The donor clique, which counts George Soros and Tom Steyer among its members, is quietly giving funds to a handful of local grassroots groups like Rodriguez’s employer, Living United for Change in Arizona. They hope that these organizations can do a better job than Democratic campaigns at reaching and turning out young and minority voters in states that liberals have long viewed as just out of their reach.
It’s a marked shift from the Democracy Alliance’s longtime strategy of funding Beltway think tanks to counter conservative ideas.
And it’s also one window into the exclusive cadre’s view of the best way to take down President Donald Trump in 2020: By wooing new voters in rapidly diversifying states across the southern U.S., rather than prioritizing fighting Republicans for older white residents of the Rust Belt, a raging debate in the party since the 2016 election. If the investment pays off in next week’s election results, the group might take it to more states during the presidential election.
Rodriguez is a paid canvasser for Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, which offers a blend of immigration services, lobbying on issues like criminal justice, and campaigning — including a yearlong push to register and turn out low-propensity voters. At the moment, Rodriguez is working six days a week on the latter.
On a Sunday morning, one of the slowest times of his week because most people were either asleep or at church, Rodriguez strode past brown stucco homes in a south Phoenix neighborhood, knocking on doors for 45 minutes before hitting his first bull’s-eye: a voter who had requested a mail-in ballot.
Nicholas Romero, 18, answered the door with a glossy charcoal face mask dotted on his nose and cheeks. He planned to vote, he said, and had requested a ballot in the mail — but three days before the deadline to mail it in, he hadn’t filled it out yet.
“I’m here to help you. It only takes a couple minutes,” Rodriguez told Romero. “If you get it, we could vote right now.”
Seated at a glass-top outdoor table, Rodriguez walked Romero through a host of left-leaning candidates and issues that he and LUCHA support: Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema for Senate and David Garcia for governor, as well as a grocery list of judges and a clean energy initiative. Romero carefully connected the lines on his ballot. Then Rodriguez took a triumphant selfie of the duo and walked with Romero down the driveway to the mailbox to be sure the ballot was sent.
The vote was a tiny coup for the Democratic Party. In Arizona, like the rest of the country, youth and Latino voters tend to vote at lower rates than older white voters do. One report on the 2016 election found that millennials made up 19 percent of the voting population in Arizona, while baby boomers made up 37 percent of voters, even though the state has more millennial residents.
The Pew Research Center estimated that Latinos made up 22 percent of Arizona eligible voters in 2016, but exit polls indicated 15 percent of people casting votes there were Latino. Latinos aren’t shoo-ins for Democratic votes, but 61 percent of them in Arizona said they voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while 31 percent of Latinos said in exit polls that they supported Trump.
Part of the issue, the Democracy Alliance posits, is that campaigns and candidates show up for a season and then move on. By building up organizations over several years, the Democracy Alliance is hoping it can equip groups like LUCHA in Arizona and others in New Mexico, Florida and Virginia — plus one Midwestern state, Minnesota — to turn out those harder-to-reach voters in next week’s midterms.
“We don’t believe in inauthentic community-based efforts. We’re not interested in building an AstroTurf operation,” said Democracy Alliance executive vice president Kim Anderson. “We want to empower real people: authentic community members raising the issues that are important to them.”
Democrats have argued for two years about how to respond to Trump’s 2016 victory. The Democracy Alliance and many of its donors took heat from others in the party after the election for helping to build up organizations that pushed the idea that focusing on women and minorities could tip elections to Democrats. One Democratic strategist at the time described the group as “a social club for a handful of wealthy white donors and labor union officials to drink wine and read memos, as the Democratic Party burns down around them.”
Some moderate Democrats and other political observers think the party continues to overemphasize trying to pick off deep red states, rather than playing defense in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where Trump showed they were losing voters.
“The ‘new American majority’ is one piece of the strategy that Democrats need to focus on, but it can only get you over the line in certain states and districts,” said Lanae Erickson, vice president at the think tank Third Way, which published a sweeping report in the wake of the last election titled “Why Demography Does Not Equal Destiny.”
“And even there, you also need to persuade people who are beyond that group,” Erickson said.
Anderson said the Democracy Alliance is interested in how to win back Rust Belt voters too, even though most of its early efforts are focused across more diverse Southern states.
“This is about doing ‘both, and,’” Anderson said. “How to expand and continue to engage Americans and real people so we’re not writing states and communities off the map.”
Donors who belong to the Democracy Alliance pay dues to the organization and pledge to give a minimum of $300,000 a year to causes from a portfolio of approved groups. LUCHA is one of them this year, as is the Native American Voters Alliance in New Mexico, which is sending paid canvassers onto the Navajo reservation daily, armed with information on which candidates will help protect the area from uranium mining. Another organization, Somos Acción, organizes and mobilizes voters in eastern New Mexico around bringing higher wages and better working conditions to the state’s agriculture, gas and private-prison industries.
“It’s not just an electoral strategy, it’s how do you engage people all the time?” said Shekar Narasimhan, a Democracy Alliance donor and board member. “I think we’ll see the results in a way we haven’t seen before. And you can maintain it in ’19, you can maintain it in ’20 — but you better be there.”
Democracy Alliance officials said they will not know how much donors contribute to the groups in total until after the election, and they declined to provide an estimate.
Democracy Alliance donors have long maintained an air of secrecy, and little is known about most of them. Major Democratic donors who have been identified as members include Soros and Steyer, hedge fund magnate Donald Sussman and technology entrepreneur Tim Gill. Until recent years, the group was mostly focused on combating the conservative ideas generated by groups like The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“We progressives continue to have a strong bias toward coastal donors who focus primarily on D.C.,” said Raj Goyle, a former Kansas state legislator involved in the Democracy Alliance. “So, it is definitely exciting to see genuine attention to the states with serious dollars flowing and new muscle building. But decades of neglect won't be fixed overnight, even with a successful election night next week.”
The race to replace Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring, is crucial for both parties’ efforts to secure control of the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a narrow, one-seat majority. Sinema, a Democratic House member, is in a statistical tie with Republican Rep. Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot.
Early voting so far appears to favor Republicans. More than a million ballots have been cast early, 42 percent of which were cast by Republicans and 33 percent by Democrats, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office.
“The data says right now that that wave’s not happening,” said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran GOP consultant in the state. “Someday. It’s not going to be this cycle.”
Getting more low-propensity voters to participate in elections is a victory in itself, said Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of LUCHA, a 501(c)4 organization that does not have to reveal its donors. Gomez said the group gets funding from sources including unions and dues-paying members in addition to the Democracy Alliance.
Earlier this year, she said, the organization registered 190,000 voters during a get-out-the-vote drive. LUCHA focused initially on registering people to vote by going to supermarkets and gas stations in parts of Phoenix with large minority populations. Later, canvassers started going door-to-door to identify possible Democratic voters.
“There’s a historic number of communities of color that have been registered to vote, that are turning out to vote. The same thing with Democratic registrants — it’s at an all-time high this year,” Gomez said. “We don’t know what this year is going to bring. What we do know is that we’ve already won.”
In the same neighborhood where Rodriguez sat with Romero while he filled out his ballot, LUCHA canvassers Astrid Pizarro, 22, and Felix Medina, 18, helped Jaime Zamarron Rosas, 43, register to vote over the weekend. He was too late to vote Tuesday, but he said he’s wanted to register but has “always been very busy.”
Speaking in Spanish while seated on a beige sectional in Rosas’ living room, Medina walked him through the various boxes on the form, leading up to party preference.
“Do I have to mark something down?” Rosas asked. “What party is ‘El Donald’ from?”
“Republican,” Medina replied. “So, if you support immigrants and education, then put down Democrat. If you support Donald Trump, then put down Republican.”
Rosas ticked off a box. “Whichever party is opposite Trump’s,” he said.