Jason Kander might have fallen a bit short in his bid to become a U.S. senator last fall, but when he put out a call for summer help in Manassas, some of his 194,000 Twitter followers didn’t hesitate to answer.
In the days since President Donald Trump’s election (and Kander’s own 3-point loss to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.), the former Missouri Secretary of State has been crafting a new kind of political organization: “Let America Vote,” a group Kander says is designed to “create political consequences for politicians who’ve made voting more difficult or failed to stand up for voting rights.”
But with the 2018 midterm elections still a long way out, the Democrat turned his eye toward the statewide races in Virginia as a good place to start. His team of organizers, largely culled from the staff of his Senate bid, saw an opportunity to make an impact in Northern Virginia and made plans to open the group’s first field office in Prince William County.
Yet Let America Vote is still a new entity, so recruiting interns and volunteers to start knocking on doors was a challenge — at least until Kander fired off a fateful tweet to his tens of thousands of followers.
“Jason sent out one single tweet in March before anyone was even on the ground here, and from that one tweet, we got like 200 intern applicants,” said Ben Tyson, the group’s national field director, in an interview in Let America Vote’s Manassas office. “People were telling him, ‘I’ve been following you since November, I saw the gun ad, I heard you on [liberal podcast] Pod Save America, you give me hope, I want to be involved, sign me up.’”
Indeed, the former Army captain may be best known for a 2016 campaign ad that showed him assembling a rifle blindfolded, arguing that his familiarity with firearms gave him a unique appreciation for the value of gun safety laws. But Kander’s staff believes they never would have enticed roughly 90 interns to knock on more than 100,000 doors in the last 51 days if there wasn’t a bit more to Kander than just a viral video.
“The night of the election, I was really discouraged, and I figured I would probably just hang up my hat and do something else,” said Austin Laufersweiler, once a Kander campaign staffer and now Let America Vote’s press secretary. “But 15 minutes after we found out we’d lost, he came out and gave this great speech about staying engaged and involved, so I knew I couldn’t quit. I think Jason has that effect on a lot of people. The energy just kind of comes with him.”
Kander is certainly hoping to translate some of that energy into big Democratic victories this November. His group is working with the state party’s campaign to back Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s bid for governor, as well as Democrats in nine Northern Virginia House of Delegates races — including six in Prince William alone, in Districts 2, 13, 31, 40, 50 and 51.
“This area is full of competitive races, so we felt like we could have a big impact here,” Kander said. “We know that the candidates we’re supporting are going to stand up for voting rights once they’re elected, so it’s our job to do whatever we can to get them there.”
Tyson dubs the area they’re targeting “the competitive crescent,” made up of a series of districts that backed Hillary Clinton last fall, from Arlington to Dumfries. But while the Northern Virginia area may be increasingly trending Democratic in national elections, it’s still largely represented by Republicans in Richmond.
Kander believes the GOP has been “using voter suppression as a political strategy to win elections,” pointing to the state’s 2013 law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls as a particularly troubling example. Similar laws across the country have long been criticized as targeted efforts to prevent low-income people and people of color from casting ballots, and every one of the Republican incumbents Kander’s group is targeting supported Virginia’s voter ID bill.
“This is not a policy difference between the two parties; this is a political strategy by the Republicans to try and make it harder to vote for people who are less likely to vote for them,” Kander said. “You are statistically more likely as an American to be struck by lightning than you are to commit voter impersonation fraud.”
John Whitbeck, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, thinks it’s “a shame” that Kander’s group is working to overturn a law he defends as “common sense.” He believes “the reason why Democrats don’t want voter ID laws is so the overrun of illegal voting the president’s talked about can continue,” even though study after study has shown that voter fraud is rare.
“The majority of Virginians support these laws, and no outside group funded by millionaires in New York and Florida is going to be able to change the minds of mainstream Virginians just by setting up an office in Manassas,” Whitbeck said.
Prince William Republicans are similarly suspicious of Kander’s organization. Federal Election Commission data offers little clarity on the funding behind the Let America Vote political action committee — the group has collected the bulk of its money through ActBlue, an online fundraising service, which obscures the exact source of donations — but GOP leaders are adamant that Kander’s bunch represents non-Virginians meddling in Virginia elections.
“We don't mind all of the activity in Prince William and Manassas from out-of-state, outside liberal groups, because voters here are smart,” Dottie Miller, chair of the Prince William GOP, wrote in a statement. “They will vote for an agenda that is focused on Virginia, not an agenda focused on Washington D.C., Missouri, New York, California and other states that are funding these efforts.”
Tyson says the group has attracted interns and volunteers from Seattle to Minneapolis to its Manassas office, but he adds that they have done plenty of recruiting from Northern Virginia colleges and high schools.
For instance, Beckie West says she has spent her entire life bouncing around Northern Virginia and was living in Centreville when she heard about Kander’s group. The 30-year-old is working toward a history degree at Northern Virginia Community College but decided to devote her time to knocking on doors this summer for Let America Vote.
“When I heard they were opening a field office here, I thought, ‘That’s 20 minutes away from my house, I should see if there’s an opportunity there,’” West said. “I just really like their message and the goals of the organization, because I think ensuring that all Americans can use their right to vote, aren’t being disenfranchised, discouraged from voting...that is the foundation of our country.”
But West says her conversations with people while canvassing are often more focused on bread-and-butter issues — with all the debate in D.C. around the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, she said she heard plenty from people anxious about their healthcare.
Tyson says he arms each of his interns with an education on “hyperlocal issues,” and that’s just the sort of approach Kander wants to take nationally. While he is passionate about voting rights and eager to talk with voters about them, he is betting that his organization can elect “voting rights champions” in Virginia (and, perhaps, across the country) by creating personal connections with voters like any other candidate would.
“If you are supporting legislation that would make it harder to vote, then you are going to find Let America Vote volunteers out there making it harder for you to get re-elected,” Kander said.