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Shutesbury activist works to flip control of House in midterms

  • Swing Left co-founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill of Shutesbury —Richie Davis photo

  • Swing Left co-founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill of Shutesbury. The aim, explains the 37-year-old, is to give Democrats a tool for empowerment in what many consider the most important midterm election in decades. Richie Davis photo

  • TODRAS-WHITEHILL

  • Swing Left co-founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill of Shutesbury. RECORDER STAFF/RICHIE DAVIS



For the Gazette
Thursday, February 08, 2018

SHUTESBURY — Like most of the 63 percent of Franklin County voters who cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Ethan Todras-Whitehill was shocked when he saw the outcome — especially after just putting to bed his 2-year-old daughter, dressed in her “Run like a girl” T-shirt and telling her she would awaken to the very first woman president.

Instead of wallowing in disappointment, Todras-Whitehill — who grew up in Manhattan and, with his wife, moved to Shutesbury in 2013 — went to Amherst Coffee to contemplate a fix.

“I work through stages of grief pretty quickly,” says Todras-Whitehill, who had written freelance articles for the New York Times and other publications and had begun writing fiction.

The “fix,” he realized, would be helping Democrats win back U.S. House of Representatives seats in 2018. But like most blue-state Democrats, with a solid Democratic delegation, he faced confusion over how to do that.

Discovering on the “morning after” that there was no app to help voters find swing districts to retake, Todras-Whitehill enlisted his best friend, a software developer in the San Francisco area along with his brand-strategist wife. They reached out to other friends, and by Inauguration Day launched SwingLeft.Org.

By the first weekend, it had attracted 200,000 followers.

Tool for empowerment

The aim, explains the 37-year-old relative political novice, was to give Democrats a tool for empowerment in what many consider the most important midterm election in decades.

Through grassroots fundraising and “cultural motivation,” Swing Left is “trying to address the inherent geography problem of “blue America,” where votes typically cluster in urban areas. The Pioneer Valley is rurally atypical.

Swing Left aims to flip at least 24 House seats to retake the House and is targeting 70 swing districts won by Clinton but where a GOP House candidate was narrowly elected in 2016.

“The geography problem is not new,” says Todras-Whitehill. “What is new is Donald Trump, and the amazing activism he’s unleashed. All that amazing energy is still located in those deep blue areas. If you’re just telling those people to go out and vote in those deep, blue areas … that won’t do much.”

With the help of grassroots groups across the country — like Indivisible chapters or the new “Swing Left Pioneer Valley” — his organization has already helped raise more than $2 million from 60,000 donors for swing-district campaigns months before clear Democratic nominees have even emerged. Its affiliates have raised another $2 million.

A Jan. 21 “take back the House party” in Amherst helped the Pioneer Valley group exceed its $10,000 fund-raising goal by $2,000 and sold out 150 available tickets. With its $12,000 going into escrow for two swing district Democrats, the group is looking ahead to future fundraisers

“The House is crucial,” said Dyan Wylie of Amherst, who organized the local group with her partner last March, heeding Swing Left’s call for get-to-work house parties. A dozen people showed up to that hastily organized meeting. A month later, there were 30 people, with 50 at the third meeting, with members selecting the 19th New York and 1st New Hampshire as the districts where they’d throw their efforts.

“Swing Left offered a laser focus on the House and strategies to help you feel you could make a difference,” said Wylie, whose 80-member group can be reached at Swingleftpioneervalley@gmail.com. “You can’t do everything,” she adds, yet knows there are people working on other political and social issues.

Focus on swing states

Todras-Whitehill notes that focusing on “swing states” in presidential elections is nothing new. What’s new is harnessing the “deep blue” pockets on neighboring House districts. In the 19th New York District, bordering Massachusetts and Connecticut, first-term Republican incumbent John Faso faces eight Democratic challengers. In the 1st New Hampshire District, Democratic incumbent Carol Shea-Porter’s seat after her announced retirement has at least seven Democrats and four Republicans running.

“Swing districts are everywhere. Two-thirds of (people on) our list have a swing district within about an hour’s drive,” says Todras-Whitehill, whose startup has 13 full-time staffers as well as 5,000 volunteers around the country who within Swing Left’s first three weeks produced thousands of pages of political research, with online primers and tools to help campaign groups and other volunteers.

Channeling “the amazing energy of resistance” early on is key, he says, since most campaigns get the money and volunteer help they need when it’s too late.

Starting months before it’s clear who candidates will be, swing volunteers begin identifying voters who are dissatisfied with the Republican president and Congress and who may want to work on whatever Democratic campaign emerges. They also begin amassing money that Todras-Whitehill says is held in escrow for the nominee just at the moment after costly primary campaigns when a cash infusion is most needed, to devote energy to running instead of fundraising.

The coming “wave” election, as he calls it, already has an influx of Democratic hopefuls, many of them women, as well as many incumbent retirees, so there are plenty of opportunities to truly make a difference.

“Our goal is to hand each of the nominees in 70 swing districts a trained army of volunteers who are organized, who’ve been working in the district for well over a year, as well as a big check from small-to-medium grass-roots donors looking to support that race,” says Todras-Whitehill. “By starting so early, we hope to overcome the incumbency challenge we face in each district.”

Diving in early as volunteers can also translate late in the game by helping overwhelmed campaign coordinators avoid having to turn away an avalanche of last-minute helpers, he says.

Working with local groups, emerging campaigns and the Democratic Congressional Coordinating Committee, the solution Todras-Whitehill found to get past his own sense of hopelessness may give hope to others like him as well.

“What we see is that our volunteers feel energized,” he says, “because they’re doing work that actually makes a tangible difference.”