Back in 2017, before the candidates for the 2018 midterms had been selected, before the resources were raised–DFER CT made plans for Connecticut to go Blue in 2018. Through our independent expenditure, Change Course CT, we planned to spend targeted resources to supplement the campaigns of Democratic candidates who would (a) lead the General Assembly; and (b) prioritize education issues and Democratic values. Essentially, our goal was to put our weight on the scale for greater impact on Election Day.
Nationally and statewide, we were seeing young and infrequent voters coming out in record numbers to take a stand in the face of the day-to-day chaos of Washington, D.C. Our philosophy was that if we could appropriately reach these voters, they would turn out for the midterms as though it were a presidential election. And it worked.
To inform our efforts, DFER CT conducted polling in three State Senate Districts and a statewide poll on the Governor’s race (featured in the Hartford Courant). Using that data, we made 25,000 GOTV call contacts, sent 33,000 GOTV text messages, and invested in digital advertising that reached over 200,000 people. Of the six competitive Senate contests we played in, five saw wins, and one is still too close to call. Three of those six races were Democratic pick-ups.
It all unfolded according to a long-term strategy that allowed us to leverage our resources in a way that would make all the difference.
Honing In On the Targets
Since all constitutional offices and 187 General Assembly seats were in play–we needed to start by selecting the “right” races. We quickly recognized that, with an 18-18 split in the Senate, every dollar spent in the Senate races would go a long way towards gaining control of the General Assembly. We also knew we would be able to work with a Democratic majority in the Senate to advance an education agenda because we already had a productive and meaningful history of collaboration with Senate leadership toward policy wins. And if we picked up a solid majority, the Democratic leadership would additionally be able to appoint the Chairs of the Education Committee, who would drive change for Connecticut’s students.
Now, to get the most bang for our buck, it was about drilling down to the precise Senate races that could make a difference. We identified races that had lacked mobilization and turnout in 2016, despite having a clear strength in numbers for Democrats. (This involved mining lots of data from Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016, Governor Malloy’s performance in 2014, and President Obama’s performance in 2012.) In addition, we looked for candidates whose backgrounds suggested they were likely to focus on education issues when they joined the General Assembly. We honed in on the following Senate Districts:
District 4 (Andover, Bolton, Glastonbury, Manchester): Senator Steve Cassano had served as a local Mayor, has been consistently targeted by Republicans, and has focused in the legislature on early childhood and workforce development for students.
District 12 (Branford, Durham, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison, North Branford, Northford): Christine Cohen is serving on the Guilford Board of Education, is an independent thinker and business owner, and was running in a competitive open seat that Democrats wanted to maintain.
District 13 (Cheshire, Meriden, Middlefield, Middletown, Rockfall): Mary Abrams was a former assistant principal, special education administrator, and educator. She was also running to represent school districts that had been recognized for innovation in their schools.
District 14 (Milford, Orange, West Haven, Woodbridge): James Maroney had previously served as a state representative and had served on the Education Committee, was the owner/director of “First Choice College Placement,” and had expressed interest in focusing on education in the General Assembly.
District 17 (Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Derby, Hamden, Naugatuck, Woodbridge): Jorge Cabrera, a father of school-aged children, had spoken about the need to improve educational opportunities for communities of color, and his wife is a Bridgeport Public School Principal.
District 26 (Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport, Wilton): Will Haskell was a young, energetic voice that captivated voters in Fairfield County. Vocal about disparities in the education system, he was facing the Republican Senate Co-Chair of the Education Committee–who had been a barrier to reform efforts.
Our data said that if we turned out the voters in these districts, their votes would be Democratic. We just needed good timing–to get in front of voters while they were deciding whether to vote. So we shifted our our resources to late in the cycle, staging our investments from Election Day backwards so that we would saturate each market on the days leading up to November 6th. Our messaging emphasized that these very voters could make the difference in their communities by voting in state elections.
Don’t forget: our data showed that traditional Connecticut legislative campaigns historically couldn’t/didn’t reach these voters. That is where we came in.
We chose digital advertising, phone calls, and texting as our tools because they were nimble and would allow us to shift both messaging and targeting, based on changing data models from our polls, our colleagues, and national campaigns and studies. Because funds were limited by the Citizens Election Program for these races, our spending could swing the needle.
The bulk of the GOTV spending took place in four districts that we identified as operating on very thin margins: 12, 13, 14, 26. Public data for 2018 shows that the margins of victory in these districts only spanned from 1,038 to 3,585 votes separating the winning and losing candidates. We also targeted women and voters under 30, to mirror national Democratic efforts to tip the scales in 2018.
By being this careful and strategic, we gave our independent expenditure dollars a true chance to impact outcomes. And they did. Of the six contests we played in, five saw wins (and, as of this publication, the race in 17th district is still too close to call). Now, Democrats will choose the next Senate Education Chair, and Senate Democratic Leaders Marty Looney and Bob Duff, consistent education policy allies, will drive budget negotiations and the Senate’s legislative docket for the next two years. There are still tough conversations regarding the budget ahead and policy debates that still need to be settled. But DFER CT will continue to stand by and stand up for Democrats who will improve our education system so that it better serves students and families.
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DFER CT State Director