Jim Shelton from 31st Street Swing Left talking to Conor Lamb ahead of a get-out-the-vote event.

4 Takeaways from Flipping Our First House Seat

When my friends and I got together immediately following Trump’s election and created a tool to help people find their closest Swing District, it’s fair to say we had no idea of the grassroots movement that would be unleashed.

In the year since we’ve had to build the ship as we flew it, to keep up with the amazing energy of our volunteers who are passionate about taking back the House. We’ve developed a model for how progressives in deep blue districts can have personal impact in the purple districts where the House will be won or lost in November — a model focused on voter contact, grassroots fundraising, and cultural mobilization.

In yesterday’s special election in Pennsylvania 18th district, our model faced its first major test. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I think we can say with confidence that we passed. I’d like to share with you some of what we’ve learned.

Small Donors = Big Impact

Here’s a stat: of the $12 million total invested in ads in the PA-18 special election, Republicans outspent Democrats 2:1. And yet, Conor Lamb still managed to match Rick Saccone minute-for-minute on the airwaves.

How is that possible? It’s pretty simple: 73% of Lamb’s ad spending came from the Lamb campaign itself, while only 12% of Saccone’s spending came from his campaign, with the rest coming from Republican Super PACs.

Why does that explain the gap? As we’ve been shouting from the virtual rooftops for a year now, small dollars matter. Money donated directly to the campaign (also called “hard money,” subject to federal limits of $2,700/person/race) is much more effective than Super PAC dollars because hard money can buy ads at federally-regulated, lower rates than the Super PACs pay. That’s why Lamb was able to keep pace with the Republicans despite being outspent by $4.5 million.

And that’s why we’re so focused on raising hard money for our candidates via Swing Left District Funds. With District Funds, not only is an individual donation, dollar-for-dollar, much more effective than the Republican Dark Money Machine, but we also hold it in escrow for our eventual nominees so no money is spent in the primary. We’ll deliver that money immediately after the primary, just when our newly-minted challengers will need it the most to do things like staff up, respond to Republican attacks, and secure ad time when it’s cheapest.

Overall, Swing Left donors pooled $70,000 in hard money for Conor Lamb. And over $4.5 million is waiting in escrow for the nominees in our 70 Swing Districts.

Volunteers Make the Difference

Conor Lamb won by 627 votes.

Working with the campaign, Swing Left volunteers made an estimated 150,000 calls from all over the country and knocked on more than 8,000 doors in the district. Based on that heroic work, and the accepted science on voter contact, we estimate that Swing Left volunteers helped turn out anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand extra votes for Conor Lamb — and quite possibly made the difference between a win and a loss.

Many of our volunteers are now seasoned campaigners, but most of them were new to this work this time last year. There’s a reason we started building the ground game for our districts back in February 2017. Swing Left volunteers have already held over 1,500 voter contact events in their Swing Districts, and the primaries haven’t even started yet. Last year’s first-time canvassers are this year’s leaders. And this fall, they’ll be the folks helping all the new first-time volunteers who show up right before the election to learn the ropes and make a huge difference.

Overall, more than 150 Swing Left volunteers signed up to road-trip to PA-18 for canvassing. In addition to providing boots on the ground for Lamb, these traveling canvassers helped us test critical infrastructure we’re building for the fall, like systems to match volunteers to carpools and supporter housing in-district. (We call it Airbnb for Democracy.) This kind of organizing will be critical for helping people who live in deep blue districts to flip nearby House seats in November. And since Swing Left is able to coordinate directly with Democratic campaigns, volunteers will know they’re making the best use of their time.

A Rising Tide…Will Drown the GOP

One stat I noticed that has gotten little coverage since Lamb’s victory: 228,000 voters turned out for this special election. That’s notable because it’s a lot more than the 166,000 who turned out in the 2014 midterm election in PA-18, and nearing the 293,000 who turned out for the 2016 presidential election in the district. Special elections are supposed to have turnouts much lower than midterms, and certainly not approaching presidential election levels.

What does that mean? Yes, it means Democratic voters are super engaged right now. They hate where the country is going under Trump, and they’re motivated to get to the polls now more than ever. (They’re especially excited to do so when they get a call or a visit from a volunteer reminding them how important this election will be!)

You see all those “donate to Conor Lamb” messages that are getting thousands of retweets? Yeah, those make a difference. And the canvassing selfies and group photos people are putting on Facebook? That has an impact. All the events, the press coverage, the energy on social media — it gets Democrats excited to vote, yes, but this growing momentum also makes a significant difference in driving the two metrics we know have an impact on winning elections: volunteers talking to voters, and hard money donations.

1 seat down. 23 to go.

Conor Lamb’s underdog victory brought us one major step closer to taking back the House this fall. But special elections are called “special” for a reason. Yes, a once-in-a-generation wave is building. But this fall, it’s going to wash up against a once-in-a-generation incumbent wall. Whether we flip 23 more seats to win back the House and pour over into a world where the Republicans gnash their teeth as we bring their agenda to a halt, or whether we recede into two more years of total GOP control — well, that depends. It depends on you, me, and everyone reading this.

Ready to get involved? Go here to find your closest Swing District and sign up. And let’s get to work.

Swing Left

We’re flipping the Senate, the White House and key state legislatures by empowering volunteers and donors everywhere to help win critical elections.


Written by

Co-Founder & Executive Director of @swingleft. Dad, writer, teacher, newly minted activist.

Swing Left

We’re flipping the Senate, the White House and key state legislatures by empowering volunteers and donors everywhere to help win critical elections.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade