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Billionaire, unions have a plan to tip California’s closest congressional races

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Tom Steyer, founder of Need to Impeach, says Congress isn't doing its job in overseeing President Donald Trump. He is calling for impeachment, which is creating a rift within the Democratic Party.
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Tom Steyer, founder of Need to Impeach, says Congress isn't doing its job in overseeing President Donald Trump. He is calling for impeachment, which is creating a rift within the Democratic Party.

Some of California’s most competitive congressional races could be decided by a few thousand votes this November. Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer and his group, NextGen America, are working to get 650,000 voters to the polls who can push Democrats over the top. In doing so, they are trying to counter a persistent trend: many typical Democratic voters stay home in midterm elections.

The San Francisco-based philanthropist and vocal critic of President Trump is teaming up with the powerful California Federation of Labor and a host of local partners on a multimillion dollar get-out-the-vote operation in seven of the state’s congressional districts that are currently held by Republicans. Their effort to mobilize infrequent Democratic voters in California is at the center of Steyer’s strategy to help Democrats win back control of the U.S. House of Representatives this fall — and gain a critical check on the president’s power.

“The biggest hurdle to overcome is to encourage people to believe in the system, itself. The reason they don’t turn out is because they think their vote doesn’t matter,” Steyer said in an interview with McClatchy. “What we’re trying to enable is a conversation between voters and citizens about the issues … to understand how important they really are in the system.”

Uniting California, as the grassroots coalition is called, is one of a number of Steyer-backed campaigns and organizations that are active in the 2018 election. Steyer’s support of liberal Democrat Andrew Gillum, which included a major get-out-the-vote campaign, helped boost the Tallahassee mayor to a surprise victory in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary there.

In total, Steyer plans to spend over $100 million on this year’s campaigns.

The general election effort in California, which NextGen America, the California Labor Federation and their allies are formally unveiling later Thursday, is an extension of the work they did together to engage California voters for the June 5 primary. Uniting California is expected to spend roughly the same amount — a couple million dollars or more — in the build-up to election day in November.

They’re not the only outside group pouring money into the state this election. Both parties and a flurry of Super PACs are expected to run ad campaigns in the state’s congressional battlegrounds, which are centered on the seven Republican-held congressional districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC aligned with House Republican leaders, is also conducting a get-out-the-vote operation in California, operating from five field offices in the 10th and 21st Congressional Districts in the Central Valley and three Southern California districts, the 25th, 39th and 45th. Like Uniting California, the group has had staff on the ground since early in 2018. They now count over 500 volunteers and interns working in the state, mostly local high school and college students.

“A strong investment in California is going to be vital to maintain the House Republican majority, which is why CLF has had field offices in congressional districts throughout the state since last year,” CLF Communications Director Courtney Alexander told McClatchy. “We’re executing an aggressive ground game, touting the work members of Congress are doing for their communities.”

Uniting California, however, is hoping that microtargeting programs developed by the California Labor Federation, along with partnerships with local groups like the Bakersfield-based Dolores Huerta Foundation and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, will give them an edge.

One-on-one conversations are “always what the labor movement has done best,” California Labor Federation Communications Director Steve Smith said.

There is evidence that all the get-out-the-vote work had an impact in the primary elections, although it’s hard to separate out what Uniting California did from all the other campaign activity. Voter turnout was up significantly since the last midterm election in 2014, particularly in Orange County, where Democrats are trying to flip four Republican congressional seats.

And according to NextGen America, turnout was notably higher among California voters the groups contacted. For example, in Republican Rep. David Valadao’s district south of Fresno, turnout was nearly 6 percent higher among those voters Uniting California reached out to than the district turnout rate, as a whole.

According to Karla Zombro of California Calls Action Fund, one of the Uniting California partners, that’s even better than they had hoped. Zombro credited the five local groups that have been involved in the outreach efforts in Valadao’s 21st. “They have, over the years, developed a really great infrastructure,” she said.

Paul Mitchell, of Political Data Inc., says Democrats shouldn’t feel too bullish about the primary results, however. “Anything would look good compared to 2014,” which was a low point for voter turnout in the state, he noted. In 2018, “statewide turnout was just about right at the predictable level” for a gubernatorial election year, Mitchell added. “I think that for the general election, we have to expect more of the same.”

That said, an effective get-out-the-vote operation could make the small but significant difference that could determine the outcome of some of these congressional races, which promise to be close. “If they can do something to affect a race by 2, 3, 4 [percentage] points, yes that’s marginal benefit,” said Mitchell. “But it’s winning.”

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