Making state elections matter
The DGA’s Laura Carlson breaks down the committee’s digital success + why Democrats should look to the states for meaningful wins
This fall, voters in 36 states (and 3 territories) will head to the polls to vote to choose their governor. As we’ve seen in the news lately, governors have enormous power when it comes to civil rights and voting rights, and the outcomes of this November’s gubernatorial races will have far-reaching impacts beyond 2022.
That’s why for this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Laura Carlson, Digital Director for the Democratic Governors Association, about why governor’s races matter more now than ever before.
Q&A with Laura Carlson, DGA Digital Director
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics?
Laura Carlson: I went to Indiana University, originally thinking that I would major in education. In 2007, I saw an invite for a “Students for Barack Obama” meeting, joined the group, and it was basically love at first sight. I became a student organizer on campus, changed my major to political science, and any spare minute I had I was in the Obama campaign office throughout 2007 and 2008. We flipped Indiana blue for the first time since 1964, and I think the electric energy of that campaign really got me hooked. It made me realize that I really loved politics and felt like that was where I could make my best impact.
Campaigner: And nowadays you’re leading digital programs for the Democratic Governors Association. For our readers who may be unfamiliar, can you spell out the role of the DGA and what the committee focuses on?
Laura Carlson: Our topline goal is that the DGA is an organization dedicated to electing Democratic governors. We also serve to support Democratic governors once they're elected in an office, but our primary purpose is to help them win their campaigns. We do that in a wide variety of ways, of course, that would take hours to get into, but I think one of our primary purposes is to raise a lot of money throughout the two-year election cycle and then work to spend that money strategically in key battleground races. Additionally, we have communication staff that we fund on the ground, we fund voter protection efforts, just from A to Z we have a lot of different programs going on.
Then, in some races, especially when you look at like red states like Kansas, we’re one of the biggest funders of those campaigns. So because we are able to bring such large funding resources and support to bear, we really feel like we can make a big impact. The DGA has a really strong track record of winning tough races in red and purple states. Particularly in states where we've had tough losses in the Senate, we've actually been able to elect Democratic governors in many of them.
Campaigner: I think we sometimes forget that we have Democratic governors in places like Kentucky and Louisiana and especially Laura Kelly in Kansas.
Laura Carlson: Don't forget about Laura Kelly! She's one of my favorites - just an absolutely incredible governor and human. If you look at NC Gov. Roy Cooper in 2020 - a tough year for national Dems in North Carolina, but he was able to win re-election. So we believe governors hold a unique place at the table in the Democratic party. There's a separation from the nationalized narrative, that provides us with a lot more opportunities.
Campaigner: Your role specifically at the DGA is to lead the digital team. How is your team structured and what’s your day-to-day look like?
Laura Carlson: Structure-wise, my team is split into two teams, within the digital shop. The first is grassroots fundraising. We have a Director of Digital Fundraising who manages that team and is responsible for email fundraising, SMS fundraising, and direct mail marketing is thrown in there as well. Then there’s the content side which manages all of our social media platforms, all of our content, website - really anything that's not a direct fundraising ask will come from that side. That team has video editors and graphic designers who are doing our video, photography, and graphic work, both for the DGA and to support campaigns.
And then one last component is for the first time this cycle, the DGA has a Director of Digital Campaign Services. He’s actually on our political team, but we work super closely with him and his deputy, who are the day-to-day contact for digital directors in the states.
Campaigner: You mentioned that digital fundraising is one of the committee’s biggest roles and responsibilities. What tools and tactics are your bread and butter for bringing in grassroots dollars?
Laura Carlson: Email fundraising is definitely still our number one channel for digital fundraising, and I think it will remain so in the future. I don't think email is dying as a fundraising channel anytime soon.
While [email] is the majority of our fundraising, texting has become a rapidly growing piece of our pie. When I started at the DGA, we didn’t have a broadcast texting program, and now we've really built that out and rapidly grown it. We use both broadcast texting as well as peer-to-peer texting, and we really started investing and building those programs in a big way last fall. Every month, we are able to raise more and more from texting.
One thing that makes texting a little bit more challenging for my team versus an email program is that we have less granular data available. On the email side, we have loads of data on who's opening which types of emails, how certain types of messages are performing, which audiences want to be getting these emails. But on the texting side of things, we don’t have that information. We know that the open rate for a text is so high, (like 95-98%), but we don't have really useful data on specific individuals opening our texts. It presents an interesting challenge.
Campaigner: What have been some of your team’s proudest accomplishments during your tenure at the DGA?
Laura Carlson: I would definitely say our fundraising success. My background and expertise is in email fundraising. At this point in the cycle, in April of 2022, we have already raised triple the amount that we raised online in the 2018 cycle. I'm really proud that we have just taken our program to another level. As you can imagine, it was at a smaller scale before, but we’ve been able to build out successful media plans, get organizational investment in acquisition funding, and just really skyrocket what we're able to do in terms of fundraising.
What that really means is that it has allowed us to change the map in terms of where we're spending in governor's races. Our organizational resources from the finance team, are still growing too, but our digital supplement to that funding is just money that the DGA didn't have before. That’s the topline thing that makes me most excited about our work. Our finance team’s programming is really reliant on in-person events. So when the pandemic hit in early 2020, they basically had to take down their entire year's worth of planning and rethink their approach. They pivoted really successfully to Zoom and virtual events, but it of course wasn’t the same. Our program was able to grow really rapidly during the start of the pandemic and helped to fill that gap.
On the content side, I've just been very excited that we're investing real resources here and building out content to talk about Democratic governors on a lot of different platforms. We’re not only putting amazing videos on Twitter and Facebook, but we have started to invest in making YouTube-first content, which I think is a space that a lot of Democrats are just missing out on. It’s one of the biggest search engines in the world! So I've been really proud of our YouTube content, and maybe you’ll see us on TikTok coming soon. 👀
Campaigner: What's your advice for newcomers that want to break in to politics or digital campaigning?
Laura Carlson: My first advice is that you should work on a campaign. I'm sure you’d hear that from tons of people, but I really think that starting out in campaigns first as a field organizer and later as a digital director for two different Senate races has really allowed me to become a leader of a major digital team at a relatively young age. Working on campaigns allows you to take a big leadership role early in your career and build your skills quickly on the fly.
For folks looking to break into digital, I think you learn a lot so fast and there's nothing comparable in terms of experience. One other thing I would add is that “digital” in politics is a lot of things, and you don't have to know it all. Find a component that you're really interested in and drawn to and develop those skills, whether that be email fundraising and SMS fundraising and social media. Alternatively, learn the top lines of multiple different areas so you can be a generalist. When you're a manager, I don’t have to be an expert at every single thing, but it's about working to build a team and find the folks that are the experts. Digital is too big for any one person to grasp everything.
Campaigner: Last question: What’s something that we don’t talk about enough in Democratic politics?
Laura Carlson: One thing that I would say that people don't talk about as much is state races as a whole. That begins with governor's races, but it goes all the way down the ballot to attorneys general and Secretaries of State and state legislatures. We’ve seen some movement on that in the Democratic Party recently, but it's been too slow. As I’m sure you know, Republicans, have had a head start in funding some of these races and paying attention to them and its allowed them sweep for the past decade.
Again, we're starting to change things, but we still are not where we need to be in comparison to Republicans. That has horrible impacts for our country. These types of races have literally never mattered more than they do in 2022, which sounds hyperbolic, but I can back it up. (laughs) Look at abortion rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, these things that we thought were established in America are actually not. Their fate is coming down to who your Governor is and who your state leadership is - whether or not you can get an abortion, whether or not you can easily access the right to vote, and whether you can exist as a trans person in public places.
Beyond that, our literal democracy is at stake in November - with governor's elections in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and more. We saw in 2020 that if Republicans had been in charge of those states, they would have overturned the popular vote of the Presidential election, and kept Donald Trump in the White House.
So I say that a lot and we put it in a lot of our fundraising emails that if we lose these states, we could lose our democracy. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s very true that if we have to elect Democrats in these offices because the other side wants to overturn the results of the elections up and down the ballot.
Did today’s newsletter get you interested in working on a state-level campaign? Don’t forget to head to Arena Careers (app.arena.run), and create an account if you don’t already have one, to see the campaigns hiring for this cycle.
Are you interested in mentoring an Arena-trained campaign staffer? Do you have experience working on state leg races; or experience working in finance, campaign management, or organizing; or experience working on campaigns in PA, AZ, TX, or MI? We're looking for coaches to support Arena-trained staffers. Sign up here to express interest and learn more >>>