WASHINGTON -- The path to a Democrat-controlled Congress most likely runs through California. Liberal philanthropist Tom Steyer believes that path hinges on the state's nearly 10 million millennials.
The challenge is making sure those young voters show up at the polls in November. Voter turnout traditionally drops precipitously in mid-term elections. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, much of state's record low voter participation in 2014 was because of abysmally low turnout among young people.
The billionaire former hedge fund manager is aiming to reverse that trend in 2018, and is preparing to spend at least $3.5 million on grass-roots outreach to millennials in the state to do it, according to an election plan shared with The Sacramento Bee. As of now, Steyer's organization, NextGen America, has 15 full-time staff working on its millennial outreach program in the state's seven Republican congressional districts that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016. They expect that number to double to 30 full-time staff by November, with another 50 part-time workers.
It is a separate operation from NextGen America's "Uniting California" partnership with the California Labor Federation, which is targeting the same seven congressional districts, and from Steyer's Need to Impeach campaign, which has garnered more than 5 million signatures for a petition to impeach President Donald Trump.
"We really believe in millennials being integral, involved American citizens in our political process," Steyer said in an interview in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. "Millennials have voted at half the rate of other American citizens and they're also the biggest age demographic. So the opportunity to make a difference is clearly gigantic."
Steyer says that's why his group is reaching out to millennials in 10 pivotal states across the country in 2018, with the aim of getting 250,000 to the polls. The California congressional races amount to roughly a quarter of the 30 House seats NextGen America is targeting. Steyer announced in January he is prepared to invest $30 million, total, in the organizing effort.
Opposition to Republicans and their policies -- on immigration, climate change, health care and more -- are the focus of the NextGen America mobilization campaign. But Steyer didn't rule out diving into some of the crowded Democratic congressional fields, if it could ensure Democrats have a shot at the seat in November.
"Mostly our opinion is, give voters as much information as possible so they can make good decisions," Steyer said. But he expressed concern that Democrats could be shut out of general election races for Rep. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce's Southern California seats, thanks to the state's top-two primary system. The two Republicans announced they were retiring in January, leading to a free-for-all for their seats. "We'll try and see if that's true and if there's anything we can do about it," Steyer said.
A big part of NextGen America's activities are focused on college students. In California, alone, the group is targeting at least 30 campuses. But they recognize four-year college students are only a slice of the state's broader millennial voter population. That's particularly true in a number of Central Valley cities, where the percentage of millennials with a college degree ranks among the lowest in the country.
So in addition to registering students and organizing rallies at four-year colleges like California State, Bakersfield and California State, Stanislaus in Turlock, NextGen America field staffers are conducting outreach at Modesto Junior College and College of the Sequoias in Visalia. They're also staffing tables at local coffee shops and soccer fields, in Target parking lots and malls to try to connect with young people that aren't in college, at all.
"Generally, people running these campaigns have a bias towards organizing and talking to the richer kids who are going to residential colleges, who are more accessible," said Steyer. "We're trying to make sure we are reaching out to people who are not reached out to as much."
Getting those young voters, who are disproportionately liberal, to the polls could make the difference in what are expected to be tight races for two Central Valley congressional seats currently held by Republicans Jeff Denham and David Valadao. According to Census Bureau data, their districts have higher percentages of millennial residents than any of the five GOP congressional seats the liberal group is targeting in Southern California. A third of voting-age residents in Denham's Modesto-area district are 35 years old or younger. That figure climbs to 38 percent in Valadao's district, which runs along the I-5 corridor just to the west of Fresno and Bakersfield.
Denham won his 2016 race by 10,000 votes, Valadao by just under 20,000. An increased rate of voting by liberal-leaning young voters in 2018 could significantly erode both those margins.
It would also counter historical trends, however. Even with the surges in 2016 registration and turnout, the 18-to-35 year-old age group still lags previous generations. As of August 2017, 60 percent of the state's millennials were registered to vote, compared to 78 percent of Baby Boomers, the Public Policy Institute of California found. And less than a third of millennials said they were likely to vote.
Steyer, however, thinks the current political stakes have shaken young people out of their typical off-year complacency. He points to the results in Virginia's statewide elections last fall, which saw turnout among 18-to-29 year-old voters rise 8 percent compared to 2013 and double what it was in 2009. NextGen America spent $3.3 million on a youth voter turnout program in the commonwealth that included 26 campus programs and 60 total staff--comparable to what it's doing in California.
"I asked the people on our team, 'is Virginia replicable?' And they said 'yes,'" Steyer said. But he acknowledged, "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating."
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