The summertime fight for Congress

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In an Irvine neighborhood one recent Saturday, it was the “thwack” “thwack”  “thwack” sound of Richard Sternberg’s flip flops striking pavement as he walked from door to door to talk to residents.

Sternberg is a volunteer for first-time Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter. She’s running against Republican incumbent Mimi Walters in Orange County’s 45th Congressional District. It includes communities like Mission Viejo, Lake Forest and Irvine, where Sternberg lives.

In the coming weeks, he’ll be walking through these communities and others handing out campaign literature and talking to voters about Porter and her positions on issues including health care and taxation.

“I realized last fall it was time to do something.” First time campaign volunteer Richard Sternberg goes door to door in Irvine on behalf of candidate Katie Porter Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This kind of grassroots campaign work has started especially early this election cycle because the 45th is one of seven California congressional districts where Democrats think they have a good chance of defeating Republican incumbents.

And Sternberg wants to play a small role in that battle because of his anger at both Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress who he feels haven’t provided necessary checks and balances to the president’s decisions and behavior.

Sternberg’s so enthusiastic to flip the House of Representatives, he left his job as a factory manger to volunteer full-time for the Porter campaign.

“You know, I’m a privileged white male. I’ll be honest with you,” said Sternberg as he took a break from knocking on doors to stop on a shady corner. “It’s the environment I’m looking out for. It’s the poor person. I’m going to be alright. I’m not worried about me in 20 years, I’m worried about these others.”

But if they’re going to win the House, Democrats have to marry that passion to savvy strategy. In the 45th and a lot of other competitive districts that means reaching out, early and often, to one group of voters in particular.

“The big piece here is no party preference voters. That’s kind of the magic across all of these districts,” said Erica Kwiatkowski, Katie Porter’s campaign manager.

In recent years, the rise of no party preference voters, also known as independents, has dramatically changed the campaign playing field in once solidly Republican districts like the 45th. In the 2016 election, Clinton beat Trump in the district by five points, in large part because of the votes from no party preference voters.

Kwiatkowski said about a third of voters in the 45h Congressional District are no party preference and only about 17 percent of them identify themselves as conservative.

So that leaves the majority, the vast majority of voters, open to us in open to our message and open to voting for someone like Katie,” said Kwiatkowski.

Erica Kwiatkowski, Katie Porter’s campaign manager, talks to volunteers before they head out to canvass neighborhoods. The Porter campaign believes the key to victory is not only turning out Democrats but also getting the support of no party preference voters. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But no party preference voters also have a reputation for not turning out for elections in the same numbers as committed Republicans or Democrats. That means campaigns have to work extra hard to convince them to cast a vote.

Technology is increasingly key to that effort. Before Porter’s campaign volunteers canvass neighborhoods, they’re asked to install an app on their smartphones. It contains maps showing volunteers precisely what doors to knock on, mostly Democrats and those coveted no party preference voters.

The app also allows the volunteers to gather additional information from voters, like they’re degree of support for the candidate. That information will be used in the coming weeks to solicit volunteer help or campaign contributions.

A Porter campaign worker shows volunteers how to use a campaign smartphone app in the field. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Kwiatkowski says as active as the campaign has been during the summer months, this is nothing compared to what’s ahead as money and volunteers pour into a congressional district that was once a fairly non-competitive political backwater.

“What we’ve loved seeing here is that people haven’t traditionally been contacted either by the door or by phone calls,” said Kwiatkowski. “So they’re actually pretty welcome and open to someone coming to their door to talk about this because nobody’s really done it before.”  

And nearly every day until the election on November 6, Richard Sternberg will be out going door to door as a campaign foot soldier.