An Op-ed by Todd Zimmerman
As the chair of the Schuylkill County Democratic Committee, former co-chair of Gary Wegman’s 2020 campaign in PA-09, and a long-time political activist, I’ve seen a lot of what works, and doesn’t, in both congressional and national elections. What doesn’t work, and what is hurting us in races from local school boards and county commissioners up to next year’s likely presidential face-off against Donald Trump, is both neglect of rural counties and chronic Democratic disorganization. Here’s why we need more coherent local and national rural strategies, and how permanent coordination offices in each congressional district can help.
First, what doesn’t work. Over the last decade, the Republican voter registration edge in our (admittedly) traditionally Republican county has grown from 4,000 to 20,000. I understand why many rural blue-collar workers switched their vote to the Republicans: they believe free trade agreements, brokered by Democrats, have banished their jobs overseas. We need to counter this narrative with effective, ongoing messaging about good economic news under Joe Biden. But reaching voters with such messaging will require far more coordination between national and local partners, and far more money from the national party for rural candidates and grassroots workers, than we’ve seen in the past.
For example, to my knowledge, Gary Wegman’s campaign never received a penny from the national Democrats. Every Democrat who wins a primary, even in a tough rural area, needs financial help from the national Democratic party so they can begin to compete for the rural votes we need so badly. If all 435 congressional candidates received $300,000 each, that would total $130.5 million. Yes, that is a lot of money, and I am all for campaign finance reform. But until reform is instituted, we have no choice but to tap billionaires' pockets to donate to a PAC—not something a lot of rural candidates can do.
Beyond money, we need “coordinated campaigns” that live up to the name. Every four years, the national presidential campaigns supposedly work with the various congressional and state legislative campaigns. The ideal is that all three groups share updated lists via VoteBuilder as each contacts voters throughout the campaign. We should also coordinate texting, phone banking and canvassing, too, so we don’t waste effort and annoy voters with multiple touches. This is just common sense. But too many national and regional organizers ignore their local partners, partners who know the area's demographics and voters the best.
Even worse, at the end of every election cycle, regional coordinators scatter to other jobs, taking whatever local knowledge and connections they have with them. Then, two or four years later, their replacements start from scratch, wasting the time we so desperately need to reach and energize voters.
Ditch Some Ads; Build Some Local Muscle
We need a regional director from the presidential campaign for each of Pennsylvania’s 17 Congressional districts. Under those regional directors, we need a permanent field director for each PA county, all of whom will share information and coordinate efforts between the congressional campaigns and down-ballot state legislative races.
Finally, once a presidential race has ended, we need to keep this organization in place to share and preserve the institutional knowledge about each district. Imagine if, a year before every presidential race, we had experienced county-level liaisons with the national campaign who knew the local landscape, the volunteers, and issues and could hit the ground running...
How to pay for such an ongoing organization? One option is tapping funds left over from President Biden’s national campaign next year. Paying one organizer $60,000, plus benefits, for each of our 17 congressional districts would amount to just over $1 million. Compared with shotgun, mass-market TV ads that most voters tune out, we’d get far more bang for the buck with targeted, consistent, local efforts.
Our Republican opponents have deep pockets and long-term strategic plans to elect MAGA candidates up and down the ballot. But even with our disjointed efforts, we’ve achieved impressive results in close swing races. Imagine what we could do with a true, coordinated, and permanent grassroots infrastructure...