The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Democrats at home, a conservative super PAC comes knocking

Canvassers with Americans for Prosperity check their walk list on Aug. 10. (David Weigel/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, was meticulous about the new rules of canvassing. Step one: Knock on the door. Step two: Turn and walk six feet away. Step three: Wait for a voter to reach the door and make the sale to them behind the mutual safety of a mask.

“You're just the person I want to talk to!” Phillips told Laura Fultz, 34, on Monday, as he brandished literature for Republican congressional candidate Nick Freitas. “I can tell you, health care's a big issue for us, and Nick Freitas really tried to open up access through telemedicine, with licensing reforms. I hope you consider him.”

More than two dozen organizers for Americans for Prosperity Action, the AFP’s super PAC, were doing the same thing across Virginia’s 7th District on Monday, introducing the Republican who’s trying to win the district back from Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger. They were part of a distributed army around the country, focusing on a few key candidates in a few key states and contacting voters through AFP Action.

Phillips’s group has done this for a decade, growing from semi-obscurity into the best-organized, and best-funded, organ of what became the tea party movement. David Koch, whose donations created and grew AFP, died last year, but in 2018, the group spent $10 million through the PAC, and door-to-door canvassing is one of its specialties. It boosted campaigns to prevent state legislatures from expanding Medicaid, to persuade voters not to fund more public transportation, and to elect the right kind of candidates, who happen to be mostly conservative Republicans.

AFP usually had more competition. With Democrats wary of traditional door-to-door canvassing in the pandemic, and with the Biden-Harris campaign discouraging it, conservatives have less competition. The surge of in-person volunteers that helped defeat Spanberger's predecessor, Rep. David Brat, isn't happening, and may not happen unless Democrats revisit their pandemic campaign plan.

“The Democrats are in a bind, and they can’t knock on doors, because their whole thing is to stoke fears about covid-19,” said John Fredericks, a radio host and co-chair of the Trump campaign in Virginia. (Fredericks hosted his show from AFP’s Richmond-area office on Monday.) “That’s a huge disadvantage for them right now. Republicans understand they can put a mask on, do social distancing and reach people at home. They’re going to answer the door, and you’re going to be able to have a safe conversation with them.” In 2018, Fredericks said, Spanberger had “buses of volunteers coming in from two or three states away,” and in 2020, she wouldn’t.

Democrats dispute that theory, arguing that their shift to a virtual outreach campaign has paid off. “As of August 7 we've made 550,688 total calls across the coordinated campaign, local campaigns and congressionals this year, sent 2,225,962 total texts, and held over 2,000 virtual events,” said Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Grant Fox. “It really seems like Republicans in Virginia are trying to live in a fantasy world where the virus doesn't exist and they can campaign like normal.”

The Trump campaign and GOP were already at the doors. The AFP Action operation had started up again weeks ago, at an initial cost of nearly $900,000 across the country. Their targets included Senate races in Colorado, Georgia, Montana, North Carolina and Texas, as well as a few House races, like Freitas’s. Since kicking off, they’d contacted 6 million voters, but unlike the GOP, they were not mentioning the president in their messaging or surveys.

“The only presidential we've ever done was Romney in 2012,” Phillips said. “And that was obviously a bitter experience and defeat.”

In Virginia, canvassers began the process by walking into an office building, getting their temperature taken with an external thermometer, and, if there was space inside, sitting in for a quick training on how to use AFP Action’s canvassing app. Chairs were spaced out, but to avoid crowding, some canvassers went under a tent in the parking lot. After a phone-in to another group canvassing in the district, Phillips brought everyone outside.

“Just a couple of things are different than a lot of the operations that we've done in the past,” Phillips told the canvassers when they had all gathered outside. “We want to make sure that we're keeping the voter safe, and also yourself. So please step back, and make sure you have your mask on.”

Canvassers agreed to the rules, and some of them had already been knocking on doors under the new, standoffish conditions. “I haven’t had that much experience of people having super negative reactions,” said Aaron Kubat, 22. “Most of the negative reactions just come from the fact that, you know, people want privacy. That’s understandable. You’re walking onto someone’s property, knocking on the door and asking them questions about politics here. That makes you persona non grata for some people. But for the most part, people are polite.”

There were just two questions on AFP Action’s voter script. One asked if voters were more or less likely to support Freitas once they knew he “supported legislation that made access to health care easier and more affordable” as a Virginia state legislator. Another asked the same support question after informing the voter that Freitas “has voted to remove red tape to help small businesses rebuild and cutting government spending to save taxpayer dollars.” The repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a central cause for AFP for most of the organization’s life, was not among the issues.

“I think that moment, in all candor, has passed, and Republicans failed miserably,” Phillips said. “So, no, that's not what we're calling for. It's a combination of things. One is that this pandemic has shown us the foibles of one-size-fits-all government medicine, socialized medicine. Let's not go that direction. Two, there's a false choice right now that some have put forward that says if you don't want a full shutdown, then you're not really for good health care. That's the silliest argument I've seen in a while.”

The message was a reflection of how much politics had shifted during the Trump presidency, shifting faster during the pandemic. The president had dropped the Obamacare repeal from his list of 2020 promises, even pledging an executive order on something that the ACA made law in 2010, protections for people with preexisting conditions. Republicans were hitting the doors to pitch an economic comeback in a second Trump term, and to warn against the dangers posed by Joe Biden.

“It doesn’t mean on some particular race they don’t have a favorite candidate,” Phillips said, explaining that the group’s algorithm caught plenty of voters who were set in their opinions on races up the ballot. “A House race is more scrambled.”

The canvassers fanned out, with apps that displayed their walk routes, and colors (green for a successful contact, black for a hard no) that tracked their progress. Over two hours, the voters who opened their doors or politely said they were not interested were White, most in modest homes. One block contained two Trump flags and two Confederate flags; one contained Spanberger signs. Until the door opened, there was mostly no hint of what the voter might say.

“At my first house, the look on his face was like: Get out of here,” said Jacob Fish, 27, working through his walk sheet before a brief storm blew through the area. “I thought to myself, let me get through kind of the initial sentence, but he was like: Man, enough. I wanted to go ahead and at least get a chance to read the literature.”

Fish had much more luck at other homes. The value of pandemic-era door-knocks, as some campaigns were finding, was that voters were almost always home. If someone came to pitch a candidate and nobody came to pitch the opponent, that was a gift, which overwhelmed the risks of finding the occasional voter who resented the interruption.

If a conversation seemed to be going well, Phillips added a question of his own. Did the voter want to open up schools again? One of his theories about the race was that more than any partisan goal, voters pined for the return of normalcy.

“Hey, we're going to help you get your life back to normal,” Phillips said. “Part of that is getting health care to a point where we can handle this pandemic so that we can get kids back in school. And we want to make sure you can see your mom or dad who might be at an assisted-living facility. It is a fight. I'm not disputing that. But I do think that approach gives us a shot on that issue to make a difference.”

By the end of the day, across the country, AFP Action claimed to have contacted 11,000 voters in the district, knocking on around 1,000 doors and making 10,000 phone calls.