Joe Biden’s success in Arizona and Georgia, two longtime red states, didn’t happen overnight. The work leading to those apparent victories for the Democratic president-elect began years ago, and much of what made them possible can be traced to the Bay Area.
In 2012, a 39-year-old Georgia state legislator named Stacey Abrams came to San Francisco with “a PowerPoint and a plan for how they were going to turn Georgia blue,” said Steve Phillips, a San Francisco attorney and Democratic donor who helped raise $11 million for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“It was the most sophisticated data-driven plan I’d ever seen,” Phillips said. He and his wife, Susan Sandler, were impressed enough to provide seed money and introduce Abrams to a wider network of donors.
Abrams’ plan formed the blueprint for her 2018 gubernatorial run. She narrowly lost that race, but the grassroots networks she created in Georgia provided the pathway for Biden this year.
Phillips and other progressive California activists and donors were among the first to conclude that “the future of the Democrats lies in the South and Southwest, far more than it does in the Upper Midwest,” Phillips said. Nothing that happened this year changed their minds: Sandler said in September that one of the recipients of a $200 million fund she started would be the New Georgia Project, founded by Abrams.
Democrats’ future, say Phillips and other progressive funders and activists, is in creating multiracial coalitions in red and swing states where changing demographics may favor the party, such as Georgia and Arizona, instead of chasing working-class white voters across the Midwest, where Republicans have made substantial gains in recent years.
“The Midwest is part of the coalition,” Phillips said, in that “it’s imperative to have strong participation from places like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.” All three are large hubs of Black voters “which were neglected in 2016,” he said.
So while the Biden campaign and the national Democratic Party focused on rebuilding the Midwestern “blue wall” that President Trump won in 2016, organizations like Way to Win, a 3-year-old California progressive group led by women, invested in grassroots organizations in Arizona and Georgia. The Way to Win network includes about 200 donors, half of them from California, who give an average of $35,000.
Over the past two years, Way to Win invested $8.5 million in grassroots groups in Georgia and $8.7 million in Arizona.
“The real story for us to be looking at is: Where you invest in communities of color, very early for local organizing, you can win,” said Tory Gavito, Way to Win’s president.
Gavito’s organization accurately predicted that Trump would increase his base of new voters. Trump won more than 70 million votes this year, roughly 7 million more than four years ago. Biden won more than 74 million, compared with nearly 66 million for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“So in places where we ran up the totals on new voter registration and new voter turnout and did not spend as much time trying to persuade some sliver of a swing vote is where we’re actually now making progress,” Gavito said. “Like Arizona and Georgia.” Biden has narrow leads in both states, with votes still being counted.
One of the Arizona organizations that Way to Win funded is Instituto, a nine-person group led by Luis Avila. He has been an activist in the state for 16 years, since Arizona was, as he put it, “the epicenter of hate” toward immigrants.
In 2004, the state passed a law called “Protect Arizona Now,” which required people to show both proof of citizenship to register to vote and identification to cast a ballot. The fight against that law galvanized a generation of young, mostly Latino activists like Avila.
The movement grew in 2010 when Arizona passed what opponents called the “show us your papers” law. The measure required state law enforcement officers to ask people they thought might be undocumented immigrants to provide proof of their legal status during routine traffic stops. The U.S. Supreme Court partially overturned the law in 2010.
“In 2010, our slogan was, ‘Today, we march. Tomorrow, we vote,’” Avila said. “What I keep telling people is well, ‘today’ is ‘tomorrow.’ We are meeting the promise that we made 10 years ago.”
Registration efforts led by Avila and others have doubled the proportion of Arizonans signed up to vote who are Latinos. They now make up 19% of the state’s total.
But because the Democratic Party invested little in the state for years, Avila said, Arizona’s political world needed an upgrade across the board.
“Our staffs knew how to do protests and mobilize people,” Avila said. “But we still needed to get better at data and digital.”
Avila’s organization works on those ways of building political influence. Instituto, which has received $419,000 from Way to Win since 2018, trains other grassroots groups in using technology to reach voters and coaches them on how to influence policy, too.
Ten years ago, Avila said, “we didn’t have the time to think about these things. We were organizing marches and organizing boycotts, and trying not to get arrested … and if we got arrested, how to get people out of jail.”
Now, he said, his organization is training activists how “to be policymakers and policy writers.” When the Legislature meets next year, Avila said, “we can actually have staff that works at the Legislature, that works in lobbying firms — that are our people. We are creating a political infrastructure to govern, not just win elections.”
Gavito said the key for California donors is to give to grassroots groups in red and swing states, and let them decide how to spend it.
“The magic is when the money trusts that (grassroots) work and let those organizers build the coalition that they need to build to really move forward,” Gavito said. “It’s the model that Stacey Abrams used in Georgia, too.”
That philosophy will be tested in the two Jan. 5 runoff races in Georgia that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Just since Nov. 3, the two Republicans and two Democrats running for those seats have spent a combined $1 million on TV ads, according to Advertising Analytics.
“There’s going to be pressure on them to do a big advertising blitz, but that doesn’t win elections,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, an Oakland nonprofit that supports women of color in politics and was an early supporter of Abrams. “It’s not just a matter of how much you have in the bank account. They should be taking some deep advice from Stacey Abrams on this.”