Ethan Todras-Whitehill & Catherine Vaughan

Super State Strategy

Air Date: August 12, 2019

Grassroots organizers Ethan Todras-Whitehill and Catherine Vaughan of Swing Left (and formerly Flippable) discuss their plans to restore democratic accountability.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guests’ today are two leading organizers in the movement to rebuild and preserve American democracy. Ethan Todras-Whitehill is the cofounder and executive director of Swing Left. Prior to the election of Trump, he was a writer, journalist, and teacher. After the 2016 election, he decided to step off the sidelines and become more politically active. He started Swing Left to make it easier for others to do the same. Last year, Swing Left successfully mobilized a grassroots army to take back the House. Catherine Vaughan is the chief strategy officer of Swing Left. She was previously the CEO and cofounder of Flippable, an organization to support candidates running for state office. Flippable supported 80 percent of all flips accomplished in their target chambers in 2018 and directed 91 percent of funds toward races decided by less than 10 points. This year Swing Left recently unveiled it’s Super State Strategy for 2020 designed to organize progressive victories across the White House, the US Senate and state houses by focusing on 11 so-called Super States, volunteers and donors can multiply their impact up and down the ballot. And I might add that now Flippable is a part of Swing Left. You guys are working together towards those collective goals. Thank you for being here Ethan, Catherine.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Thank you so much for having us.

VAUGHAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Where would you say the vision is right now? What is a realistic goal for 2020, if we were to look at who’s being inaugurated in January 2021, what do you hope that your collective work will accomplish, and Ethan maybe start with you because the House was quite an endeavor and you were responsible in part for that along with the Speaker and some of her allies.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: The goal up and down the ballot,

HEFFNER: The goal, what is the goal?


HEFFNER: Yeah, the big goal in so far as what are you hoping to accomplish by January 2021?

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: That’s a good question. I think obviously we’d like to see a new occupant of the White House, right, I think everyone would agree that’s the most important thing facing our country right now. But that’s, that’s not enough. You know what I mean? The last cycle the Senate was really, really hard because the Democrats were playing defense in so many deep red states, but now there’s a real path to taking back the Senate. And that’s critical, you know, whether Trump is defeated or not, right. And then, well, you know, there’s this little thing called redistricting that happens once every 10 years.

You know, we don’t have this opportunity very often. You know, the census is going to be happening. And then after that by the Constitution, we have to redraw the districts and whoever controls the statehouses at that point will get to draw those districts and that determines so much for our country, for our democracy just generally. One of the big reasons we wanted to join forces with Flippable is because we understood just how important redistricting is, is going to be and how important the elections of 2020 are going to be for how we fare on that front.

HEFFNER: Catherine, how do the Super States in question, how are you going to try to accomplish taking back state houses. Based on your experience in 2018, how does that inform the way you tackle those elections in 2020?

VAUGHAN: Great question. So the Super States are examples of states where you have multiple really important elections or geographies up and down the ballot. So a state that’s going to be critical to winning the Electoral College and also has a critical Senate race and also has a state house or states senate that can be flipped in time for redistricting in 2021. And so we already, you know, when we compared our maps and we compared the states that we were working in, there was almost a hundred percent overlap, that we were really focusing on the same states. So the Super State strategy I think is a really great way of rolling up all of these different elections into a single strategy. So as a volunteer or a voter or a donor, you don’t have to kind of look in all of these different directions to figure out what the strategy is. You have a clear set of geographic priorities, which is the way our democracy is organized. And then when it comes to state legislative races, you know, I think that taking some of the attention that we have and that we’re focusing on getting Trump out of the White House and making sure that it also goes all the way down the ballot to who’s sitting in your state house, district c or who’s your state senator, and making sure that we’re able to flip those seats. Identifying not just the states that are important, but the specific geographies, those smaller districts, those zip codes, those areas that we know an individual vote, if someone’s voting Democrat up and down, the ballot could have five or six times the impact as just an individual vote somewhere else.

HEFFNER: Some folks are arguing that it’s disadvantageous for the Democrats to nationalize Trump and impeachment. For example, on a district-by-district basis and the municipal and local level folks are not concerned about Trump and his fitness for office, vis a vis impeachment. Often these congressional candidates who won in 2018 are asked in 2019 now ‘20 looking towards 2020 what are folks saying, what are folks saying at your town hall meetings, and a number of the folks who represent constituents that flipped from red to blue are saying I don’t get questions about impeachment, but yet impeachment was a really important mobilizing force in restoring democratic accountability. And that was a major argument for House members. You know, that was maybe an overarching argument. So Catherine, what are you hearing as to the importance of that national conversation in those state house and assembly races?

VAUGHAN: You know, it really varies. Right now we’re talking to some candidates in Virginia that are, you know, at the state level, and it varies even within a state. You know, in some districts talk of Trump and impeachment is, you know, taking up some of these town halls and in other districts it’s, people are really focused on infrastructure, on the environment, on the economy and that sort of thing. And so I think, you know, I defer to the candidates that we support who know their districts in and out; as to how much time they want to speak about those issues. I do think that we stand for a whole set of democratic values, that you know, whether or not Trump is impeached, whatever happens with him we still stand for these very positive values. And I really love hearing the stories from our candidates all over the country as to what matters to members of their districts.

You know, we know that voters want accountability, we know that voters want an honest and decent person in the White House. And so that’s – it’s not an issue that we necessarily want to skate over. But I also think that there, you know, the people that we get to elect to the state House and state senate level really understand the local issues that motivate their base and are able to speak to people on a much more personal level. And so it’s, you know, it’s, I think it’s a benefit. We can have these national issues that unite us and we can also have very local issues that these candidates can speak to.

HEFFNER: Well, Ethan, at least the mainstream media doesn’t think that the Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time. And to the, I asked the question of Catherine, I want to ask you the same question and if you might expound on that, because the mainstream media narrative is that those local communities are not interested in impeachment. That is at present, as we’re recording this, hat seems to be the predominant narrative, but it seems to be more complicated than that.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Well, I mean, it is a complicated question, but you know, I think our audience that Swing Left interacts with the most often, is not necessarily the local voter bases, but the local activist bases, right, those activist groups, and they may have different perspectives around that, but they’re working with us because they want to get Trump out of the White House because they want to win back these state houses. And the question of, to impeach or no to impeach is a very important question, but it also, you know, is potentially, there’s a lot of other stuff that is going on as well like, you know, what is the groundwork that is being laid for the general election right now?

HEFFNER: That’s what I want to talk about. So those Super States…

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Yeah, North Carolina always kind of springs to mind as a good example because there you have a state that has everything going on, right? It’s a critical presidential swing state. It’s also got an important Senate race, right? Thom Tillis is very vulnerable. And then you might think that Democrats have a voice in the redistricting process in North Carolina because, you know, Roy Cooper’s the governor, but it just so happens that the way the North Carolina laws are written, the governor does not have a veto over the map. So Republicans currently have total control of the map writing process. You know, North Carolina is a horribly gerrymandered state and the way it is right now, it’s going to continue to be that way, right, so what are we doing about it? Well, we’re organizing local teams in North Carolina. Right now a lot of them are working to try to win the North Carolina 9, special election, the redo of that election that was basically like stolen last cycle.

But they’re also working to lay the groundwork for, you know, winning back the North Carolina state houses, the Senate race and the presidential and the way they’re doing that is by registering voters, by collecting vote pledges. I mean registering voters is actually an incredibly powerful thing to do. Voter registry, because of all the barriers to voter registration, people who register to vote are reasonably likely to vote during a presidential year, a stat you don’t hear about a lot is about 85 percent of registered voters typically vote in presidential elections. And so that’s why registering new voters is one of the most powerful things you can do. So folks are out there in North Carolina registering new voters, but we’re also having people register voters in North Carolina from across the country via handwritten letters, because we recognize how important it is. And if you register voters in the right districts in North Carolina, like Catherine alluded to, you know, that one voter could cast a vote for state Senate and State House to overturn North Carolina’s gerrymander.

And then also, you know, states, the Senate and the presidency and just for fun, maybe it’s in like North Carolina 9 or one of those swing districts as well, so that that one voter that you might send a letter to and get registered to vote can cast five votes that we care about in 2020. And that’s the, that’s the sort of stuff that we’re focusing on because we recognize that there’s stuff that we all can be doing now to win in 2020 and while there are a lot of other things to focus on, you know, to impeach or not to impeach, who is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee, you know, critical questions, you know, requiring great gravity of thought here’s still a lot of work that can be done right now for winning in 2020.

HEFFNER: That’s the tactical idea of what it is you’re doing tactically, but how does it vary state by state, you mentioned the example of North Carolina. Are there other states, if you don’t want to talk about Maine or Arizona, those come front of mind to me, but North Carolina, what are the different local issues that are going to affect how the political debate is both structured and the consequence of the campaign?

VAUGHAN: So many of these issues are hyper-local on the way that people experience them, but then end up actually being really consistent across the country. So we saw that a lot with health care in states that hadn’t expanded Medicaid. In Virginia in 2017 before Democrats had this huge blue wave and were able to influence the expansion of Medicaid in that state that was the one issue on everyone’s mind. And that was consistent across Republican run states that hadn’t done that. You have issues of public education that we see in a state like Arizona and in a state like Michigan, you know, the home of the DeVos family and that kind of all those policies that come along with it. You see infrastructure. We actually heard from candidates in far-flung districts from Arizona to Michigan to North Carolina to Tampa, you know, talking about, you know, during the whole Brouhaha around Amazon’s HQ2 and how their cities and their districts were overlooked for that kind of investment because they didn’t have the transport infrastructure that would allow computers to be able to easily get to an HQ2.

And you know, so we, we see it’s very, it’s striking how consistent those messages are, even if the infrastructure issues that you see in Tampa are very different from the ones that you see in Detroit. But I do think it was striking to me to see how consistent some of those issues are. I think when it comes to the specific dynamics on the ground around registering voters and getting them out to vote, you’re also going to have different tactics. But largely, you know, Republicans have tried to exclude likely Democratic voters from registering to vote, and from the democratic process. So you see, you know, lower registration rates in a state like Arizona among voters of color, particularly Latinix voters. You see, you know, these issues around voter suppression, around suppressing the youth vote and you know, college voter suppression and that sort of thing in states like Maine and New Hampshire. And so the tactics may vary in different states as to how do you actually make sure that everyone can participate in the democratic process and how do you try to, you know, get the right people in office so that we can start turning some of these horrible voter suppression laws. But I think the tactics, to Ethan’s point, are broadly the same across the country. We need to register more people and we need to get them out to vote.

HEFFNER: And in some cases, you face laws that are poised to disenfranchise populations that might vote. What are the impediments to young voters in New Hampshire right now with the law that was pending and that the governor indicated he would sign, I don’t know if that’s law now, but that was in effect, imposing a poll tax upon.


HEFFNER: Younger voters.

VAUGHAN: There are a bunch of residency requirements that New Hampshire has instituted for voting, particularly aimed at those, you know, college students who move to New Hampshire from another state and are there for four years but often for longer. And it, you know, essentially makes them have to get a driver’s license or a form of ID in state. And that can often be very costly, especially to some college students who may not have a reason otherwise to get a driver’s license in that state. They may not own a car. And so you know you have those examples of an effective poll tax on students. And, and then you have similar examples, you know, across the country. Look at what’s happening in Florida right now after a ballot initiative was passed to restore the right to vote to people who had previously had a felony sentence. They are now essentially trying to impose a pulp poll tax making sure that every, you know, formerly incarcerated person has to pay off every single fine and fee before being able to register to vote. So you’re seeing similar tactics that Republicans are employing.

HEFFNER: One of the things that the 2016 campaign accomplished was to depress youth turnout. But in 2018 your efforts were largely in partnership with young people, 18 to 30, maybe even more expansive than that but that was the largest concentration of volunteers for Swing Left, I’d imagine, or Flippable, you know, a more youthful cohort within swing districts and folks who are giving aid to their brethren in swing districts. What did that, what does that teach you about young people, the fact that midterm cycle after midterm cycle, 18 to 30 year olds were dormant. And then in 2018 you can attribute this to Trump, but you can also attribute it to your activism as a consequence of Trump but in 2018 something change, something profoundly changed. The AP and the number of other very reputable statistical analyses have been done to show that young people’s turnout in 2018 was unprecedented, like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s an interesting line to draw. It’s like, you know, so a place like New Hampshire, they’re not saying students can’t vote, right? They’re saying, oh, you have to get a driver’s license here, right, so you’re, you’re requiring these extra steps. And I think what we’re learning in modern society where there’s, you know, we’re kind of getting pulled in so many different directions is that if you put just few extra barriers in front of people, it’s enough to stop a significant portion of them doing things. And what we learned with Swing Left and Flippable is that on the other hand, if you make things easier for people, and again, our audiences, you know, people who want to make a difference in these elections as donors and volunteers, so when you make things really easy for people, they’re more likely to do it, you give them fewer steps to get there; you show them the impact of the thing. And I think we’re starting to recognize, you know, with, with the young and give them something that’s inspiring, right, like we ran this last weekend campaign, you know, where will you be on the last weekend of the 2018 midterms? Right? You know, give them something to kind of get behind, make it really easy for them to get involved. And they’ll do that and they’ll tell their friends and bring them too. So in this modern age adding small things can make people do a lot less than. Then on the other hand, you know, making it a lot easier can really drive this sort of energy that we saw last cycle as well.

VAUGHAN: And I think that kind of like nudge process of nudging people toward actions by making them easier. That works for everyone. And we both, both of our organizations have actually very diverse audiences in terms of age. We definitely had a lot of young people, but we had people across the age spectrum. We had a lot of older people volunteering as well. That works for everyone. I think that that kind of language, that visual language when it comes to the types of websites and digital products that young people engage with, it’s just a little bit more native for young people. They grew up with it. They grew up with one-click ways of ordering things and you know, and doing things online and expressing their beliefs. They grew up without having as many barriers at least to having a lot of, you know, consumer or media experiences. So why should voting be any different? Why should the process of getting involved in democracy be any different?

HEFFNER: In 2021, I’m going to ask this again, what would be a successful execution of the Super State strategy?

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Democrat in the White House, Democrat in the Senate.

HEFFNER: And that’s feasible?

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Democrat, sorry, Majority leader in the Senate. And…

HEFFNER: So what are the greatest obstacles for achieving?

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Yeah, there’s one more though, which is also a Democratic voice in all of our target redistricting states. And it’s not that like, you know, Democrats don’t want to like, you know, for the most part, draw reverse gerrymanders right, to disenfranchise Republicans. They just want fair maps.


TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Right? And that’s what we want as well. We just want a voice in the process, some lever of power, so you can say no, you can’t have that horribly gerrymandered map where there’s a 50-50 population and you have 67 percent of the seats. Like that’s not okay. That’s not democracy. So I think that’s what success will look like for us.

VAUGHAN: And I think maybe to answer your question about execution in particular, you know, I think we want to meet people where they are, to help them have the easiest possible on-ramp to getting involved in these elections, to help them understand this strategy so they’ll know where their efforts can have the greatest impact both, you know, in terms of geographically where can we focus and also up and down the ballot thinking not just about the White House but about all of those offices further down the ballot. And then we want to build a sustained movement of people who can work year-round, not just every four years when there’s a big White House, you know, when the White House is on the ballot, but really every year can be building their own knowledge and understanding of how our democracy works can be getting involved, can be registering voters and can be permanent participants in our, you know, civil society.

HEFFNER: You said you have a diverse constituency of volunteers and supporters. Your organizations were called Flippable and Swing Left. Now Flippable is a part of Swing Left. But I want you to have an opportunity to impart, you know, whether or not your organizations are really partisan or not because there’s something fundamentally apolitical about restoring checks and balances and constitutional order. And I would imagine that there is a share of your delegations, whether it was working in North Carolina to end the super majority in those chambers or working, here in these parts to elect Max Rose to his seat on Staten Island, there was something, apolitical or nonpartisan, but just plain patriotic about that, in seeing abuses of government and wanting to correct them. And the, is that, is that the sentiment of some of your volunteers, Ethan?

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Well, I mean, democracy has become a part as an issue, right? Because one party wants democracy and the other apparently doesn’t, right. One, one party, the Republicans, they, they would like the minority to be able to make the decisions for, for the majority. And you know, so yes. If like working for democracy in a representative government is partisan politics. Yeah, of course we’re partisan.

HEFFNER: But when you say that about a Republican, you mean Mitch McConnell, You mean Kevin McCarthy; you don’t necessarily mean those Republicans who crossed over in those Orange County districts. I’m talking about the voters.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Republican politicians. And particularly…

HEFFNER: So what about Republican voters who may have voted for Bob Dole. They might’ve voted for Mitt Romney, but they are concerned. And if you look at the R to D breakdown of who’s registered, for instance, in those Orange County seats, you’ll see districts that are a majority Republican that were flipped. So I’m just wondering, what is your interaction with the community of folks who hear Swing Left and, they may fear that they’re part of some kind of robust socialistic organ instead of what some impetus is motivating your organizers as far as I understand and from my own conversations with people near about that is just the restoration of democratic norms. And I’m wondering how you talk to people, especially in those deeply entrenched red assembly and Senate seats where it is an act of awakening and realization to pull the lever for a Democrat.

VAUGHAN: Yeah, I mean we don’t hide the fact that we only support Democrats. We support Capital D Democrats. So we are a partisan organization in that respect. But I think that it’s very apparent internally and I think within our community and externally as well, that the motivating force behind supporting Democrats is wanting our democracy to be more inclusive, to be fair to…

HEFFNER: But you’re not only inviting card carrying registered Democrats to be part of your work.

VAUGHAN: We do have some, you know, DSA members and we have people who are self-described moderates and we even have some, I would say they call themselves former Republicans in the mix.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: James Comey knocked doors for Democrats last cycle.

VAUGHAN: So we have, you know, we have a broad spectrum of people politically speaking and I think the way that, the way that I’ve typically talked about who we support and why we’re doing it is that we say the best chance that our democracy has is by electing Democrats up and down the ballot. And Ethan I think said it very articulately like you, you see a party that is suppressing the vote that is gerrymandering districts, that is trying to hold onto its own power. And then you see a party that is expanding the vote that has, you know, put at the top of the House agenda, HR1 really trying to focus on making our democracy fairer and …

HEFFNER: So before we end here, can one of you just tell me what those 11 Super States are? We’ve mentioned North Carolina, Arizona, Maine.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Yeah. Can I just make one more point?

HEFFNER: Yes, you got seconds left.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Yeah. And what people don’t realize is that there’s something everybody can do about it, right? Like that’s the really interesting thing. Once people realize that no matter where you live, there’s a way you can make a difference, in places like Arizona and Maine, in North Carolina and Georgia and Texas and Florida and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. I think that’s it.

VAUGHAN: Colorado.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Colorado. Thank you.

HEFFNER: That’s the sober Howard Dean right, the way you…

VAUGHAN: (laughter)


HEFFNER: So folks in those states, and wherever they may be, check out your work because it’s really intent on revitalizing our democracy.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Swing Left dot org. Anybody can go there and find something that they can do right now to make a difference in taking back our democracy and winning all these key races up and down the ballot.

HEFFNER: Thank you both.

VAUGHAN: Thank you.

TODRAS-WHITEHILL: Thank you so much

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.