Lessons in Winning: Katie Hill Campaign Shows How it’s Done

The magic mix of efficiency, honesty, elder experience & Millennial/Gen Z fervor delivered an inclusive victory in CA-25.

Democrats didn’t even get a full day to savor Tuesday night’s electoral success in U.S. House races – partially due to the Obstructer-in-Chief’s Wednesday morning ousting of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and partially due to the fact that a slew of races is yet to be called and the outcome of several key races is being challenged. But there are several important “go-forward” lessons to be learned from the wins we’ve tallied so far.

Case in point: the hard-fought, impressive, and not-decided-till-the-wee-hours-Wednesday-morning victory of first-time office-seeker Katie Hill, 31, over incumbent Republican Representative Steve Knight, 51, in my own decidedly “purple” California 25 House district – a district that has never before been represented by a Democrat, or a woman, or a bisexual. Katie’s all three. She represents the new Democratic Party, and she represents it well.

First, some background. As a 60-something lifelong Democratic activist, I’ve worked far more campaigns than I can recall, starting as a high school volunteer in Bobby Kennedy’s inspiring but ultimately heartbreaking California primary race back in 1968. I’ve seen a lot of campaign teams in operation, and it’s not always pretty. There’s infighting and disorganization and wasted effort and missed opportunities – all of which can impede the candidate’s ability to get his or her message out and bring committed voters into the fold.

I saw none of that on Katie’s team – unless you count the big roadside campaign signs that remained in her office on Election Eve, because campaign staffers and volunteers had run out of trucks to carry them out to roadside locations as a visibility tool.

Efficient and effective

Every event I attended, whether as a reporter for DemWrite Press or as a volunteer, ran like clockwork. Staff was set up and ready to give volunteers their assignments, well before the crowds descended upon a campaign office or home-based canvass location. Even when the crowds got there early – which happened regularly – the staff was ready to go.

Every volunteer was greeted with enthusiasm and given a meaningful assignment. Coached on their role. Got answers to their questions. Heard an enthusiastic, sincere “thank you” for showing up.

If too many people assembled at one location – a pretty awesome “problem” for a campaign, but one that cropped up often for Hill’s team – staffers quickly identified people who could head off to another of the campaign’s events in CA25’s far-flung geographic territory, and redeployed them.

And, within minutes of each event’s wrap-up, volunteers’ cell phones lit up with a thank-you message. And a link to sign up again.

Donors received thanks for their contributions. Promptly. And were told how their donations would be put to use.

Whenever they could, the team delivered lawn signs to people’s homes instead of asking them to visit one of the campaign offices to pick them up.

Katie’s campaign staff, all of whom are younger than she, ran her operation better than any campaign I’ve ever been part of – except, perhaps, the grassroots-driven, ground-up national campaign waged by President Barack Obama in 2008. Given that her campaign consultant, Bill Burton, is an Obama alumnus, maybe that’s why. But I think it’s more than that.

I never heard a word of dissension or grousing among Katie’s staff. Never witnessed a sidelong glance of rolled-eye exasperation from one staffer to another. They were all there to work, as a team. And they did.

In fact, at her Election Night party, Katie remarked to the hundreds assembled in a massive Santa Clarita bar and music club, that there had been zero attrition on her staff in the nearly two years she’d worked to win the CA25 seat in Congress.

How does a candidate make this kind of magic happen?

Honesty wins out

First, by being true to yourself. It helps, of course, to have a candidate like Katie – a straight shooting, bluntly honest, says-what-she-thinks, shows-who-she-is individual. It helps to be honest. It helps to be real.

Katie’s opponent, whose House votes jived 99% of the time with Donald Trump and the GOP, and 100% with the NRA – including multiple votes to destroy the Affordable Care Act and a “yes” vote on the GOP tax bill, which eliminated tax write-offs for residential fire losses unless they occurred in a federally-declared disaster…on a day when homes in CA25 were burning to the ground in a non-declared fire – tried telling voters that he would protect pre-existing conditions and had delivered tax relief to the district’s mostly middle-class residents. To say Knight’s message came across as disingenuous to all but the GOP faithful is something of an understatement.

Knight claimed to deplore the hateful rhetoric that is all too common in today’s politics…and then featured in one of his late-campaign TV commercials a supporter whose Facebook pages (multiple because Facebook kept shutting them down) were known by community leaders for their anti-minority, anti-women, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant calls to violence. When the press picked up on the story, Knight’s campaign pulled down the ad – but he never denounced the hate speech that his supporter repeatedly delivered.

Katie, on the other hand, was true to herself. A gun owner and the daughter of a police officer, she told voters she was for sensible gun safety laws and would push for legislation like that already enacted in California as a federal legislator. But she also reassured Second Amendment advocates that she supported the right of law-abiding citizens to own weapons. Her message met with initial skepticism from people on both sides of the issue, but Katie eventually convinced most that her position was sincere and her intent real: to bring people together to address this highly volatile and deeply challenging question.

Katie said on day one that her campaign would take no corporate PAC money and no money from the oil and gas industry. And it never did. Issue-focused PACs – Planned Parenthood, gun safety organizations, women’s and LGBTIQ rights groups, environmental organizations and labor unions – donated to her campaign, along with more than 25,000 individual contributors. But she ended the race in November 2018 without ever having taken a dollar from corporate or oil and gas interests. She built a multi-million-dollar war chest on the basis of her principles and her promises.

Power to the people

Second, Katie’s campaign was people-powered. The Democratic Party didn’t direct her or her team. She hadn’t even been the party’s first choice, but she won a hard-fought battle against the “party establishment” candidate in the June primary – and then wrapped both his supporters and those of her other Democratic opponents in her campaign’s friendly embrace. That brought in staff support and significant funding from the California Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – and endorsements from her key primary opponents.

Third, the campaign reached out to Democratic activist organizations across CA25’s geographically expansive territory, partnering with those groups in every corner of the district.

That’s how they were able to field teams numbering in the hundreds for multiple community-based canvasses held every weekend from August until Election Day.

It’s how they were able to deploy some five thousand volunteers on GOTV weekend, from Saturday, Nov. 3 through Election Day on Nov. 6.

And it’s how they were able to get 60,000 door hangers, just delivered by the printer, labeled on GOTV Sunday: they put out a call Saturday afternoon to San Fernando Valley Indivisible, a 1,200-member group that had adopted CA25 as its closest House swing district (since part of CA25 lies in that Valley). SFVI mobilized 193 of its volunteers, who worked in three shifts to get the door hangers ready so thousands more Hill volunteers could deliver them to neighborhoods throughout the district on Monday.

People power, strategically and skillfully mobilized, resulted in more than half a million homes visited in person, tens of thousands of postcards handwritten, stamped and mailed to encourage neighbors to get out and vote for Katie, hundreds of thousands of phone calls made and text messages delivered.

And it paid off. Katie won. She ran for a House seat in a district with a recently gained Democratic plurality and almost as many independents as GOP voters – a seat previously held exclusively by Republicans, and flipped it blue.

Or, as her campaign materials depicted, purple. Because Katie promised to represent every constituent, not just those who belong to her Democratic Party.

Young America: they got this

Watching all of this, I realized something.

I’d long ago become accustomed to the typical scene in campaign offices: volunteers there often skew significantly older than the population as a whole. Retirees, after all, do have more time to give to campaigns. As a teen and adult activist in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, I’d been politely tolerant of those old fogies. Today, I’ve become one of them.

But seniors at Katie’s events and in her offices were frequently the minority, whether among volunteers staffing tables or among those heading out to canvass neighborhoods. We were there, doing our thing as we’ve done for decades – and we were gladly welcomed – but we were often outnumbered by millennials, Gen Z and parents-of-kids-aged volunteers.

Which is wonderful. It was great not to feel as though the only teens present were high school seniors, grudgingly doing calls to voters to earn the community service credit required to pass their U.S. government classes. It was wonderful seeing families with young kids showing up to canvass their own communities.

And it was great not being the last person out of the campaign office on a weekend night. It was great to see someone younger, with more energy to spare, doing the work we oldies-but-goodies used to do alone.

Maybe it’s because Katie herself is a millennial. Maybe that’s why her campaign attracted so many younger volunteers. But whatever the reason, it was great to see entire communities mobilized, working together – a melting pot of ages, gender identities, ethnicities and nationalities, economic backgrounds, faith communities – all partnered on a common goal.

The American melting pot was in full force, and operating at full steam.

If this one campaign in one House district, is any indication, America is going to be okay. Even when we seniors from the ‘60s, who’ve seen it all and of course know it all, can no longer volunteer.

The torch is getting passed. As it should. And the hands now grasping it are strong.

12 thoughts on “Lessons in Winning: Katie Hill Campaign Shows How it’s Done

  1. As another senior and long time activist, I agree completely. In addition to the Dem Clubs and Indivisible, credit should be given to Swing Left, Swing SoCal Left and Rep Karen Bass’ SeaChange PAC, which early saw the wisdom of recruiting and busing in volunteers from LA. And credit to Katie’s campaign for working seamlessly with them all.

    1. Cannot agree more! There were SO many groups involved in the Hill campaign, and Karen Bass was an early force in bringing people out to the farthest corners of CA25 to canvass for Katie.

  2. As someone who canvassed in CA-25 a total of 20 times (including all-day on Election Day), I’m obviously very thrilled that Katie took this one. And I think it’s fair to ascribe a whole lot of credit to the enormous volunteer mobilization that was poured into this district, over many months (and, in SwingLeft’s and SeaChange’s case, over nearly two full years). That massive influx of volunteers allowed the Hill campaign to target some low-propensity voting constituencies that would otherwise have been triaged out, and it sure looks like that paid off handsomely for Katie. But it has me curious about what 2020 will look like for her. Yes, Katie Hill will always be able to motivate *some* folks to get out and work hard for her. That’s just who she is, and how people respond to her. But much (most?) of Katie’s 2018 volunteer army will be spending 2020 pouring their labor into other races… most especially the race for the White House. So basically the question comes down to: can Katie Hill win re-election without a half-million door-knocks?

    On the plus side: Katie will have the advantage of incumbency. And the demographics of CA-25 should continue to drift in a blue direction between now and then. Finally: the fact that the Trump re-election fight will drive turnout in 2020 should also work to Katie’s advantage in this particular district.

    That said: most of the civic infrastructure of CA-25 is still heavily Republican. The friggin’ Reagan Library is here! The GOP is gonna want this seat back, and I’m sure they’re gonna work very hard to win it back. I’ll be interested to see how Katie will be able to respond with fewer volunteers at her disposal.

    1. Your analysis is spot-on, Patrick. I think that what will help Katie hold her seat is that:
      1. she’s the incumbent (as you mentioned),
      2. it’s a presidential election year, which boosts turnout and increases the odds that down-ticket races like hers will benefit from connection to the top of the Democratic ticket,
      3. it’s likely she’ll get to campaign with said “top-of-the-ticket” candidate,
      4. CA25 Dems now know we CAN win the district so will be more energized (although you’re right – maybe not as much as this year), and
      5. we’re likely to see Dem registration continue to increase vis a vis GOP in CA25 (as you also said!).

      And with all of that on the table…we’ll still have to work really hard to make sure!

      1. Fingers crossed for all of the above, definitely.

        One other thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet– and I kinda hate to say it, because I don’t want to minimize this truly herculean accomplishment of Katie’s– but… didn’t it seem (toward the end, there) that Knight had basically just thrown in the towel? I mean, he had almost no volunteer presence out there whatsoever! Yes, there were a handful of paid CFL canvassers, but basically no dedicated Knight guys to speak of. And unlike some other embattled GOP incumbents (e.g., Mimi Walters), Knight didn’t even try to *pretend* that he was out there actively pounding the pavement (or working the phone lines) with a squadron of true-believing acolytes, fighting for every last vote. It was just like: “Hey, here I am, vote for me or don’t.” Knight was even quoted toward the end saying almost as much… something to the effect of: “I thought I could just be a congressperson, I didn’t think I’d have to *campaign* for it.” As though he could just post the occasional Facebook entry about low unemployment, and that would be enough to get him re-elected, and if it wasn’t, well, “I’ll play a lot of golf” (another head-shaking quote of Knight’s down the stretch).

        By GOTV weekend, Knight’s campaign had shriveled to where he had NO pre-announced public appearances whatsoever (again, in contrast to the Hill campaign, which turned the whole weekend into an amazing 4-day rolling carnival of voter outreach). No longer content to just avoid Town Halls during the winter and spring months, Knight was now actively hiding from his own voters on the weekend of the actual election! LA Times reporters couldn’t even get him or his campaign to return phone calls!

        So when Election Night arrived and it was revealed that Knight didn’t even have a victory party planned, but had just spent the day driving around town, and when Steve then showed up outside *Katie’s* party in jeans and a ball-cap to chat with whatever reporters happened to be assembled there, it really just seemed like: this is a guy who gave up.

        Now: I think you gotta give Katie and her campaign plenty of credit for the above. Maybe they just overwhelmed the Steve and his team, and the prospect of trying to legitimately respond to Katie’s fundraising and Katie’s energy and Katie’s bottomless well of maximally-engaged volunteers was just too daunting. And look, maybe the final results would have been basically the same even if Knight (and the Knight campaign) had been a super-charged ball of energy from June through November. Heck, *probably* they would have been much the same.

        But whoever the GOP challenger will be in 2020, he or she will certainly understand (in a way that Steve Knight didn’t in 2018) that knocking off Katie Hill will require an active, energetic campaign, with a legitimate ground game. If he or she can actually bring that ground game, Katie may be looking at a very different kind of fight.

        Or maybe not? I dunno. I’m kinda talkin’ out of my butt, here.

      2. We are, again, on the same page, Patrick! I commented about this on GOTV weekend, when Knight actually did have ONE appearance…but just one. And my first tweet for DemWrite Press’ election night #WaveCast Twitter feed ridiculed him for trying to sneak into Katie & Christy’s party and then glomming a TV interview b/c he had no party and no cameras at his HQ that night. It definitely felt like he either didn’t care if he won or lost, or like he already knew he was losing. And yes, whoever runs on the GOP side in 2020 is going to care more, so it’ll be up to Katie to impress her constituents with her efforts and accomplishments and to her supporters to help get out the vote again.

    1. Thank you for reading! I’m in my sweet spot as a writer these days — no longer employed (retired 2 yrs ago as a corp comms director) and getting to write about politics w/o having to hide my political point of view…it’s perfect!

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