A Progressive in Trump Country


How are progressive candidates trying to win over traditionally conservative districts? We spoke with Josh Stanfield, campaign manager for Congressional candidate Jennifer Lewis, on his approach for engaging with Virginian voters in a Republican stronghold.

The 6th Congressional District in Virginia has been a Republican stronghold for decades. When long-time Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte announced his retirement, Jennifer Lewis, a mental health worker and community activist with no political experience, decided to run on the Democratic ticket. She handily won the Democratic primary on a strikingly progressive campaign, even earning an endorsement from Our Revolution, the political movement created by Bernie Sanders’ supporters after the 2016 election. How is a progressive candidate approaching a traditionally conservative district? We spoke with Josh Stanfield, Lewis’ campaign manager, to find out.

SONAM KOTADIA: Could you start off by telling us why Jennifer Lewis is running? What is the main message of her campaign?

JOSH STANFIELD: The primary campaign message is to elect someone who is one of “us.” Not an elite, not a career politician, but an everyday person who understands the struggles that everyday people experience, and can therefore authentically represent people’s interests in Congress.

As Lewis’ campaign manager, what do you consider to be the three most important issues for her campaign?

STANFIELD: For us, it would be anti-corruption, that is, campaign finance reform, and Medicare for all. The third issue depends on where we are in our district. The 6th District is really big geographically. I’ve put 15,000 miles on my car since late February just driving around. You can split it into three geographic parts: a northern, a central, and a southern part. They’re defined by certain industries, certain major population areas, certain specific concerns. For everyone, there’s going to be the anti-corruption, anti-elite message and the healthcare message. But if you’re just picking three, the third thing will be different for different areas. For most of the district, you could go in and be pushing for $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, and that is extremely popular across party lines. But if I’m in a central part of our district, it might be opposing the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

So when you’re on the campaign trail, are you modifying your message and your strategy based on your audience?

STANFIELD: Absolutely. Who doesn’t do that? Maybe there are politicians who won’t admit it, but all you have to do is listen to their speeches at different places and see how they change the way they talk. So yes, we say different things to different people, but not about the same topic. If I’m at a rally for Jennifer in an area where there’s a proposed pipeline that’s going to go 100 feet near my house that could explode or poison the well water, I probably want her to mention that and not gun violence, which might be a problem in some other urban areas of the district.

One of the cool things about our primary is that no campaign in our district bought voter data from the state party. I spent hours on Excel making a spreadsheet based on historical voting patterns from 2005 to now. With this, we targeted very specific precincts and literally knocked every single door. When we met a Trump voter or strong Republican at the door, we would enter into the conversation not as a Democrat but with a critique of, for example, Obamacare. We wouldn’t automatically be put into the Democratic box, so to speak, and they would listen to the subsequent argument.

The interesting thing is when I opened up the data – which we bought from the state party only after we won the primary – I noticed we had well over 150,000 registered voters in the 6th District about whom the Democratic Party knows nothing. Nobody has ever called them, knocked on their door, or sent them anything. The Party has just assumed they’re Republicans. One of our challenges for the summer is to contact these people and find out who they are. It would upset me if any time during this summer a Jennifer Lewis campaigner knocks on the door of a strong Democrat. When it comes to November, then, of course, we’ll expand our focus.

Are you also trying to focus on demographics that traditionally tend not to vote?

STANFIELD: Yes. In Harrisonburg especially, there is a heavy immigrant population from various Central and South American countries and from Cambodia. We are going to be handing out flyers in different languages to those communities to turn them out.

Through what media channels are you concentrating your advertising efforts?

STANFIELD: We’re running a pretty strong letter-to-the-editor campaign. I have a little over 60 volunteers drafting letters to the editor. I gave them a spreadsheet listing every print outlet in the district and the relevant contact information and said, “Our campaign is not going to go negative against our opponent. Otherwise, here are our priorities legislatively and go write what you want.”

We ran print ads in traditional African-American community papers during the primary. We’re going to continue running print ads in newspapers across the district because there are parts of our district where people don’t have internet access, and it’s cumbersome to knock their doors. We’ll also do very selective mailing in certain super remote areas, and we’ll run radio ads. I’m not inclined to do television.

And what about social media?

STANFIELD: When you are in a district where you have limited resources, limited Democrats, limited volunteers – unless you have someone who can write well, is on message, and will control social media – it is a distraction to devote time and resources to social media as opposed to going out on the field or fundraising.

We don’t buy email or call lists. We have a couple of thousand people on our list, and we don’t do email blasts regularly. I consider it spam. When an email comes from this campaign, I want people to think there’s something important in it, there is an actionable item in it, and that it’s worthy of being opened. I think we’ve done two social media posts total that have anything to do with fundraising for the whole campaign. I need to have a reasonable expectation of a serious return financially to be willing to put people through the spamming that typical campaigns do.

One of our mantras on the campaign is if anyone is making a suggestion or telling us to do something, and their reasoning is “this is how campaigns are run,” it doesn’t count as an explanation. People have to actually explain why in this district, for this campaign, it makes sense to do that.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for your campaign in the upcoming months?

STANFIELD: Getting people to know that: A) There’s an election on November 6th and B) Jennifer Lewis exists. That’s it. Just getting people to know her name will be the biggest challenge.

Thanks so much for sharing your work with us. We’ll keep an eye on what happens on November 6th!