WARRENTON, Va. — Lori Boerner rose early in deep-blue Northern Virginia and went west for 40 miles, to a place where Democrats could actually use a hand.
Since her own congressman, Rep. Don Beyer (D), seems a shoo-in over Republican Thomas Oh, Boerner and several dozen fellow volunteers were knocking on doors for Democrat Leslie Cockburn, who is in a tight central Virginia race. Boerner’s been doing the same for Democrats in three other close congressional contests, from Virginia Beach and Richmond to a swing district closer to home.
“The reason I’m in this car, driving now, is because Donald Trump is president. To me, Trump is a four-letter word,” Boerner said from behind the wheel of her blue Subaru Outback, which was shuttling two other volunteers and a trunk full of campaign signs to the semirural reaches of Fauquier County.
Boerner, of McLean, is part of a virtual army of Democratic volunteers who have spread out from seemingly safe congressional districts to more competitive territory, with the goal of flipping control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
They have put a new spin on old-fashioned grass-roots activism by crossing district and even state lines.
“I can’t vote for Vangie [Williams], and neither can you,” Dorathea Peters told would-be volunteers at an Oct. 1 meeting in Alexandria, referring to the Democrat trying to unseat Rep. Rob Wittman (R) in Virginia’s 1st District. “But there are other things we can do. . . . We want you canvassing, and we want you writing postcards, and we want your money. You only have 35 days to save democracy in this country.”
It’s not unusual in presidential years for busloads of activists — such as college Republicans and Democrats — to descend on some critical swing state in the final push before Election Day. Indeed, Boerner herself joined other Northern Virginians to campaign for Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election in southwest Pennsylvania earlier this year. What’s new are the weeks-long, out-of-district volunteer efforts for the midterms, often coordinated by regional and national groups that have sprung up since Trump won the White House.
With names such as Beyond Arlington, Dems to Go and Swing Left, these groups connect volunteers from “safe” Democratic territory with swing-district campaigns.
That means the caller nudging a rural Democrat to return her absentee ballot might be phoning from Fairfax County. That handwritten postcard reminding someone in southeastern Virginia to vote may have been scribbled out at a house party in Maryland. The guy knocking on suburban Richmond front doors might have crossed an ocean to get there.
“I’m a carpetbagger,” Will Lashley, an American expatriate living in London, acknowledged cheerfully when a voter in Henrico County asked where he lives.
A semiretired film editor who went to grade school in the Richmond area, Lashley, 65, has returned to Virginia for a month to go door to door for Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA agent trying to unseat Rep. Dave Brat (R) in Virginia’s 7th District. Lashley shelled out close to $800 for a plane ticket and is traveling the district in a 2005 Acura with 240,000 miles on it, borrowed from a brother who lives in West Virginia. A local volunteer put him up in a spare room.
“I’m worried about the country,” he said when asked why he’d go to all that trouble. “There’s a real attack on the basic institutions, like the Justice Department. I’m from the 1960s; I never thought I’d be defending the CIA, but here I am.”
Nancy Najarian, knocking on doors outside of Warrenton, met a young mother who firmly noted that she hadn’t had time to focus on the election. Then Najarian pitched Cockburn to a normally Republican voter who let his three large black Labradors jump all over her on his front porch.
Near the end of her hours-long canvass was Joan Wiberg, an artist, former teacher and Democrat who feels politically isolated in her neighborhood. Wiberg let loose with a barrage of pent-up frustration over President Trump.
“I gave birth to two people, and they’re both Democrats,” she told Najarian. “Usually, my husband and I cancel out each other’s vote — but sometimes he doesn’t vote because he hunts, and it’s hunting season.”
“November 6th will be a good hunting day,” Najarian said.
Using “outsiders” to woo voters is not without risk. “AstroTurf” is how one Republican strategist described the practice — a poor stand-in, he suggested, for genuine grass roots. Other Republicans question whether someone from, say, Massachusetts, can “pass” for a Virginian, even if the Internet makes it easy to team up with far-flung campaigns.
“Technology barriers have fallen, but the cultural barriers have not,” said Garren Shipley, spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Virginia. In recent cycles, he said, the GOP has gotten away from busing in volunteers for presidential contests, having learned — from former community organizer Barack Obama — that voters are more likely to be swayed by neighbors.
“Bringing people from the outside is the antithesis of the Obama model, which we copied,” he said.
Democrats say they are merely thinking outside the highly gerrymandered box that Republican mapmakers have stuffed voters into. They see the out-of-district activism as the grass-roots answer to REDMAP, a highly effective GOP strategy to win control of redistricting one state house at a time.
After Obama’s 2008 win, national Republicans focused on states where Republicans needed to flip only a few seats to win control of the legislatures and the mapmaking that would occur after the 2010 census. The GOP won control of 22 state legislatures in 2010, paving the way for Republican gains in Congress in 2012.
“Democrats actually won the popular vote [in 2016] but don’t have majority of any branch of government,” said Rita Bosworth, a former public defender from the San Francisco area who founded the Sister District Project after Trump’s win.“The country’s being ruled by a minority of the population.”
Sister District pairs volunteers in heavily Democratic territory with their nearest swing district. It helped Democrats pick up 15 seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates last year, organizing house parties where people wrote postcards — sometimes with telltale postmarks that telegraphed far-off support, sometimes sent to the campaigns to mail out themselves. A Sister District chapter in Vermont raised $8,000 selling batches of homemade soup and sent the money to Virginia Democrats. Some volunteers traveled to knock on doors.
“We have to harness all of our resources — our majority — and send them to places where it will make a difference,” Bosworth said.
Within Virginia, the Arlington County Democratic Committee created an offshoot — Beyond Arlington, whose volunteers spread out across the commonwealth to help with legislative races last year.
This year, they are pitching in for Spanberger; Williams; Cockburn, who faces Republican Denver Riggleman in the 5th District; Jennifer Wexton, who is challenging Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in the 10th District; and Elaine Luria, who is challenging Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R) in the 2nd District.
“We do have a lot of blue folks in Arlington, so we’re happy to share the wealth,” said Jill Caiazzo, chairwoman of the Arlington Democratic committee.
Alexandria-based Postcards For Virginia has mailed 350,000 handwritten cards for Democratic congressional hopefuls even in the reddest parts of the state — including Jennifer Lewis, who faces Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge) for an open seat in the 6th, and Democrat Anthony Flaccavento, who is trying to unseat Rep. Morgan H. Griffith (R) in the 9th.
The volunteers pay for the cards and postage themselves and report those expenses as an in-kind contribution to the campaigns.
“Our motto has been, ‘Virginia is my district,’ ” said co-founder Robbin Warner. “It’s our state. . . . The energy that we have is contagious.”