Swing Left fights for the future: “One-stop shopping” for progressive wins in 2024 and beyond

Swing Left was launched in 2017, as the first Women’s March dwarfed the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Its immediate goal was winning back the House as a check on Trump’s power. Beyond that, it created an organizing strategy that gave activists and small donors a flexible, effective way to partner with people on the ground in the swing districts where key electoral battles would likely be fought.

The response was immediate and overwhelming, as I reported that same month, and the results in the 2018 midterms were similarly impressive: Out of 84 districts targeted by Swing Left, 16 stayed blue and 39 flipped from red to blue, accounting for all but one of the 40 Democratic pickups in that cycle. 

Swing Left’s crucial innovation lay in providing avenues for volunteers and donors in solidly blue cities and regions to connect with under-resourced allies in outer-suburban, exurban and even rural areas where there were winnable or at least competitive races. 

“The core of our mission has remained really simple,” Swing Left executive director Yasmin Radjy told Salon. “We believe people around the country have either time, money or a combination thereof that they’re not always sure where to direct. So we’re the one-stop shop to make sure that they’re directing their resources towards the most competitive races for Democrats to gain power.”

Seven years later, this basic focus remains central to Swing Left, even as its strategy and tactics have evolved, as reflected in its Jan. 25 kickoff for the 2024 election and a series of interviews with Salon. 

After the 2018 midterms, Radjy said, “We looked in the mirror and said, ‘Is our mission about the House, or is it really about the balance of power for Democrats?’” The answer was clearly the latter: In 2020, Radjy said, Swing Left understood that “in order to move power away from Donald Trump … we were going to need to win other levels of government,” beginning with the federal trifecta — electing Joe Biden and winning majorities in both houses of Congress — and reaching all the way down to state legislatures.

“The fight ahead of us was not just an immediate one,” Radjy said,” but also a long-term one of really winning back our democracy.” The result was a “super-state strategy” based on the principle that the most important battles for political control. were concentrated in just 12 states.  

In 2024, Swing Left’s 12 super-states have been divided into three different groups with different characteristics — and, believe it or not, a sense of strong momentum. “Last year, basically everything we wanted we won,” said Matt Caffrey, the Swing Left director of grassroots organizing. “We sent buses from Chicago to Wisconsin for the Supreme Court race there,” which was won decisively by a Democrat, “and from D.C. down to Virginia for the legislative races,” where Democrats regained full control of the statehouse. They also did “a ton of organizing in Ohio for those two ballot initiatives” that enshrined reproductive rights in that state’s constitution. 

Democrats narrowly lost control of the House in 2022, but the “red wave” predicted by mainstream media never materialized, and the thin margin of defeat was well within the range, Swing Left activists say, where organizing makes a difference. “We lost the House by just 6,675 votes” spread across a handful of districts, according to Radjy, and they fully intend to win it back “by doing early and deep work, both on defense and on offense.”

Swing Left has a “watch list” of key races that may change as conditions change, Radjy said, but the strategic framework of the super-states is set. “Eight of those states are what we call ‘nested targets,'” she said, meaning that “they’re important from the presidential on down to the state legislature.” Those eight targets are Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all crucial to an electoral victory for Joe Biden, but also where Radjy hopes to see “some wins from the bottom of the ballot blowing up.” 

While the House is well within reach for Democrats this year, Radjy admits that the U.S. Senate map is “really tough.” (Conventional election-watchers have predicted that it’s possible or likely that control of both houses will flip — the House to Democrats and the Senate to Republicans.) Democrats almost certainly cannot hold a Senate majority without re-electing Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, two incumbents who face tough battles in increasingly red states. Ohio, in fact, has also been the site of much recent Swing Left activism — as discussed both above and below.

Finally, there are House races in New York and California, two voter-rich and heavily Democratic states which Radjy said are “absolutely critical, just mathematically, for how many absolutely key races there are.” Last April, when Swing Left announced the first stage of its plan to win back the House, it began with a list of six Democratic seats to hold and six Republican seats to flip — and five of that latter group are in New York (three) or California (two). 

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of Swing Left’s volunteer and donor base is in those two states, so the group is “asymmetrically positioned to be strong in 2024” in those races, as Radjy put it. Artist and activist Hope Singsen helped launch an early Swing Left group in New York City, which since 2017 has written almost a million letters and sponsored almost 400 events and almost 19,000 volunteer shifts. 

“We were knocking doors in 2017 long before we had specific candidates to support,” Singsen said, and her group did the same in 2023: “We started early canvassing — knocking on doors and talking to voters in the swing congressional districts we knew would be close and crucial to win in 2024.”  

One of those was New York’s 3rd district, in Queens and Long Island, where a special election will be held on Feb. 13 after the expulsion of former Rep. George Santos, the notorious fabricator. “We knew there was a fair chance Santos could be expelled, but we would be working there this year regardless,” Singsen said. “All last year, we were there building capacity on Long Island. “We talk to people about how important the 2024 election is going to be. We ask if they will commit to vote and get three people to vote with them. Then they fill out a postcard that we’ll send back right before Election Day as a reminder.”

All this “was a fantastic training ground for us to build relationships in the district,” she continued. “So when this special election suddenly dropped in our laps, we were ready to hit the ground running. We have been sending teams out every Saturday and Sunday to door-knock, since the campaign started canvassing.” (Tom Suozzi, a moderate Democrat who held the seat before Santos, is favored to win, which would erode the GOP majority by one seat.)

“One of my messages is that we have come a long way since those first house parties,” Singsen said. “We have grown in our skill, in our capacity. We know where the levers are. We’re a fine-tuned army. Republicans have given us battle after battle to get strong. And we have beaten them again and again. So we are ready.”

Her group has also worked in Pennsylvania and New Jersey districts, and will do so again. Similarly, groups in California’s core Democratic areas, such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, have helped targeted swing seats in Orange County, the Central Valley and further afield in Arizona and Nevada.

“What happened in 2018,” Radjy said, “was that folks in New York and California who were really upset about Donald Trump saw that the fight was actually back home. They engaged in a way that they’ve never done before, driving from L.A. to Orange County or from New York City to upstate districts, whatever the case may be.” 

“What happened in 2018 was that folks in New York and California who were upset about Donald Trump saw that the fight was actually back home. They engaged in a way that they’ve never done before, driving from L.A. to Orange County, from New York City to upstate.”

Things are arguably more complicated this year. Many people, Radjy admits, are “not sure how they’re a part of the solution,” with the intense focus on the looming presidential race between Trump and Biden. “They feel like they’re waiting for a few districts or a few precincts in Maricopa County [Arizona] and Bucks County [Pennsylvania] to be revealed months from now. They’re not sure how they can be a part of the fight. So a big part of our objective this year is, first of all, to say that there’s ways they can get involved from out of state, but, second, that the front lines of the fight for the House, which is going to be critically important — you’re probably 90 minutes or less away from a close House district.”

Deciding when and where to focus volunteer energy as well as donations is one of Swing Left’s key concerns, for the sake of its activist base as well as in terms of political effectiveness. In my conversation with Caffrey, he offered a brief history of Swing Left’s evolution, describing the 2018 cycle as “one of those magical grassroots organic moments that week that happen every not-very-often. People are coming in and we’re putting them into a high-impact thing to do. They’re doing a lot of the self-starting. They just need to be pointed in the right direction.”

Even the so-called off-year cycle of 2019 “felt very similar,” he said. “We won the Virginia state legislative races that year, giving Democrats a trifecta. That was such an exciting moment. In the late months of 2019 and heading into the early part of 2020, we were feeling the energy. … We were already making trips from California to Arizona and from New York out to Long Island and New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And then, of course, the pandemic hit. Everything hit a brick wall and we really had to reinvent ourselves.” 

That combination of a historic election and a global pandemic meant the 2020 election “didn’t have some of the fun,” Caffrey said, but even so “there was an outpouring of energy at the grassroots that I had never seen before,” although it was largely channeled into millions of phone calls and letters to voters. “There was a palpable sense of relief” after Biden’s election, even though “we didn’t get everything we wanted” in terms of down-ballot results.

There was unquestionably a downturn engagement after that, which Caffrey said he’d seen before during the Obama years: “This sense of, ‘OK, we did the thing, we don’t need to do it anymore.'” But Swing Left’s local grassroots groups didn’t go away, and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, he said, “We ended up having a really massive 2022. While we had fewer individual people volunteering, the people who were stepping up to volunteer did more,” and clearly shifted the momentum of what Republicans expected to be a wave election in their favor. 

As mentioned above, Swing Left goes into 2024 with a sense of momentum after wins in Wisconsin, Ohio and the Virginia legislative election. “There’s no such thing as off years anymore,” Radjy said. But it isn’t 2018 either, and a renewed sense of structure may be needed to sustain momentum in the face of a longer struggle than most people expected.

“There’s less frenetic energy,” Caffrey said. “People either found their answer, ‘This is what I can do,’ or they are kind of left without a good fit. That presents challenges for our organizing.” Their response is support programs to build new groups: One called Team Up for community organizing and another, Crash Course, for campus organizing. Team Up will match potential activists with three to six others in their community, providing in-person training and then ongoing coaching, support and guidance for the first three months, “to get them through that challenging phase,” Caffrey explained. “Once they get going, once they have a little sense of momentum, they have a sense of community, and a sense of support, the potential is out there.”

For 2024, Swing Left wants to build a “new class of [activist] groups right in time to have a big impact ahead of the 2024 elections, but that, critically, will not just disappear after the election, as so often happens in campaign organizing.”

Swing Left launched this program in three locations last year: Richmond, Virginia; the Twin Cities in Minnesota; and Queens, New York (which coincidentally includes part of that crucial 3rd district). “In each of those places, we have new groups emerge and start phone-banking and letter-writing and canvassing,” Caffrey said. “We’re really excited about the program. We’re going to have in person trainings in Phoenix, Raleigh and Atlanta in February and March, and we are doing a hybrid version for folks anywhere in the country that want to participate.”

This model is meant to build “sustainable grassroots energy and power for the long haul,” Caffrey said. “We’re optimistic that this could help build a whole new class of Swing Left groups right in time to have a big impact ahead of the 2024 elections, but then, critically, not just disappear after the election as so often happens in campaign organizing.” 

The campus-based program, Crash Course, is a similar concept, adjusted for the challenging realities of that context. They’ve hired part-time organizers in key metropolitan areas dense with college students: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., and will recruit potential student leaders to participate in monthly trainings, with the goal of starting campus groups that build their chapters over the spring, “with the idea that in the fall, they can go all out, traveling to swing districts, writing letters, making phone calls.”

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Campus organizing comes with obvious difficulties — students aren’t on campus year-round, and at least one-fourth of them move on in any given year. But it has both short-term and long-term value, Caffrey said. “You never know the ripples that are created — those folks going on to be organizers or to run for office or to do whatever. It’s worth investing in.”

Swing Left is also working to refine its targeting and grassroots engagement. “Our platform will be further simplified” within the next few weeks, Radjy promised. Precise campaign targeting remains central. “Having too many targets, and having too many ‘reach’ targets or overly safe targets, really makes it hard for people to trust the information that they’re getting,” Radjy said. “If a race stops being competitive, either because the candidate is doing amazingly well and has got all the dollars they need, has got more than enough volunteers, has got it locked down, we deprioritize them, so the marginal dollars that are coming in are more additive to another race.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from volunteers and donors about feeling like their time or money has been wasted by other organizations or campaigns,” said Yasmin Radjy. So “trust, for us, is fundamental.”

The same is true, she added, “in the other direction,” meaning that Swing Left won’t burn money on hopeless campaigns. She didn’t cite examples, but probably should have: Consider Democrat Amy McGrath, who raised an astonishing $94 million for her 2020 Senate race against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. According to a 2022 New Republic report, McGrath ran more than 83,000 TV ads and garnered 422 million social media impressions — and lost by 20 points. 

“Right now on the Senate side, we need to win every single one of the targets we have on that list,” Radjy said. “We do not currently have on our list the bigger reach races such as Missouri, Texas and Florida,” all currently held by prominent Republicans who are widely loathed on the left — but unlikely to lose. “We’re watching those,” she added. 

Trust is crucial, Radjy said: “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from volunteers and donors about feeling like their time or money has been wasted by other organizations or campaigns.” That could be a reference to the McGrath campaign, or to any of several other widely publicized Democratic failures. “For us, the watchlist is an opportunity to keep an honest dialogue with folks,” she said. “‘You gave 50 bucks to this candidate early on and they were really competitive. They’re moving off our list for now and someone else is moving on who really needs the extra $20 you’ve got later in the cycle.’ That trust, for us, is fundamental to why we were able to raise $26 million for candidates in the 2020 race.”

“We talk a lot about trying to make this work sustainable,” Caffrey said. “This isn’t just something we’re doing because there’s an emergency for our democracy in this moment. We need to revitalize the democratic character of our society, and get people to think of this is just a sustainable part of their lives — you know, like this is something that we all do.

“Swing Left groups form friendships that are incredible,” he continued. “People who never would have met, but they got together and formed a Swing Left group and now they’re best friends. It’s not always the happiest thing: People are like, ‘Yes, there’s so much at stake. I’m stressed. I’m worried. That’s why I’m putting so much energy into this.’ But they also get a lot of joy when they get to meet other incredible people and they feel that sense of solidarity and camaraderie.” 

Indeed, social isolation is widely understood as an important contributing factor in why American politics has turned so poisonous. So the social dimension is more than frosting on the cake. In the long run, it’s arguably the main course. But in the meantime, Caffrey said, the fight will go on — this year, in the 2026 midterms “and for the foreseeable future.” He hopes that after the next census and the next redistricting in 2030, “maybe we have a year that produces fairer electoral maps, and we get to saner politics. But I think the disease in the body politic is going to take a while to run its course.” That’s why making political activism sustainable, rewarding and even fun is so necessary right now. 

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from Paul Rosenberg on politics, power and history


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