Op-ed: ‘Trip to Flip’ was a success

By Esther Kaplan and Ruth Birnberg

With midterms in the rearview mirror, Trip to Flip (T2F) is celebrating the Blue Wave that won Democratic control of the House, flipped seven Governorships and advanced representation in many State Houses.

T2F set out to help Boston area residents volunteer on winnable swing House districts nationwide. We facilitated over 750 days of volunteering in Florida, Minnesota, Texas, New York, Iowa, North Carolina, and Maine. Of our 12 chosen candidates running against incumbent Republicans, eight won, three lost and one (NC-09) is under investigation for absentee ballot theft.

These were close races – half were decided by less than 2 percent. Get Out the Vote (GOTV) worked and every T2F volunteer felt honored, even lucky, to participate. This was an opportunity to engage voters whose doors had not been knocked on in a long time.

Thanks to Force Multiplier, we met eight swing House district candidates at local house parties and learned about their district, their priorities and some of their strategy for winning Republican-held seats. Each was a great match for their district. TX-32 candidate Colin Allred, a local high school football star and NFL linebacker turned civil rights attorney, spoke of incumbent Pete Sessions as the third largest recipient of Big Pharma money who used his role as chair of the Rules Committee to block legislation on the cost of pharmaceuticals. Allred described this district as ‘under-voting’. So, four of us signed up for a week in mid-October knocking on thousands of Republican and Independent doors in middle and upper middle class suburbs of Dallas.

Allred directed us to canvass as ‘ambassadors of hope’. We remember: The voter who claimed he didn’t like a lot of what Trump says but ‘you can’t argue with his success’, meaning the economy. The stunned father whose 19-year-old son might not vote Republican. The many college students who requested but did not receive Absentee ballots. The torn Republican whose daughter needed coverage of her chronic disease. The woman who said she wouldn’t vote for a Democrat because they behaved so badly citing the Kavanaugh hearings. Most of all I wish I could go back to the woman in her 80s who stepped outside and closed the door behind her. “I’m with your guy but my husband is not. The last three years have been the hardest of my life. The only way I can continue to live here is if we don’t talk politics. All my women friends are appalled that our husbands can’t see through Trump. Sometimes I wonder if I ever really knew the man I’ve been married to for 55 years.”

In almost every neighborhood we saw opposing lawn signs side by side, block after block – O’Rourke vs Cruz and Allred vs Sessions. We heard of divided church congregations. Women and a few men told us how profoundly hard it was to live in ‘divided households’. As much as Trump is a source of humor or disdain to us, he is the cause of great distress in many families and neighborhoods.

On the other hand, we found the suburbs of Dallas to be far more racially/ethnically integrated than those of Boston and that 5000 sq. ft. homes were valued at $500,000 on Zillow. Allred won by over 6 percent!

I (Esther) spent the last five days with eight others in central New York state. Republicans told us that NY-22 was a moderate Republican district but that incumbent Claudia Tenney was too Trump-like while Democrat Anthony Brandisi was moderate. Again, tone mattered. This was a foliage tour and Erie Canal history lesson coupled with knocking on almost every house in Little Falls and Middleville and the farms and elder housing of Herkimer County. I congratulated the 95-year-old woman who drove herself to vote and volunteer at the polls and thanked the 101-year-old woman for her commitment when she bemoaned that she could not get to the polls for the first time in her life. I was thrilled for her, and all of us, when Brandisi won by 1 percent.

Many other JP residents Tripped to Flip. Beverly Cooper-Wiele canvassed with the candidate’s father and was interviewed by the Times of London during her week in Iowa-03 for Cindy Axne. Steve Rosenfeld led 28 volunteers to FL26 and FL27 for a week. Fran Price led eight others from JP and Brookline to use their Spanish language skills for 12 days in TX-23 for Gina Ortiz Jones. She learned that we cannot take the Hispanic vote for granted citing the evangelical movement as one factor. Since Congressman Will Hurd refused to debate, voters were dependent on commercials and therefore campaigns on financial contributions. “The very last of my 650 doors belonged to an Hispanic family.  I almost gave up but the wonderful smells coming through the closed door suggested someone busy in the kitchen. When the door finally opened, the señora guaranteed me five votes for Gina and rewarded me with a bag of piping hot pumpkin empanadas, spiced with anise.” Ortiz Jones lost by .5 percent.

While newspapers, TV, and twitter feeds give me (Ruth) a sense of regional differences on major issues, it is only by having conversations with individual voters that I begin to grasp what has led to these differences. Many thanked us for taking time to go and do this work and my response is always that it is not a benevolent act but truly a wonderful and fun learning experience.

Canvassing revealed a divided country and also a genuine hunger to bridge the divide. When asked “Don’t you think we should be able to talk to each other?” the answer was always yes and many meaningful discussions ended with handshakes and well wishes. May we all find ways to continue the dialogue – to listen and talk to Americans elsewhere who differ politically from us.

2018 Trip to Flip was a pilot project. Now we must decide how to replicate or grow the model. Please write us at [email protected] if you’d like to hear about future plans.

Esther Kaplan and Ruth Birnberg are two Jamaica Plain residents who participated in “Trip to Flip.”

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