Grassroots campaigns have two new handicaps: grassroots funds from small donors has largely dried up because of financial uncertainty and grassroots campaign strategies have been upended by pandemic best practices.
Running A People-Powered Campaign, While Sheltering In Place
March 30, 2020

Progressive challengers-- especially in races against well-heeled incumbents who can write themselves big checks or appeal to corporate SuperPACs-- have two new handicaps: grassroots funds from small donors has largely dried up because of financial uncertainty and grassroots campaign strategies have been upended by pandemic best practices.

Today we asked Mike Siegel, the progressive candidate running in a gerrymandered Texas district that stretches from northern Austin all the way to the suburbs west and northwest of Houston, how his campaign has changed. Last cycle, Mike held conservative Trumpist Michael McCaul to a 51.1% win. This year, he intends to finish the job he and his volunteer base began in 2017.

Mike told us he's running for Congress to replace one of the wealthiest and most powerful Republicans in DC, Michael McCaul-- a true plutocrat who married the heiress of the Clear Channel ("IHeartMedia") fortune and whose estate in Austin is known for  using more water than any other residence in the city. McCaul owns more oil and gas stock than any sitting representative and has been cited for insider trading again and again.

"Not to mention the fact," wrote Mike, "that this guy does little to nothing to help the working people of this district. McCaul has stood by while rural hospitals close, while a coal plant pollutes the water of two dozen counties, while the ancient flood control infrastructure of Houston washes away, while working people struggle to survive on $7.25 per hour, and while the safety net ruptures and crumbles.

Long story short, there is ample reason to get rid of him. And starting in late 2017, I started the work of making it happen. I ran for Congress in 2018 as a progressive populist. We took on McCaul and his 'R+19' advantage, built a coalition of labor, environmentalist, youth and social justice organizations, recruited 1,000 volunteers, made over 300,000 voter contacts, and turned a "safe Republican" district into a national battleground-- holding McCaul to 51% of the vote and a 4% margin of victory, while putting a giant target on his back in 2020.

Early in 2019, I committed to finishing the job-- and to building a bigger and stronger campaign. Unfortunately, some Austin Democrats, like bees to honey, saw that the Texas 10th is now in play, and decided to challenge me in the primary election. On March 3, after being outspent by my two competitors by a margin of $2.5 million to $500,000, but after mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to knock tens of thousands of doors, I finished first in the three-way race. I won 44% of the vote, with 2nd place at 33%, so I am in a runoff election that was originally scheduled for May 26 but has now been postponed until July 14. And given the state of public health, as well as a Democratic lawsuit demanding universal vote-by-mail, it is possible the election will be postponed again.

And meanwhile, during this crisis, the leading edge of my campaign, our field program, has been put on the shelf. We stopped knocking doors two weeks ago, have cancelled all events, and have slowed most fundraising efforts. Although the first two weeks of March were the top two fundraising weeks of the campaign, the bottom is clearly falling out, and income has dried to a trickle. After initially growing our team after the primary, so that we could not only win the runoff election but also start the essential work of building for the general election, we are now forced to cut back. This last week, we closed our campaign office, and all staff are working from home.

We are down but not out. I am the returning Democratic nominee, with great name ID and a strong base of support among frequent Democratic voters-- those who are most likely to vote in the runoff, whenever that might be. And we are using our network to pioneer new ways of campaigning. Between me and my runoff challenger, I have far more donors and volunteers, even though he has more wealthy ("max") contributors. Our challenge is how to identify supporters during this period; our solution is what one supporter called "the Amway style of campaigning." In other words: we may not be able to get large groups of people together, if each supporter can introduce us to five new supporters, and each of them can do the same, victory is well within reach.


So we are re-tooling, implementing new digital tactics and some old-school approaches, while we also handle our personal lives. My wife is a veterinarian and runs her own clinic, and her services have been deemed "essential" "public health" operations during the shut-down of the city. She is keeping it all together in a very difficult environment. Meanwhile our kids are at home, with school cancelled for the foreseeable future. To handle the need to keep working, we have decided to quarantine together with two neighboring families; all together we have five kids. Each day, one parent takes all five, while the rest of us can work. Yesterday was my first day as teacher.

Of course, my career started in public education, and I was happy to prepare a couple lessons. (The first day's focus: dinosaurs and dragons!) But having five kids, ages 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, is no cakewalk. Especially with limited options and locations for how and where to conduct our school.

It's a crazy world we are in, and even a bit stranger to be a political candidate. 

On one hand, in terms of asking strangers for money, it feels inappropriate. We just learned today that 3.3 million people have filed for unemployment, and we are still at the beginning of the pandemic. We are in a health crisis and an economic crisis. Some of my donors see their stocks tanking, while others have lost their jobs. And there are so many needs in the community. Food banks, alone, deserve so much of our support.

Goal ThermometerOn the other hand, representation matters. We see that more than ever. Trump's errors will likely cost many thousands of lives. The work of folks like McCaul-- who spends his time blaming China for the crisis, while doing nothing to improve the response-- is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Every day that passes, when we don't invoke the Defense Production Act, and immediately build more tests, more PPE, more ventilators, is a day that more lives will be lost. 

And that's what I've returned to. That this election matters. That replacing McCaul matters. That getting more progressive voices in Congress-- who fill fight for the people, in times of peace and times of crisis-- matters.

So in new ways, at a new pace, we are continuing this work in the Texas 10th. To fight for Medicare for All and a national jobs guarantee. To demand aid for people and not corporations. To ensure that this crisis isn't followed by a wave of austerity and further attacks on social welfare.  There is much to be done.

The Blue America Take Back Texas thermometer above, is where you can help Mike keep his campaign going, Please consider contributing what you feel comfortable giving, even if it's less than you could normally contribute.

Thanks for always doing what you can to make a better world for all.

Howie, for the entire Blue America team.

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