#Startup2019: Virginia Delegate campaign

In 2017, I ran for Virginia’s 91st district House of Delegates seat as a first-time candidate. The incumbent Republican, a former mayor with over 20 years electoral experience, hadn’t been challenged since he had won the Republican primary for the open seat in 2011, and I was not about to let him waltz into a fourth term without a fight. When it became clear that no one else was willing to throw their hat in the ring, I started pounding the pavement and knocking doors.

Last house party before the 2017 election

We announced after the 2016 election and spent the next year campaigning; gathering signatures, knocking doors, and attending every community meeting we could find. At the same time we were attending candidate training events under the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA), Win Virginia and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC). We raised money, hired staff, and read and wrote dozens of policy positions, email blasts, editorials, press releases, tweets and posts. We talked to everyone we ran into in the grocery store, the PTA or anywhere we went, marched in parades, filled out countless candidate surveys, rallied, and called as many people as often as we could — all while holding down a full time job, attending school part-time, and raising two young daughters with my wife Stacy — my biggest supporter.

We ran a scrappy campaign and refused corporate donations, relying instead on the generosity of individual donors to pay for our core staff and campaign materials, and had an amazing group of volunteers that worked to get our message out to voters in the district.

A few of our great staff and volunteers

On election night we fell short, 44–56 percent, about 3100 votes out of over 24 thousand cast. Supporters reassured us that it was a strong result for a first-time candidate in a heavily gerrymandered Republican district. While the sting of losing took some time to get over, my wife and I have since realized just how much we learned during that run, and have often talked about the things that we would do differently next time. I know that our efforts were part of a broader movement of first-time candidates, the largest field of challengers in recent memory, the result being the largest single-year gain in Virginia’s lower house in a generation. And finally, following years of stonewalling by General Assembly Republicans, we have Medicaid expansion in Virginia. I like to think that our campaign — as well as those of other unsuccessful 2017 candidates — diverted Republican dollars from some of the closer races elsewhere in the state and helped us get there. Unopposed incumbent candidates still raise tens of thousands of dollars in election years, and, lacking a challenger, most of that money gets redistributed to more competitive races. With a record number of Democratic challengers in 2017, Republicans donors were spread thinner than previous years, which likely contributed to the huge win for Virginia Democrats.

Since the 2017 campaign ended, I have continued to stay politically active: serving as deputy campaign manager for a Congressional Democratic candidate primary campaign; on the executive board for the Hampton Democratic Committee; and as a founding member of the Tidewater chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. I’m heavily invested in the 2018 Congressional race, throwing my support behind Elaine Luria that she might be part of the Blue Wave that takes back the House and puts a stop to the Trump agenda in 2019.

Over the past few months, people invariably ask me about my plans for next year’s Delegate race, and until lately I’ve pointed to the ongoing court challenges to Virginia’s gerrymandered districts as a factor in my decision to run. Multiple lawsuits have alleged that some of Virginia’s delegate districts have been drawn to pack African-American voters, thus diluting their votes, and the 91st abuts two of those named in the lawsuit. State courts have ruled that the boundaries have to be redrawn by October of this year, and appeals to the Supreme Court (with or without a Justice Kavanaugh) may still be in play before the issue is resolved. I had been hesitant to commit to running before I knew what shape the 91st would be in, or whether I would even still reside in it, but after reflection I’ve realized that waiting for the court battle to play out would put me too far behind schedule to wage a successful campaign.

Delegate elections are every two years. My 2017 campaign officially lasted 12 months. By contrast, Lee Carter spent almost 22 running his. I’ve decided that if I’m going to be successful in 2019 I need to start the campaign now, and I’ve decided that the only way I am going to do this is if I can raise the support I need before the race officially starts on January 1st. I’ve already started the planning process and discussions with potential team members, but the primary factor in the decision-making process whether to run or not will be whether we can raise the money. Last year we came short of our fundraising goal, raising only thirty-seven thousand out of a fifty thousand dollar budget. Our dollar per vote total was still almost half of our opponent (about $3 for us vs. 6 for him), but I still wonder in retrospect whether additional call time or fundraising emails would have pushed us over the top.

To avoid making the same mistake for the 2019 race, I’m approaching things a bit differently. We are going to raise the money on the front end, and make sure that we have our entire campaign budget secured before we officially start the race. To that end, we are kicking off our pledge drive, Startup2019, to raise $50k in pledges between now and the end of the year. We recognize the fact that we are in the midst of a Congressional election cycle, which is why, instead of asking people to make payments now, we’re asking for people to commit to an amount that they are willing to contribute during the 2019 campaign as a whole. With your support, we will be able to secure the necessary funding to allow us to run a year-long campaign without worrying about the month-to-month fundraising and budgeting pressures. We’ll be able to focus on doing the thing that matters most for a winning campaign — those front-porch conversations with citizens in the district, learning about the issues and getting people invested in the election.

Hampton and Newport News Democratic Party officials and candidates

We’ve set up a form at our campaign website where you can pledge your support. Enter the amount that you are willing to contribute from January 1st to election day, November 5th. You’ll become a founding partner in our campaign, and you can be sure that your contribution will be put to use toward a fully-funded campaign. Startup2019 is a first step toward what we think will be a radically new campaign model, one that we hope we’ll have your support on. While we may finally have Medicaid expansion, there’s still more on my agenda to accomplish: a living wage for all working Virginians; universal preschool and debt-free post-secondary education; criminal justice reform; electoral reform; transitioning Virginia to a clean energy economy; campaign finance reform; and repealing anti-union ‘right to work’ laws. We’ll talk about these and more in detail in the coming weeks. Til then, please pledge your support and share our message with your allies, so that we might help make a Democratic majority in the 2020 General Assembly, and make the Commonwealth an example of what happens when government works for We The People.

In solidarity, 
Michael Wade