UVA Students Are Increasingly Active in VA-05 Midterm Race

At the University of Virginia, college Democrats are claiming to have an enthusiasm advantage over Republicans this midterm election cycle. Although UVA student Republicans challenge this, Democrats believe their door knocking, also known as canvassing, phone banking, and voter registration efforts are surging due to the sense that millennial apathy in 2016 cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.

Third-year foreign affairs major, Josie Brocato, was not politically active in 2016 and attributes the results of the presidential election to her inaction. She expressed, “After the 2016 presidential election, I was very upset, as most of my friends and family were. I realized after the election, I wasn’t doing much other than reposting on Facebook.”

This frustration and recognition of her own apathy prompted Brocato to take on a more involved role as a campaign fellow for Democratic congressional candidate, Leslie Cockburn.

“I thought that if I really wanted there to be a change, and we could actually flip the House this year, I knew I had to actually get involved, and get involved with someone who had a good chance and who I believed what they stood for.”

And that’s why on a dreary Sunday in late September, Brocato, alongside government major and campaign fellow, Maria Morrissey, is walking from door to door of a local neighborhood, speaking with Charlottesville residents about the upcoming midterm election, explaining Cockburn’s policy stances, and attempting to persuade likely Democrats to actually get out and vote this year.

Brocato and Morrissey canvassing in Charlottesville neighborhood.


Morrissey, like Brocato, was disappointed and shocked by the 2016 election results.

“I bought champagne the day, I thought, Hillary Clinton was going to be elected and was completely blindsided when she lost. That really motivated me to seek out a larger commitment and hold myself to this responsibility that I need to be doing more because I care about this and it’s important.”

To most college students, Sunday is a day devoted exclusively to studying. So why are these two sacrificing their precious study time to knock on doors? It’s simple, they didn’t in 2016 and believe it will be the deciding factor in this district’s close election. Morrissey is confident that her face-to-face interactions with possible voters will result in Cockburn’s victory. She says, “Every phone call matters, every door knock matters. The amount of doors we reach will win the election. It really does make the difference in having that face to face contact, and having someone from the campaign reach out to you specifically; individually you that your vote is going to make the difference in whether or not the Democrats win.”

Across the nation, the 2016 presidential election has prompted widespread activism among the millennial generation, including Virginia’s 5th Congressional District where Brocato and Morrissey are campaigning for Cockburn. Despite the apathetic stereotype attributed to millennials after their passivity in the 2016 election, in a study of 3000 millennial participants, Vice News concluded that those 3,000 individuals took some type of political action 13,000 times more from roughly July 2016 to July 2017 than in past years. A MTV/AP-NORC 2018 study reports 62% percent of young people believe that their generation is motivated to make positive changes in the United States, and 63% believe voting in the 2018 midterms will allow the millennial generation to create real change in the government. These recent statistics illustrate a population of young people motivated to promote change through their actions.

Despite being a non-presidential election year, 2018 is already surpassing the Democratic volunteer force of 2016. NGP VAN, which is the software that records Democratic voter data, has experienced an increase in overall volunteer usage. Wired reports that 218,189 people have logged onto the NGP VAN app, MiniVAN, to canvass this year so far, in comparison to the 153,513 in all of 2016. Although these numbers do not note millennial involvement specifically, they do highlight the lethargy of 2016 and suggest a heightened interest in canvassing this year.

Many political observers are predicting a Democratic “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm elections as a result of Trump administration policies and prolonged Republican control of Congress. This blue wave could be decisive in swing districts, like where Brocato and Morrissey are canvassing. Historically a Republican stronghold, Virginia’s 5th District is a particularly interesting race to watch this November. In 2016, Donald Trump won this district by an 11-point margin. However, according to an Axios report, the blue wave is altering the dynamics of previously solid red districts, and this is exemplified in the increasingly “purple” VA-05. ABC News pollster, FiveThirtyEight, declared it a toss-up, with Republican Denver Riggleman maintaining a slight lead over Democrat Leslie Cockburn. This is a source of motivation for both parties.

President of University Democrats, Mary Alice Kukoski, says that the optimism of the blue wave has led to a spike in campaign volunteers.

“We are ecstatic that all of our volunteer shifts this fall have been getting filled quickly—turnout at canvasses, phone banks, and voter registration have been very high, which bodes well for November 6th.”

Ellie Brasacchio, a member of University Democrats at UVA, expressed hope in a Democrat getting elected in Virginia’s 5th District.

“People are like ‘oh we have a chance now.’ It’s no longer a lost cause, like I’m canvassing for nothing, but I’m canvassing to get those numbers up so we can actually push us over the edge to actually win this election. We are seeing that Democrats are there, we just need to engage them and get them out to vote.”

Brasacchio also credits the current presidential administration with bolstering young peoples’ involvement and recognizes that Democrats lost the 2016 election more than President Trump won it. She says, “I think that most of the people I have talked to that are more engaged now say that the reason they are is because of Trump being elected. What’s on a lot of people’s minds is ‘what if we took the other elections more seriously, besides just the presidential one?’ We can really make change from the bottom up and so that we can prevent another president like Trump from happening.”

However, excitement is also palpable on the right at UVA with Riggleman still ahead in the polls. Adam Kimelman of College Republicans says, “The organization has definitely grown as a club since 2016, and I think our campaign efforts have gone up significantly this year.”

On a national scale, Politico reveals Republicans are adopting a hyper-local grass-roots approach to campaigning for the midterm house elections. Kimelman contended that Republicans at UVA are following the national Republican technique and matching the energy of the blue wave.

“We’re viewing this as a very close election, we know there are a lot of conservatives in this district, but we also know that Democrats are very fired up this year. The way in which we would lose this district is to become complacent to say it’s a red district and it’s always been a conservative district because we have seen Democrats win here before.”

The Friday morning of the 5th Congressional District debate, College Republicans painted Beta Bridge in support of Denver Riggleman.


Kimelman, along with other supporters, is motivated that this is a winnable seat for Riggleman and because of the perceived challenge from Cockburn, their shifts are also at full capacity. He says, “We know that if we don’t do our jobs we may not win this election, and that’s why we have seen a lot of people get excited, making calls, knocking on doors, and that’s why I think it’s going to be probably, by the time we are done with it, our biggest campaign year ever.”


In this era of data, direct voter contact is extremely important because it is what gets wavering voters out of their homes and to the polls. Kimelman expressed the urgency to continually reach out to known supporters up until the polls close.


“We try to scale up phone banking and door knocking as we get closer to the election because that is the most effective way of getting someone to vote on election day, and we will be doing that through 7 pm on election night.”


Ellie Brasacchio, like student volunteers of both parties, realizes the seriousness of this election, and is willing to devote time to volunteering.


It’s hard juggling with school work and organizations and things like that, but I’ve realized that this push is necessary, even when I have other things to do. I don’t want to have the feeling after the election that I could’ve done something more and I didn’t.”


This year, when Democrats have a chance to take control of the House of Representatives, millennials from both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are determined to go to sleep the night of November 6th with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing they did all they could for their respective candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.


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