Walking in Trump Country
by John Curtis, candidate for State Representative (93rd District), @ElectJohnCurtis
The 2016 election was not a good one for Democrats. But although I came up short in my campaign for state representative, I learned some lessons that I think will lead us to victory in 2018 and that might help other Democrats think about how we can be competitive in downstate Illinois and Republican strongholds throughout the country.
Illinois House District 93 includes Macomb, the south half of Galesburg and eight counties worth of small towns and large farms. Like much of downstate Illinois, our region has experienced steep declines in our local economies and our rural population. The slogan, “Make America Great Again” was custom made for this part of the state. I hear a lot of people talk about how much better life was and how much easier it was to find a job “in the old days”.
By all accounts, our campaign for state representative was a long shot. I am a farmer, small business owner and teacher by trade. I had never worked on a campaign and had no experience running for office at any level.
To make things even tougher, flush with tens of millions of dollars from our terrible, billionaire governor, the Republican party was willing and able to fund my opponent at whatever level necessary and provided her with a team of experienced, paid professionals. Meanwhile, the state Democratic party and our union allies were hard pressed to protect incumbents and directed their limited funds to seats that were considered “winnable”. There was not much financing left for an unknown candidate in a Republican-leaning district.
By nature, I am a high-energy, competitive person who likes people and is willing to work hard and learn from my mistakes. These characteristics helped me a great deal in our campaign. Another asset was my union, the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) and our parent union, Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). It was UPI’s dynamic president, John Miller, who took me under his wing, guided me through the basics of running a campaign and eventually managed the campaign on top of his already ridiculously busy schedule. He also got me out into the district to meet voters face to face. This became the foundation of our campaign and, I believe, the key to the successes that we had.
For fourteen months, whenever I wasn’t in the classroom or working on my farm, I was out knocking on doors and meeting voters in every community throughout the 93rd district. I always smiled, I was always friendly, and I listened. Sometimes people wanted to talk about what was wrong with government, but mostly they wanted to talk about their lives. I shared tears with men and women who had just lost their parent, husband or wife. I heard from young mothers worried about the quality of their kids’ education and stories from old, old men who had fought Hitler’s troops in Europe.
When I finally got home from walking each evening, I wrote a short post on Facebook about the community I had visited and the people I had gotten to know, usually with a photo or two from that community. To start my day the next morning, I would write short notes to four or five of the people that I had talked to and sent them out in the mail.
That grassroots approach to the campaign paid off over time. By election day, over 1400 people were following us on Facebook. We raised $92,000 from 362 individual donors. We had over 200 volunteers who came to walk with us in parades, to phone bank and to knock on doors. Our yard signs popped up all over the district. People got involved who had never before been involved in a campaign.
But as I said, the 2016 election was a tough one for Democrats. And while Donald Trump won this district by over 20 points, we managed 45.4% of the vote; just 1800 hundred votes short of what would have been a stunning upset.
Our team learned a lot in 2016 and we are beginning this campaign with a good plan and carefully thought out strategies for fundraising and marketing, for social media, for GOTV and all of the things that make a strong, successful campaign.
But we’re not going to lose sight of what was the core of our last campaign and I think that other Democrats walking in downstate districts might learn from our successes. My advice to candidates is to get out there today and walk your district. Talk with people on their front porches and in their living rooms. Be respectful, smile and always take the time to listen carefully. That’s one way to build true grass-roots support for your candidacy. It’s also a good way for a true public servant to develop a real connection to and understanding of the people that he or she is going to represent.
You can also find out more information on my campaign by going to my website at electjohncurtis.com