Meet the group that just put more than 30 local progressives into office

Local ballots in Virginia, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and 11 other states were filled with first-time candidates — 20- and 30-somethings who had never held office before — as Democrats swept to victory on Tuesday. For Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto, founders of Run for Something, that was the point.

Litman, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer, and Morales Rocketto, a political operative, launched their organization on Inauguration Day in 2017 with the mission of pushing young progressives to enter state and local elections and supporting them in their campaigns.

The organization eventually backed 72 candidates in Tuesday’s election. And on Tuesday, 32 of them at most recent count, in 14 states, won seats on school boards and state legislatures and city councils. Two other races, both in the Virginia House of Delegates, are headed to recounts.

That success rate — more than 40 percent — is remarkable for first-time candidates, Litman told Vox. “You can run for office for the first time and it’s a possibility [to win],” she said. “The usual win rate for first-time candidate is 10 percent.”

Run for Something’s victories included Danica Roem in Virginia, who became the first openly transgender state legislator and defeated the man who authored the state’s “bathroom bill” when she was elected to the House of Delegates. And Ashley Bennett, who won a race for Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, unseating a politician who posted an offensive meme about the Women’s March. And 29-year-old Kirkland Carden, who won a seat in the Duluth City Council race in Georgia.

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, in the wake of the victories, about 60 more potential candidates signed up with the organization.

These first-time officeholders aren’t ascending to glamorous political jobs. They’ll be the people who deal with potholes, school budgets, and zoning issues. But as Litman and Morales Rocketto explained to Vox, that’s part of the appeal. Run for Something, they say, wants to back people who are eager to improve their communities and connect with their constitutes no matter what’s going on in Washington — but who previously didn’t have the political infrastructure or party support.

Vox spoke with Litman and Morales Rocketto in the wake of their electoral success to hear about what they did right, and what’s coming in 2018. Their goal: to endorse 1,000 candidates by next year, and have faith that the more than 40 percent success rate wasn’t a fluke.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jen Kirby

How are you feeling after the success of Run for Something’s first Election Day?

Amanda Litman

It’s amazing. Up until about two weeks ago we were four people, now we’re five, who’ve managed to engage and recruit 11,565 young people who want to run for office.

Jen Kirby

How did you recruit so many people in less than a year?

Amanda Litman

In some cases, people were inspired because they saw we were there to help them. For example, a young woman named Heather Ward, who’s 22, ran for the school board outside Philadelphia. She signed up with us right after Trump appointed Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education. She was pissed off. So she signed up with us. She was running in a Republican district. She ran in a primary and in the general and she won in between graduating from Villanova. She knocked on thousands of doors in her district.

We also have folks like Kelly Fowler in Virginia Beach, who had already signed up to run after the Women’s March. We reached out to her to offer our help to make sure her campaign was as strong as it could be.

Jen Kirby

To what do you attribute Run for Something candidates’ early successes?

Amanda Litman

They ran good campaigns. In part that’s because we are providing them with the mentorship and the guidelines of how to do that. And we are picking good people. We’re not investing in geography; we’re investing in talent.

Jen Kirby

What does that process look like in practical terms?

Ross Morales Rocketto

Anyone who comes in the door for us, either through our pipeline or through an endorsement, gets access to a coach that works specifically in their state, usually a local political operative.

We have folks that come in as early as, “I’m really interested in running; I don’t know quite know what I want to run for yet.” We’re helping them get coached through what makes sense for them, all the way up to writing a field plan: “I know I need to talk to this number of voters — how do I space that out over the course of a six-month campaign? Who do I talk to first?”

We also have subject matter experts [for] all of our candidates. These folks are mentors, and they can answer questions for candidates ranging from, “How to do I place Facebook ads?” to, “How do I put together a fundraising program for my campaign?”

Jen Kirby

What about in Virginia, where you had six victories in the House of Delegates?

Ross Morales Rocketto

In Virginia specifically, we gave money directly to candidates and invested in voter contact in a couple districts. We paid for get-out-the-vote digital ads featuring Sen. Tim Kaine served to hundreds of thousands of people across the Commonwealth.

Another big piece is that we work with all of the organizations in the Democratic and progressive space and make sure our candidates are getting access to the best support services. We have a number of candidates we worked to help get endorsements from the Victory Fund. We work with Emerge America. We’ve had a number of candidates attend Run to Win trainings from Emily’s List. The list goes on from there.

Jen Kirby

A lot of candidates you endorsed were young or minorities going up against older, established candidates. Some faced brutal attacks, and probably knew ahead of time they would. I’m interested in that dynamic — why do you think candidates are enlisting with Run for Something and pursing office in spite of those challenges?

Amanda Litman

Trump has shaken people to the realization they can’t let other people make decisions for them. It is not enough to vote or to march or to protest. You have to be the decider because your lived experiences aren’t being represented in your government. The second thing we’re seeing, especially with millennial candidates, is that we’re flooding the zone.

Trump proved you don’t have to be a perfect person — he aggressively proved that you don’t have to be a perfect person — in order to run. As more and more candidates who are a little bit flawed as humans, but are passionate about problem solving and are smart and willing to do the work, are able to run and win, that inspires more people to run and win, which is ultimately better for our democracy.

The final thing I hear quite a bit from people is that with Run for Something, they know they’re not alone. If you’re a young person running in say Manhattan, Kansas, or Atlantic County, New Jersey, you probably don’t know many other candidates for office, most definitely don’t know many young people running for office. What we’ve aimed to do is to create a community where they can connect and share experiences, and they know they’re not entitled or narcissistic or crazy to imagine that this is something they can really achieve.

Jen Kirby

What surprised you this first year supporting candidates?

Ross Morales Rocketto

I’ve been working in electoral politics for about 15 years, and when we got started in January, we thought a few hundred people would sign up in the first year. We’ve gotten almost 12,000 to sign up now that we’re in November. By just simply showing up, we were providing them with the support they needed to take the leap and run.

Amanda Litman

We’ve created a permission structure for people to step up. I’ve also been overwhelmed by how many people say we’re the only ones to take their calls. People who say, “You guys are the first people to take me seriously.” We believe that everyone deserves a conversation.

Jen Kirby

Do you think this level of enthusiasm is going to persist into 2018? This election helps, but a lot can change in a year.

Amanda Litman

If you sign up to run and are sort of iffy in your commitment, today you’re feeling more confident than because you’ve seen you can win. We already seen more than five times our usual recruitment sign-ups. Our average is 10-ish a day. We had nearly 60.

Jen Kirby

You’re recruiting progressive candidates, and there’s been a lot of division among the left between the center and the Bernie wing of the party. Are you also dealing with that split on the local level?

Ross Morales Rocketto

We really haven’t run into those issues the way maybe others have. A really great example is Danica Roem. She talked about a highway running through her district. That’s the only thing she talked about from the beginning of her primary to the end of Election Day. That was the thing she focused her attention on. She got a lot of national attention for being transgender and for running against a candidate who sponsored a bathroom bill, but at the end of the day, what the voters really cared about was that highway — and that was what her opponent wasn’t talking about.

What people really want are answers. They want things that impact daily life and they want people committed to working to make sure that their daily lives get just a little bit better.

Jen Kirby

Beyond Virginia, you’re looking to run local candidates in deep, deep red states. Why take that approach?

Ross Morales Rocketto

If there’s a Republican district that went for Trump by 20 or 30 points in 2016, we still need to be running people in those districts, even if those folks don’t necessarily win those races. The research shows those folks help move turnout for the top of the ticket, so if we have a city council candidate running, that will help in any overlapping state legislative districts, and then it helps statewide campaigns.

Amanda Litman

Red districts are places that the [Democratic] Party hasn’t invested in — not for lack of bad intentions, just prioritizing resources. But our candidates are able to engage volunteers and talk with voters, which is the literal definition of party building. We had candidates running yesterday in districts that Democrats haven’t contested in decades, but they were able to win on the strength of the candidates.

Jen Kirby

Looking forward to 2018, what are the challenges ahead?

Amanda Litman

I am nervous we’ll forget the thing that we’re repeating now, which is “go local.” Go local. The bottom of the ticket is what brings up everyone. If we get distracted by the glitz and the glamour of the congressional races and even gubernatorial elections, we’ll forget about that to our own detriment.

Ross Morales Rocketto

We need to stay focused on organizing, having one-on-one conversations with voters, building long-term, on-the-ground infrastructure that will continue to exist election cycle after election cycle.

Amanda Litman

The final thing that makes me anxious that I hope we’ll be able to fix is this idea that resources are limited and we need to prioritize by targeted district. There is value in contesting as many races as possible because you never know when a surge of Democrats is going to show up. We’re coming out 50-50 to potentially taking back the majority in the House of Delegates. If we weren’t contesting 88 out of the 100 seats in Virginia, that wouldn’t have been possible.

Jen Kirby

What local candidates’ races should we be paying attention to in 2018?

Amanda Litman

Our goal is to endorse 1,000. There’s some credible candidates for Georgia’s state legislature, the Kansas legislature, Oklahoma state Senate. Colorado, pretty much across the state, there’s some great candidates. Ross, anywhere else?

Ross Morales Rocketto

We’ve got a couple of really good candidates in Texas.

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