Going Viral twice? Swing Left did it. Find out how.

In our final installment of the ‘Going Viral’ series, today we are going to continue our interview with Ethan Todras-Whitehill, founder of Swing Left (also my brother), an organization completely devoted to winning back the House of Representative for Democrats in 2018.  They have gone viral twice, the second time being after the American Health Care Act vote, on May 4th.


They raised over a million dollars in grassroots donations in 48 hours. Hillary Clinton tweeted about it.

If you missed the first Q&A where we discussed Swing Left’s launch, and their first experience going viral, you can read it here.


Tara Todras-Whitehill: So between the first and the second time, it’s obviously a very different experience. What happened there?

Ethan Todras-Whitehill: So the second viral moment happened around the AHCA vote, which came on relatively quickly. We were trying to figure out, is this going to happen? Do they have the votes? Can they get the votes? The first time it was dead. Indivisible and MoveOn and all those other groups did an amazing job putting pressure on the representatives, particularly the moderates in the swingable districts. And they really stopped the original bill dead in its tracks. But then the Republicans made the bill even worse, to attract the real right wing, the Freedom Caucus. Getting more votes from those guys meant they needed fewer of the moderates. We were watching this happen and paying attention as we were going through our day,

So we had the District Funds for a while, for a couple of weeks before this event. When we launched them they did modestly well, but we were really waiting for something like this. The potential for District Funds was all in the rapid response.


TTW: Ok, so the District Funds. What are those?

ETW: The idea of the district funds is that you are giving money to a nominee that’s not even yet named. This is something that had been legally possible for many years, and ActBlue long had nominee funds, but they never got any real attention.

Our lawyers told me no one has ever done this before on a significant scale. When I told people about the idea, they asked, do you think people will really donate to that? To a candidate they don’t even know? And I said, we will see. Again, we offered them a pretty good argument for why this will make a difference. This is a particular kind of moment where people might respond to this idea..


TTW: And so Jon Favreau, from Pod Save America, you were talking to him about this?

ETW: We developed an informal relationship emailing back and forth about these funds. So to set this up, earlier in the week, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has the distinction of being the Republican representative in the bluest seat in the country, announced she wasn’t running for re-election. Her district voted for Hillary Clinton by 20 points. And she won hers by 10. So with her not running again, it instantly takes a seat that was leaning Republican and makes it lean Democrat. We put out a tweet saying this just happened, this seat is instantly an amazing target for pick-up, and you can donate here to the eventual democratic nominee of FL-27. I sent it around to people we’ve gotten to know like Jon Favreau and Rob Corrdry and others. And off that little bit of news, we were able to raise a few thousand dollars for the eventual Democratic nominee of FL-27.

Now, this all happened just a couple of days before the AHCA vote. I think it was Sunday night. When it became clear that the House was going to vote on the AHCA, the night before the vote, I emailed Jon saying we are putting together a fund to punish Swing District Republicans after the vote, just wanted to give you a heads up. And Jon was like, why wait? Let’s just try now, send these guys a message to vote NO.


TTW: Didn’t Pod Save America score the last interview with Obama while he was president?

ETW: Yeah exactly. Cause Jon was Obama’s speech writer. So they have a super engaged audience that really look to them for guidance about what they should do. And Jon suggested trying immediately. So we started doing some tweets around some of our targeted districts whose Republican reps were undecided on the health care vote, saying donate to this person’s eventual challenger and send a message to vote no on the AHCA tomorrow. And we sent those around for a couple of people — the most effective was for Darrell Issa, in CA-49. We raised tens of thousands of dollars for these eventual Democratic challengers the night before the vote. And the next day, the vote was scheduled for 2pm. We were looking at the whip count to see who is undecided, and then tweeting the link to those funds. The Crooked Media guys were retweeting them and doing their own tweets. I think even before the vote happened we had raised 100K for these challengers.

But we were really interested to see what was going to happen after the vote. We had this plan to put together this one ActBlue page that will distribute the money equally among all the challengers to the  Republicans who voted for the bill. So we have 65 swing districts. 48 of which are held by Republicans. Of those 48, 35 of them voted for the AHCA, 13 did not. So the ActBlue page we put together distributes the money equally among the Dem challengers to the Republicans who voted for the AHCA. And if you think about it, this is an incredibly compelling response. What matters to those representatives is money. Money keeps them in office, and money can kick them out. And so if you’re raising money for their challengers in response to what they are doing, that’s going to send a powerful message to not only those Representatives, but also for the Senate as to the cost of voting for this awful bill.

So right after the vote happened, we were scrambling to get the page together and make sure we had all of the votes correct. And in the 30 minutes it took us to do that, the Crooked Media guys were just hitting Darrell Issa, savaging him, saying ‘he provided the decisive vote on this,’ ‘we need to get him out of office.’ And they ran up almost another 100 grand just on Issa in those 30 minutes.

And then we got page up and sent an email about it out to our list. Right then, I had a doctor’s appointment in a place without cell phone service, right when it went up. So I was out of contact for about 30 mins and when I got back online the fund had already done 150K. And then it just picked up everywhere. People like George Takei, countless folks tweeted it. Just a couple hours after the vote it was already 400K and then Hillary Clinton tweeted about it. And obviously that was a huge thing. She has 13 million Twitter followers and that was another huge boost and that just kept rolling. What was interesting about the Hillary tweet – our press team sent out a press release about what was going on, and all these various media outlets picked up the story and embedded her tweet, which had a link to the ActBlue page. So we had all these news outlets like CNN politics putting up a link to our ActBlue page through the Hillary Clinton tweet! And that gave it legs. And it did a million dollars for these Democratic challengers in about 24 hours. A million dollars for folks whose names we don’t even know yet, but who come the summer of 2018 are going to be our potential saviors.

And what’s really fascinating about this is that, yes, it brought this fund into people’s minds. But it wasn’t just the one big fund people became aware of, but the District Funds generally. The idea that you could donate to these candidates in advance. People just started saying things like ‘my district IL-06, I want Pete Roskam out of there, let’s donate to his challenger.’ Something happened where the general idea of district funds took off – people started thinking this is an interesting idea. And they poked around our website and found ‘oh I can give to this specific district’.

My favorite anecdote from this: Ruben Gallego, who is the Democratic representative for AZ-07, was tweeting and emailing his list, raising money for the eventual Dem challenger to Martha McSally in AZ-02. So you have a sitting Representative raising money against another sitting Representative in his own state through our District Funds. Crazy.

Meanwhile, the main AHCA fund continued to roll. I think Daily Kos did a version of the same – they were focused on the 24 swing districts held by Republicans where Trump did less than 50%. And ActBlue, who are the processor for this, they put up a version which contributed to all challengers for all Republicans who voted for the bill Between the three organizations, we eventually raised close to four million dollars for Swing District Democrats.


TTW: And then that night the story was everywhere from Breitbart to Rachel Maddow.

ETW: Yeah, that was weird. But again, people responded because it was a real thing, with real impact. We aren’t saying give money to us. We are saying give money to the challengers of these Swing District Republicans. These are seats we can win, and this is how the money can make a difference. And this is the message we can send to the Senate.


TTW: I think people recognized the genuine message because not only did they go to the District Fund but they also donated to Swing Left. So they got it.

ETW: Yeah, and we did get a lot of donations for Swing Left as well. Which we weren’t asking for. We just have a donate button on our page. People just said they liked what we were doing. And some people even set up their own ActBlue pages to send money to SL. My favorite one is mailmetotheGOP.com.  If you die as a result the GOP taking away your health coverage, sign up to have your ashes sent to a GOP representative. And their donate page sent money to us.

So here was just another moment where people felt, WHOA, I am so upset, I can’t believe this awful thing that just happened. And here is something that I can do, not just that sounds good and not just feels good but actually is good. And that’s our MO. What we are looking to do is channel people’s righteous anger into a direction that can actually make a difference.

We are probably going to do something similar on every major vote that the Republicans do. It’s a really nice synergy too, with the advocacy groups. Swing Left isn’l like Indivisible which is keeping the Reps accountable. Our focus is on 2018. But in this case, I think this campaign actually helped their efforts. It sent a message to the Senate about the political costs of taking away people’s health care. Cause that bill – only 20% of people approved of it, yet they pushed it through saying ‘this is what people want.’ They are impervious to reality. Cause no one wanted that bill. But now, as a result of this, with what we did combined with ActBlue and Daily Kos, in some of these districts there is 100K waiting for these nominees. A nice example is TX-32, a district that Hillary Clinton won by about three points, but where they were unable to recruit a candidate to run against Pete Sessions last cycle. We have TX-32 on our list, and we are mobilizing people in the Dallas area, but now there is close to 100K waiting right there for the eventual Dem nominee of TX-32. It’s out there, as an incentive. Legally this money is required to go to whoever wins the Democratic primary. It’s not not like, “Oh, let’s wait and see if we like you.” No, it’s there for them. And we hope it will help with candidate recruitment.


TTW: Thanks Etho for your time!

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

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