What Drives One Campaign Worker? Just Ask Her.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Kristina Somma doesn’t seem the sort to make a big show, but she showed up.
The 61-year-old retired kindergarten teacher sat Thursday night in a small, charmless storefront in a small, charmless strip mall down the street, and across the street, and cater-cornered from, more of the same. The room was a Hollywood cliche version of a bare-bones political campaign office: folding chairs, folding tables, cases of water, snacks, posters featuring the candidate’s name running along the walls, throwing off the harsh reverb of bargain lighting.
The room was crowded with about three dozen volunteers, white and Hispanic, young and old, male and female, preparing to go door to door for the campaign of Harley Rouda, a first-time Democratic candidate running for Congress in California’s 48th congressional district.
The district stretches along the beaches of Orange County and bleeds landward. Its longtime Republican representative, Dana Rohrabacher, wears a wet suit and carries a surfboard in one of his ads.
But Rohrabacher, an unorthodox right-winger with a longstanding affection for Vladimir Putin, may no longer fit a district where one in five residents is Hispanic, almost one in five is Asian, and many educated, affluent whites are uneasy with Trumpism and Putinism – if there is a meaningful distinction.
Somma, who is here with her husband, doesn’t live in the district. Neither do a few others who raise their hands when the state party’s local field director, Alyssa Napuri, asks if anyone in the room has come down from Los Angeles.
“We have been here about a week, and we will be here until Wednesday,” Somma told me. She and her husband are staying with her parents, who live nearby. “We did our research," she said. "We’ve never liked Rohrabacher. Neither have my Republican parents.” Somma and her husband have been knocking on doors for Rouda, talking to prospective voters. Her husband’s Spanish comes in handy.
Like other districts, the 48th has seen a spike in early voting. On Friday, the Rouda campaign said mail-in ballots, compared with the last midterm election in 2014, were up about 80 percent for Hispanics and 30 percent for Asians. Democratic mail-ins were up 71 percent, Republicans up 31 percent, and, in a sign Democrats take as positive, ballots from independents were up 74 percent.
Earlier this year, political scientist Theda Skocpol and historian Lara Putnam wrote about a force of thousands of American women, “mostly mothers and grandmothers ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s,” whose opposition to Trumpism was poised to transform American politics. As Thomas Edsall has noted, the gender gap in American politics is threatening to become a “gender chasm,” with women voting overwhelmingly Democratic and white men voting overwhelmingly Republican.
The chasm extends to candidacies. Among the roughly 70 most competitive House races, which includes Rouda’s tight race against Rohrabacher, Democrats are fielding women candidates in half of them. Republican candidates are overwhelmingly male.
In an interview at his campaign office, Rouda said he is winning women in his district by about a dozen points and losing men by around the same margin. A former Republican, Rouda projects a calm competence, reinforced by his emphasis on moderation and a vow, however unrealistic, to eschew partisanship in Washington.
“People are worn out by the bickering and the partisanship,” said Rouda, a wealthy businessman who moved to the district a decade ago from Ohio. “They want people in the middle.”
Somma, who has traveled from her home in Sacramento, knows what she wants. In 2016, she traveled to Ohio to turn out votes for Hillary Clinton in Franklin County, around the state capital of Columbus. She was devastated by Clinton’s defeat. But she’s back.
“I’m here because of what I want to have happen for my nation,” she says, citing climate change, civil rights and voting rights, immigration reform and “very good judges” as issues that especially motivate her. “I don’t like the Newt Gingrich ‘Use your hateful speech’ that Republicans have been using now. I don’t like the demonization.”
She insists that she has not put her life on hold for a week to walk around Orange County with a canvassing app on her phone solely because of Donald Trump. And she’s not focused on the presidential race two years from now. “I’m just sitting right here, right now,” she said.
But Trump is the political air that we all can’t help but breathe. And like millions of Americans, especially women, Somma has been choking on it. “I want some dignity – integrity and dignity – back in the White House,” she said. Tuesday marks a chance to begin clearing the air.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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