record, and who’s financing them.
Activate America is also a national partner with America Votes. America Votes is a coordination hub for progressive organizations such as Activate in key states. Members share resources, strategies, and voter targets to limit duplicative efforts and maximize the effectiveness of volunteer outreach.
In California, recent redistricting has positively or negatively impacted candidates’ chances. Activate crafts messages to introduce candidates who may be unfamiliar to many voters in their revised district.
To determine which voters to target, they employ data from prior elections. First, they purchase lists of voters by electoral district. Andre explains, “Let’s say we’re doing a phone bank with a message focused on priority issues of younger voters, such as the environment or student debt relief. The first cut in the district is registered Democratic voters with a phone number and address. The next cut is voters under 35, followed by their previous voting history – to find those who’ve skipped previous midterms.
Andre explains that all electoral campaigns work on providing a consistent message in various formats, reaching people multiple times. For example, he says, “Between now and the general election, we hopefully send up to three postcards, three texts, and make one or two phone call attempts.” The messages inform voters about Democratic candidates, what they stand for and have done, and why not to vote for the Republicans. “The key approach is to share something good about our preferred candidate, along with a peppy get-out-the-vote message.”
Andre reminds us that increasing turnout is hard. It is difficult to find research correlating a particular electoral victory with phone banking or postcarding. However, he considers it a success when a study shows a 1-2% increase in voting by those contacted compared to a control group.
Interestingly, Andre says that getting ballots mailed to our homes will not, by itself, guarantee turnout. Instead, the aggregate of all these little steps increases turnout.
After the California Primary
After the California primary, Activate did a reset based on the results. They analyzed turnout for each of the nine congressional districts where Democratic wins are possible, but not guaranteed.
Nationally, approximately 40-60 seats do not have an assured Democratic outcome. While California is a super-Blue state with a Democratic State legislature, the nine districts targeted by Activate are in areas that don’t always lean Democratic. Many of these districts changed in redistricting, making it necessary to introduce the favored candidate to new voters.
At the time of our interview in late June, turnout was more than 31%. Andre expects turnout will rise to 33-34% sometime in July, as all the votes are counted. He said those percentages are in the lower range of expected turnout.
Our task is to build momentum until October, when ballots reach California voters. Going forward, Activate will focus on people who didn’t vote in the primary, because those who voted in the primary are more likely to vote in November.
In California, of the nine districts, we need to hold on to Democratic incumbents in three competitive districts.
Josh Harder, CA-13 is in a newly redefined district that leans Democratic but is split. Activate is working to present him to constituents there.
Katy Porter, CA-45 is a climate champion, doing amazing work in Congress. She also has new areas in her district and needs to be introduced there.
Mike Levin, CA-49, is an expert in clean energy policy. He was one of our great success stories in the 2018 blue wave.
Name recognition is crucial in three critical races in redrawn districts.
Adam Gray, CA-13, is advancing to November in a newly drawn open seat in the Central Valley. A California Assembly member, having represented nearly 70% of the district’s residents, Gray is facing Republican John Duarte, a conservative farmer. Duarte never held office and was fined $1 million by the federal government after plowing wetlands on his property.
Christy Smith, CA-27, won the primary and is running against well-funded MAGA incumbent Mike Garcia. In 2020, Smith lost to Garcia by 333 votes. Garcia has strong anti-abortion positions and voted to overturn the presidential election AFTER the January 6th insurrection.
Will Rollins, CA-41, a new candidate, won the primary election in a district that includes Riverside and Palm Springs. Rollins, a former prosecutor and climate supporter who’s gay and fights all forms of discrimination, is running against Republican Calvert, a climate denier who’s outspoken against LGBTQ people.
Three more House races are on Activate’s radar. They are closely monitoring the races of Democrats Rudy Salas, CA-22, Jay Chen, CA-39, and Asif Mahmoud, CA-40, all of whom are facing incumbent Republicans. Those of us who serve as GGVB volunteers have our work cut out for us.
Beyond California: the National Strategy
Activate is working to influence races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. GGVB volunteers will focus on two senate races.
Arizona Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly is a 25-year veteran of the Navy and NASA, a cancer survivor, and husband to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt. Kelly highlights climate impacts on Arizona with temperatures exceeding 100º 128 days a year – more than one day in three. Although Kelly’s reelection odds are good, we can’t afford to take chances, considering Arizona’s historic Republican lean and his narrow 2020 victory.
Nevada Incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto won the Democratic primary and will face Trump-endorsed Adam Laxalt. Cortez Masto has a larger campaign chest, but now money is flowing to Laxalt. Six years ago, Nevada had a Republican governor, a Republican-controlled state legislature, and one Republican US Senator. Today, Nevada is all blue. Yet, the Cook Report considers this race a toss-up.
The Upshot: Elections Are Fluid; Messaging Must Be Flexible
Races tend to tighten up as we approach November. Activate is keeping abreast of the many factors that might sway voters one way or the other (e.g., gas prices, inflation, overturning Roe v Wade, and revelations from the January 6th hearings). Andre encourages us to stay hopeful, but not to become complacent. “I’m skeptical of definitive statements, always phrasing things in terms of probability. I don’t want to sugarcoat things. Much will change between now and November. From my perspective, volunteer activism is critical. Activate America is attempting to give activists meaningful options to be involved, hopefully changing things to benefit Democratic candidates.”