A crowd of Vermonters packed into Chris Shaw’s living room this spring, not to hear about local politicians, but to meet a Democrat running for a House seat in upstate New York’s 21st Congressional District.
People here are part of a national trend among progressive-tilting voters. They appear energized and eager to vote in November’s midterm election. Many say they hope to tip the balance of power in Congress away from Republicans, away from the party of President Trump.
But millions of those Americans live in places like Vermont that already has a congressional delegation that sides with the Democrats. They can’t vote for any more national Democrats until the 2020 presidential election. So activists and donors here have begun looking beyond Vermont’s borders.
A major focus is the race for New York’s 21st District, right across Lake Champlain. “It is really energizing to us on the Vermont side to become involved in whatever way we can,” said Susan Kavanagh, who co-hosted this gathering in the liberal college town Middlebury, Vt.
That means “financially supporting a candidate or literally going door to door to help tell the story,” Kavanagh added.
We’re still in primary season, and New York’s 21st District has seven Democratic candidates vying for the nomination. Katie Wilson from Keene, N.Y., has made the pilgrimage today. She is hoping to find support and dollars that will help her challenge Republican incumbent Elise Stefanik.
“There are people who just want to flip the House,” Wilson says, pointing out that she also has support from Democrats in other “safe” districts across the country.
One of the country’s leading environmental activists, Bill McKibben, also turned up at this event. He said his fellow Vermonters know money will be a big factor this November. “There will be millions of dollars from the Koch brothers and the RNC [supporting GOP incumbents],” he said.
“Vermont kind of always has its heart for the scrappy underdog.”
Beating Stefanik, a rising star in the GOP, won’t be easy. New York’s 21st District is just as rural as Vermont but a lot more conservative. Donald Trump did really well there, and Stefanik won in a landslide. She has already raised more than a million dollars for her re-election campaign, with roughly 90 percent of her war chest coming from outside her district, from industry groups and PACs.
Of course, this fundraiser too is happening outside the 21st District, but McKibben argues that there is a real difference between this kind of organizing and the big money that shapes so much of American politics. People at this gathering, he said were “coming up with 50 or 100 bucks to try to help our neighbor’s campaign 10 miles away across the lake.”
“The other end of the spectrum is they gather fellow billionaires for a retreat,” McKibben added.
This grass-roots dynamic isn’t new, and it can be effective. In Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, Democrat Conor Lamb raised more than $3 million for his special election House victory, with much of that cash coming from small donors from across the country. It was enough to help turn a House race that didn’t look competitive into a real contest.
That’s what donors and activists in Vermont say they’re trying to do. They want to expand the map and help put more Republican House seats in play.