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Coalition Of Labor, Minority Groups Wants To Redefine 'Ground Game' In Virginia

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The endorsed candidates, from left: Gecker, McCabe, McCollum, McPike.
Photos courtesy of the candidates
The endorsed candidates, from left: Gecker, McCabe, McCollum, McPike.

Knocking on doors has long been the province of candidates and political parties, which have traditionally dispatched volunteers armed with clipboards and bumper stickers. But now a new coalition of labor unions and organizations that represent minorities is hoping to redefine how the "ground game" works in Virginia and what kind of influence it might have in state and local elections.

The group is known as Take Action Virginia, a coalition that includes everything from Service Employees International Union Virginia 512 and United Food and Commercial Workers to the Mid-Atlantic Laborers and the Korean American Service and Educational Consortium Fund. During the June primary, the group endorsed five candidates — two for the Arlington County Board, one for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and two General Assembly candidates.

All five of the candidates won, even though some were considered long shots. The endorsements and the coalition's community-level work helped to bring out new people to the polls, says Yaheiry Mora, field organizer with coalition member CASA in Action.

"Knocking on doors is an electoral strategy, a tactic," Mora says. "Usually campaigns focus on their base and they talk to people who they know are going to vote, but we are trying to focus on building a new electorate."

Recent years have seen super PACs make inroads into the ground game, dispatching volunteers into neighborhoods for high-profile races. But the endorsements in state and local races by Take Action Virginia make it a new kind of effort. The group isn't a super PAC; instead, it calls itself an "electoral collaboration."

University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Farnsworth says the coalition is putting a fresh new spin on a very old strategy.

"The Republican Party has been able to use evangelical voters to connect to other evangelical voters to get them to turn out for defense of marriage amendments," says Farnsworth. "That was less high-tech than what we are seeing today, but it's clearly the same dynamic."

Last week, the coalition endorsed four candidates for the Virginia state Senate: Gary McCollum in his race against incumbent state Sen. Frank Wagner (R-7), Dan Gecker in his race against Republican Glen Sturtevant to fill the seat vacated by retiring state Sen. John Watkins (R-10), Jill McCabe in her race against incumbent state Sen. Dick Black (R-13) and Jeremy McPike in his race against Republican Hal Parrish for the seat vacated by retiring state Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-29).

"In this day and age when everybody is saturated with, you know, hundreds and hundreds of emails a day and television commercials and radio commercials, people have reached kind of a saturation point," says Dan Lucas, mid-Atlantic political director for Laborers International Union of North America. "When a friendly person knocks on the door with a piece of literature and says, 'Hi I'm here representing candidate X,' it tends to put a personal contact to it that you can't get from any media."

On Friday, members of the coalition will be meeting once again to pick local candidates to endorse.

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