Campus political groups are supporting their preferred congressional candidates across the country to try to maximize their impact on the political environment.
Progressive groups, such as Bruins Elect and Young Progressives Demanding Action at UCLA, held a phone banking event Tuesday evening for Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate in Montana’s at-large congressional district special election to replace Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become Secretary of the Interior.
Quist, who has a chance to win in a state that President Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points in November, is one of several candidates receiving help from UCLA students.
Jessica Chase, president of Bruins Elect and third-year political science student, said her club is campaigning for candidates in Georgia and Montana because local elections for Los Angeles municipal and school board positions finished earlier this month.
“We’ve been doing as much as we can locally,” Chase said. “We’re also involved in the (special election for California’s 34th District), but it’s less important.”
She added though both candidates in the race for 34th District – based in downtown LA – are Democrats, club members endorsed Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez over former Los Angeles City Planning Commissioner Robert Lee Ahn. The seat opened up after Xavier Becerra resigned to become California’s attorney general.
In April, Bruins Elect also called voters to encourage them to support Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Ossoff finished first in the 18-candidate field and narrowly missed the majority he needed to win outright in the jungle primary April 18.
The race to replace Tom Price, now secretary of health and human services, gained national attention after breaking the record for most expensive House race in U.S. history.
Bill Schneider, formerly a visiting professor of communication studies at UCLA, said though research has shown voter outreach is more effective when local volunteers engage district residents, out-of-district supporters still have a monetary use: campaign funds.
“Every time someone raises money from outside (the) district, that does affect some voters, but not very many,” Schneider said. “But the bottom line is this: Candidates will still take the money.”
He added he thinks politically engaged citizens campaign for candidates in other states because politics have become more nationalized since the 1990s.
“Now, the balance of power is at stake,” Schneider said. “Every seat in every place has become a national contest. In Montana, one House seat out of 435 is seen as a high-stakes battle.”
Sasha Issenberg, a journalist who covers campaigns and author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” said the Quist and Ossoff campaigns probably use volunteers from outside their districts for get-out-the-vote operations or communications to supplement a smaller Democratic base in the traditionally conservative districts.
“Their campaigns use them to call likely Democratic voters, (who) are especially important in low turnout or unpredictable elections where it’s uncertain they’ll vote,” he said. “Generally speaking, you see campaigns using out-of-state volunteers to call people who basically support them.”
Issenberg added he thinks Democrats sometimes refrain from using out-of-district students to reach out to undecided voters because of potential partisan backlash against volunteers seen as outsiders.
He also said some presidential campaigns, such as former President Barack Obama’s in 2008 and 2012, used volunteers from uncompetitive states in the Electoral College to target residents of competitive states. However, races for Congress usually rely on local volunteers because the elections for Congress and the president happen on the same day. Political parties prioritize resources, such as out-of-state volunteers, for the higher office.
However, Issenberg said the special elections in Montana, Georgia and other states allow activists around the country to focus their efforts on relatively few elections and link supply with activist demand, he said.
“Special elections are different because especially on the left, folks are jacked up nationwide to get involved,” Issenberg said. “There is very little local activity competing for attention (in heavily Democratic states).”
Chase said Bruins Elect plans to hold more events to campaign for Ossoff before the June 20 runoff. She added the organization might campaign in the special election for South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District on June 20, which opened up after Mick Mulvaney resigned to become director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Montana will hold its special election Thursday.