No Dem Left Behind is a grassroots organization whose mission is to elect Democrats to Congress from rural, heavily Republican districts. Formation of the group was inspired by the campaign of West Virginian Richard Ojeda, who ran for a House seat in 2018. Although he didn’t win, his candidacy generated a lot of excitement. He then became the national spokesperson for No Dem Left Behind. Starting in 2019, the group endorsed 12 candidates for the House in the 2020 election. None won, but neither did dozens of other Democratic candidates, including some incumbents. When surveyed about their experiences, the endorsed candidates said the best benefit of their campaigns was the camaraderie and not feeling alone.
No Dem Left Behind has gained much more visibility and funding since the election and plans to endorse at least one candidate for Congress in all 50 states in the 2022 midterm elections.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Madalin Sammons, communications director with No Dem Left Behind. She was born and raised in very Republican coal country in southern West Virginia and now lives in the capital, Charleston. Here she describes the group’s goals and their method of organizing to win votes for Democrats in conservative districts.
MADALIN SAMMONS: People in general feel the divide, right? That is not just along party lines, but it’s within parties. And I think when you look at the division, it’s very clear that there’s division between our rural areas and what’s going on in our metropolitan areas. And I think that people overall are realizing the best way forward is if we move together as one party, and that means we can’t afford to leave any portion of people behind. You know, in rural America, voters have tended to move further and further to the right, but we can’t have the mindset of that’s a lost cause. We can’t have the mindset that we can’t win there anymore. We have to have the mindset that those voters are just as important, their issues are just as important, and we have to bring all voters together regardless of where they live.
MELINDA TUHUS: How has your message been received among the people you’ve talked to?
MADALIN SAMMONS: What we try to do is meet people where they are, so when I talk to people about issues that really matter to them and what the Democratic position is, we have a lot more in common that what people realize. We tend to get caught up in issues that make for catchy headlines and good hashtags, but at the end of the day people in rural America are worried about very simple things: they’re worried about job security and good health care, they want their kids to go to good schools, and they don’t want to feel like they’re paying more in taxes than a millionaire and billionaire. They feel like they’re getting left behind by the system. And so the very core principle of No Dem Left Behind is that we have more in common with you than what you realize. When you meet people where they are and you start on those basic founding principles, now you can start a conversation. Is it always received? No. There are people who are not open to hearing different ideas or different opinions, and that’s just the way it goes, right? But for the most part, you start the conversation on common ground and people are open.
MELINDA TUHUS: Sounds like a good approach. Madalin Sammons, tell me about the goals of No Dem Left Behind.
MADALIN SAMMONS: One, we want to change the way Democrats are perceived in rural America, which is a long-term effort, right? That’s not something that can happen in one election cycle or two election cycles. This is a long-term plan. The second is that we want to elect more Democrats in rural America. We want to see more people who look and sound and are from their communities be elected, and that means going into states, finding candidates, recruiting them and giving them the resources they need. And the third goal, I would say, is we really want to show voters that we have more in common than you realize. Don’t get caught up in the noise that is the Twittersphere. Don’t get caught up in the noise that is the catchy headline. We have common values. We have common goals. We are not the enemy. We want to help.
MELINDA TUHUS: I first learned about No Dem Left Behind when I was bombarded with phone calls, emails and text messages, and I thought, They must have a lot of money. So where do you get your funding? Is it from the Democratic Party?
MADALIN SAMMONS: No, we’re doing our own fundraising. Our focus is on individual donors, so that’s where our money comes from.
MELINDA TUHUS: How are you building the organization?
MADALIN SAMMONS: Well, you know, we’re in the era of Covid, so events have halted. Where we build most of our support is online. So, we have a robust email program. We have a robust social media program. When we had candidates, we hosted town halls with guest speakers. So, Andrew Yang was a guest for one town hall and our candidates would join. We had various celebrities that joined those town halls as well. When we have more endorsed candidates, we will certainly do those town halls again. But in the era of Covid we’ve really shifted all of our focus on a digital effort. Hopefully, just like the rest of the country we’re waiting on a bit of normalcy and hoping one day we can get back to that again.
MELINDA TUHUS: In terms of the candidates you endorse, would you say they are pretty mainstream, or maybe on the conservative side as Democrats because they would be more likely to gain more rural support? Or does it run the whole gamut?
MADALIN SAMMONS: So, it really does run the gamut. We want candidates who know their districts and their states best, so we would never be the type to say, You must support this even though it’s not in the best interest of your state or your voters. Like I said, we have founding principles. We have founding beliefs that at the end of the day all states are different. Voters are different. Districts are different even within states, and so, that’s sort of the core to our mission. It’s why we believe finding the right candidate is so important. Too often you have candidates – they may have great fundraising potential, they may have a lot of coverage in the news or whatever it may be, but they don’t actually represent the people in their district, and No Dem Left Behind really wants to change that. We don’t expect every candidate to believe every single thing or support every single policy. There’s founding principles, and other than that, we’re just looking for people who can win, people who are tied to their communities, people who are natural leaders.