Business

Trying to Flip the House, ZIP Code by ZIP Code

Posted July 21, 2018 12:30 p.m. EDT

Ethan Todras-Whitehill, executive director of the nascent political action group Swing Left, stood near the staircase inside the lobby of the St. James Theater in New York City, home of the musical “Frozen.” It was a Tuesday afternoon in mid-June, and the bearded Todras-Whitehill was dressed in jeans and a blue blazer, as well as a new shirt bought earlier that day at H&M after the one he had been wearing was deemed unacceptable for television. (There was a crew from MSNBC in attendance.)

Todras-Whitehill seemed unbothered by the subtle change in attire. Since he and two close friends — none of whom then worked in politics — led the formal launch of Swing Left in January 2017 with the aim of flipping the House of Representatives to Democratic control in the 2018 midterms, Todras-Whitehill has quickly acclimated to his newfound prominence in the world of grass-roots politics.

Swing Left’s mission of identifying 78 swing districts, 23 of which would have to be flipped to return the Democrats to power in the House, has found a receptive audience. The group has more than 400,000 members and has raised more than $9 million in donations so far.

During the past year, Swing Left has drawn unsettled Democrats across the country, including a number of influencers, to its ranks, even as more well-funded groups have entered the fray, including the one recently started by Michael Bloomberg and Tech for Campaigns, a volunteer network consisting of more than 4,500 tech workers at companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix. And it has reinforced the notion, illustrated most starkly by the 2016 presidential election, that the traditional ways of running a campaign are increasingly irrelevant.

“I like the fact that they come from outside politics,” said Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast creative director, an early supporter of the group. (At one point, another attendee at the St. James event, actor Mandy Patinkin, whirled around to take a picture of Wintour on his smartphone.) “There’s a lot of people who have very good hearts and are super smart, but they’ve been doing it in the same way for a long time.”

In some ways, Swing Left’s strategy is strictly a numbers game. The group did not vet or support specific candidates based on a set of issues. Instead, it decided to raise money earmarked for whomever won the Democratic primaries in targeted districts, keeping the contributions in escrow — in district funds — until general election campaigns began. Todras-Whitehill wondered whether it was even possible to raise money if the group did not know the identities of the candidates it would ultimately support. Swing Left’s lawyers assured him it was.

The group has begun to release the money for the races in its sights. One of those races is in California’s 48th Congressional District, where the most recent Federal Election Commission filings show that Harley Rouda, the Democratic challenger, had $3,257 more cash on hand than Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican incumbent. Rouda’s fundraising efforts were helped largely by the $115,500 Swing Left donated for the district’s general election campaign. (In general, Democratic challengers seem to be on a financial roll. According to a recent article in Politico, Democrats in 56 House districts have surpassed Republican incumbents in second-quarter fundraising.) As Swing Left’s ranks have grown, so too has its profile. In December, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, co-founders of the fashion label Opening Ceremony, held a dance party in New York to raise money for the group, attracting nearly 600 people. Mark Ronson served as DJ, with guests ranging from actress Natasha Lyonne to chef Eddie Huang.

“You turn the music off, and you have a lot of people who had been drinking,” Lim said. “But,” she added, when the speeches started, “everyone just listened. I don’t know if it was an aha moment, but people were engaged.”

There have been other notable backers, including Jon Favreau, a former aide to President Barack Obama who is part of the popular podcast team “Pod Save America” and co-founder of Crooked Media. Actor Adam Brody, who once starred on “The O.C.,” canvassed in the actual Orange County before California’s recent open primaries, going door-to-door in one of the key districts identified by Swing Left. And actress Kyra Sedgwick held a fundraiser for Swing Left at her Los Angeles home. She also made phone calls for the group, something that made her surprisingly nervous.

“I felt, ‘I don’t want to bother people,'” Sedgwick said. “And then I thought, ‘I’m not really bothering them. I’m passing along something that’s crucially important for the future of our country.'”

In many ways Swing Left is modeled less on a political organization than on a Silicon Valley startup. Its founders saw a need for a product — one that allowed people to easily identify their nearest swing district by simply typing in their ZIP code and seeing what nearby races they might want to get involved in.

“First and foremost we approached it from a usability perspective,” Michelle Finocchi, Swing Left’s chief marketing officer, said of the website. “It was always about this idea of, ‘Is this something I would use? Is it something other people would use?'” In a glassy conference room inside a Manhattan WeWork space the day following the St. James gathering, Todras-Whitehill, 37, asked, “What do tech startups focus on?” and then answered his own question. “They focus on having a clean, appealing product that fills the need of the user,” he said.

“And one of the big innovations is thinking about our user — our volunteers as we call them — almost as a customer,” he said. “That’s built into our DNA from the very beginning.” (Swing Left identifies districts to target through a variety of factors including 2016 results, polling, past presidential elections and demographic and geographic indicators.)

What began as an all-volunteer organization now has 25 full-time staff members. Two of the original founders have since left the organization, and a professional political organizer has been brought on board: Matt Ewing, a former national field director for MoveOn.org, who is now the group’s chief community officer.

“We had no idea what it would become,” Todras-Whitehill said. “But after our viral launch we suddenly didn’t have the 20,000 people we expected, but 200,000 expecting us to help them take back the House. I knew that we would have to transform the organization into a professional one capable of delivering on that promise.”

— The Morning After Inside the St. James, a crowd of roughly 100 people, mostly Broadway actors, had been convened by producer Jordan Roth. (A couple of days before the event, Roth had just won a Tony Award for the Broadway revival of “Angels in America.”) Roth had become interested in the group after attending a fundraiser at the home of Wintour, who had been introduced to the group by Hildy Kuryk, a former Condé Nast executive who had previously been the national finance director of the Democratic National Committee.

Roth said of Swing Left, “I have to introduce you to Broadway. We have the voices and the determination and we need to know how best to use that every day. Today, tomorrow, all the way through November.”

It goes without saying that it did not take much for Todras-Whitehill and the others from Swing Left to win over the audience. After the event, sitting in the darkened theater, Roth joked that the location and crowd wasn’t just blue, but “navy blue” bordering on “cerulean.”

Todras-Whitehill’s involvement began on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, in a coffee shop in Amherst, Massachusetts, close to where he now lives. As he thought about the election results the day before, he began to focus on the midterms two years later. He knew there would be little chance of retaking the Senate in 2018, given how few Republican seats would be at risk, and instead turned his attention toward the House.

This wasn’t the forward, decisive vision of a Washington operative. A onetime freelance writer (whose work has appeared in the Travel section of The New York Times), Todras-Whitehill’s political experience was minimal. He had volunteered during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and traveled to northeastern Ohio in 2008, where he briefly ran a county “get-out-the-vote” operation for Barack Obama.

But the 2016 election results made getting involved feel more urgent and Todras-Whitehill began looking for his nearest swing district. With some effort he found it. He then wondered why he had to do that much work. Where was the app?

And that was the start. Todras-Whitehill reached out to a high school friend from his Upper West Side of New York City childhood, Joshua Krafchin, an entrepreneur, and his wife, Miriam Stone, a branding strategist, both now living in the San Francisco Bay Area. The couple quickly signed on.

They thought about potential names, like “Adopt-a-District” and “Make America Blue Again” before settling on “Swing Left.”

“It sounded like a movement,” Todras-Whitehill said. “At that moment in time, we needed more than just a tool. We needed a movement.” With a cadre of a dozen friends from technology, marketing and media, they developed a website to fill a need they saw lacking: an easy apparatus to let people know which nearby congressional seats could possibly change from red to blue and potential opportunities to make that happen.

For instance, let’s say you type in 80203, a ZIP code in the reliably blue enclave of Denver. What pops up is a map of the neighboring 6th District, anchored by Aurora, Colorado, currently held by Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, along with the information that while Coffman “won this district by only 31,254 votes (8.3 percent)” in 2016, it was also carried by Hillary Clinton that year and thus should be in play for 2018. (Says the site: “Democrat Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger and tireless advocate for veterans, can flip this critical seat!”)

Though some wanted the site to go up as soon as possible, Finocchi preached patience. She had gone to college at Columbia University with Krafchin and Stone and saw Swing Left as an opportunity to act on her frustration over the 2016 vote. But, with most of the others, Finocchi had no experience in politics, having worked mostly in fashion and the arts.

But she understood the impact of timing. As 2016 drew to a close and the country prepared for the unknown, she believed Swing Left should launch on Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration and two days before the Women’s March. Everyone involved was encouraged to each reach out to the 10 most influential people they knew beforehand and hope for the best.

“Knowing people were going to be thinking about it,” Finocchi said of the inauguration, “I said, ‘Let’s give people something to talk about the day before.'”

They had initially hoped to sign up 20,000 people by the end of March. Within a matter of days, however, that number had reached 200,000. This came about thanks to Twitter posts by celebrities like Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman, and hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook. Roughly 10,000 people offered up their professional skills and expertise as a way of assisting the group. (Swing Left is technically a “hybrid PAC,” an organization that the Center for Responsive Politics defines as having “the ability to operate both as a traditional political action committee, contributing funds to a candidate’s committee, and as a super PAC, which makes independent expenditures.”) The group was something very real now, something that needed shape and structure. Also it did not help that two of Swing Left’s founders — Krafchin and Stone — had their second child soon after the organization began, forcing them to retreat from full-time leadership roles.

Over the next few months, Swing Left began to build upon that initial fervor. On Feb. 12, 2017, the group held a conference call that drew registrations from 17,000 people. The group encouraged the formation of house parties in different districts — the first round of which generated 700 across the country.

But as Swing Left grew, it also had challenges with staffing. The organization could no longer have people exist in a quasi-volunteer role when the demands on their time demanded real salaries. In late March 2017, Swing Left established a “Donate” button on its home page. To date, Swing Left has raised more than $9 million, half of which has been designated to candidates via district funds, with the rest allocated for a massive get-out-the vote effort this fall. That includes the funding of full-time staff salaries that range from roughly $4,000 to $10,000 per month.

“It was a relief to feel that we could put aside our other obligations and make this our full-time focus,” Ewing said. “We’d all been burning the midnight oil because we had other responsibilities. It was great to be able to go back to my family and say, ‘That thing? Now it’s my job.'”