Midterm Musings: Robijn Van Giesen on the ’22 Election

With less than a month to go before the midterm elections, concerned citizens across the country are deciding which candidates to support through contributions of time, money and advocacy. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with longtime Democratic political consultant Robijn Van Giesen to gain insight into the closest Senate races – from Nevada and Ohio to Georgia and Wisconsin. We also look at the tight gubernatorial races in Texas and Georgia, along with Van Giesen’s own candidate, Kirsten Engel, who hopes to represent Arizona’s sixth congressional district. Hopefully this episode will inspire some of you to knock on doors, make phone calls, donate to candidates and get your friends on board.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:12 Robijn Van Giesen (RVG) – It is no longer possible to just say if you’re rural, you vote Red. Trump brought a lot of that to the fore, obviously, but they’ve seen what Trumpism brought also and I’ve got to believe that some North Carolinians were very, very disturbed about what happened at our nation’s capital, be there Republican or Democrat. And I’m hearing out on the trail, and I’m certainly seeing it here in Arizona, is lifetime Republicans saying, “hold on, this has gone too far.”

00:48 Narrator – With less than a month to go before the midterm elections, concerned citizens across the country are deciding which candidates to support through contributions of time, money and advocacy. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with longtime Democratic political consultant Robijn Van Giesen to gain insight into the closest Senate races – from Nevada and Ohio to Georgia and Wisconsin. We also look at the tight gubernatorial races in Texas and Georgia, along with Van Giesen’s own candidate, Kirsten Engel, who hopes to represent Arizona’s sixth congressional district. Hopefully this episode will inspire some of you to knock on doors, make phone calls, donate to candidates and get your friends on board.

01:50 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Robijn Van Giesen. Robijn is a longtime political insider, somebody I trust in the political sphere, and he is currently the political director for Kirsten Engel, who is running for Congress in the 6th District of Arizona. Robijn, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:11 Robijn Van Giesen (RVG) – Hey, Alex, great to be here.

02:13 AW – So let’s first learn about the race that you’re working on. Kirsten Engel is running to fill a seat that will be vacated because of Kirkpatrick, who is retiring. Is that correct?

02:25 RVG – That’s right. Ann Kirkpatrick, who served honorably in the House, has announced her retirement, and Kirsten was a sitting state senator and thought it over with her family and decided to run for the seat and has been running for it since last year. Last spring, actually. Now this is a seat, Arizona’s sixth, which used to be Arizona two, which was of course Gabby Giffords seat and then Ann Kirkpatrick and Kirsten is running. She came out of the primary winning 25% in a contested primary, and both polls in the district right now have shown us in a dead heat. It is one of the primary targets of the Republicans to take away the seat from ADEM, and we’re fighting every day to make sure that does not happen.

03:09 AW – And she’s encountered something that seems to be a pattern during this midterm, which is having trouble getting her Republican opponent to debate her. Why don’t you explain who her opponent is and what she would like to say if she could debate her opponent?

03:28 RVG – That’s absolutely right, Alex. So her opponent was handpicked by Governor Ducey. He worked for him for eight years and it was groomed by him, I would say, to use their term. And so one Juan Ciscomani was also helped by McCarthy with over $1,000,000 in the primary to make sure their guy got through. And so right out of the gate, PBS up in Phoenix asked for a debate, and we answered immediately. He never bothered to respond at all. Second debate was supposed to be down here in Tucson with another PBS station again responded immediately. No response at all. So finally the local station down here was just going to give us an hour and then he responded. So as a result, we’re going to have two different interviews rather than and he did the same thing up in Phoenix.

04:16 AW – And what kind of advantage does he have as being a LatinX candidate in a state like Arizona in terms of the demographics?

04:25 RVG – Of course. I mean, he and his family immigrated when he was a young person to Arizona. I mean, obviously it’s this very strong voting bloc in Arizona now, interestingly. Usually as one you know over the years. That demographic has generally trended towards Democrats, but as we saw in 2020, there’s been some erosion there and certainly on issues around the economy, polling has shown that there might be some more erosion as well. So it is a natural built-in, I would say, structural advantage. Slightly, but we have made tremendous inroads and have, I mean, the Mayor of Tucson, Rahina Romero, endorsed us out of the gates. Raul Grijalva has endorsed us. It is not a monolithic voting bloc by any stretch of the imagination and we are working very closely. With local endorsers and with groups who are working every day to ensure that Arizonans have a fair shake and are taken care of in a in a way that uplifts members of the community.

05:29 AW – So I’ve always enjoyed following on election night with you. In fact, I think you were in my living room when Barack Obama got elected president. We had a little party and you were focused on, you know, the. The 8th district in Wyoming or whatever you you were not just looking at Obama versus McCain in 2008. So I I trust you to have a finger on the pulse of these races. Robijn, let’s move to the Senate and start looking at how that pie might be divvied up. What races excite you the most in, in terms of what you’re going to be following on election night?

06:06 RVG – Well, I I certainly think Nevada, as we’ve discussed, is an absolutely critical race for folks to pay attention. To we, we simply have to win that seat. We have to win that race, you know, and I think Nevada is a a place with tremendous infrastructure with a deep core of fantastic, you know, generational organizing there with the unions and other folks on the ground. So there’s a natural place in which you could plug in. I think that’s a critical, critical seat for us to focus on and it is a pure tossup and you know it, it could go either way. Our money needs to be spent in places sort of just on time delivery and that time is now for Nevada.

06:47 AW – So in in Nevada, I tend to look at not necessarily who’s winning each individual poll, but when you see an advantage over a long period of time, you can feel like there’s a distinct trend. For example, the headlines of Fetterman in Pennsylvania is that his lead has shrunk. But if you look 2-3 months out, he hasn’t been behind in any polls, so that tells me something. Similarly, I see that Adam Laxalt has not been behind the month of September in the six or seven most recent polls against Cortez Masto, but a lot smaller margins, one or 2%. I think his his average is 2.1% on the RealClearPolitics polling average. So it’s different than the Federmann Oz race where it’s more like 4 or 5% average.

07:37 RVG – Right. And that’s the point I was going to make is that you know one to two points split is basically in the margin of they’re pretty much, which means it could swing either way. It could be they could actually be two points up or two points down, depending on the margin of error on a poll as they call it. In other words, I pull 500 people and my confidence is that my numbers are exactly right, but there’s a margin of error that to allow for some variance. Of about 4% in there generally. So you’re absolutely correct that that Laxalt is. Seeing to be trending. But again, this way the race is winnable again because because the margin, as you point out, is so thin and this will all come down, as you alluded to earlier, to who’s got the better ground game. Yes, the errors being on the air is obviously important. Most people get their news that way and those ads aren’t matter. Of course, people still. Read the mail and get mailers. But I will tell you working here in Arizona. There is no substitute for face to face contact in our district. It takes 6 hours to drive across it. It’s massive, but just from my own experience here, when you go out and talk to the rural voters that matters, they will remember that they may not even 100% agree with you. But if you talk to voters and logistically. That’s difficult. But as I said before, in Arizona, the voters and the vote centers and the things that will swing that seat or keep that seat. Whether they are well established ground game so you can only get so far as you indicate it. You like it so far on the air and with mail and with op-eds at the end of the game it you need to go out and talk to people and this is where I see the polls. In other words, they can tell you what the general trend is, what people are thinking. They can give you a pretty good idea. But at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to execute execution as it always does, and getting out the vote. Nevada has been doing this for a long time. Harry Reid didn’t win and stay winning there without putting the structure in place to make sure that continued. And I and I think the other thing you know the Georgia race is, is obviously a critical race for us. It’s still I looked around this morning just because I was curious and nobody moved it. They still have it as a pure tossup. Now that that obviously would require some more polling about how the latest revelation. Would Mr. Walker have come out and you know whether that has an effect and moves the ball at all? I don’t know. You know the old acronym, a yoke yard. It’s OK if you’re a Republican, right? And you know, no, no, I want to be very clear about something very clear. I’ve worked in electoral politics for almost 30 years. And I have worked with Honorable Republicans, and I have worked with honorable Republican consultants, and you fight like Hell, and then you go have a beer when it’s over. But what disheartens me and what I’ve seen in the last four or six years is it’s a zero-sum game. And Dems are not immune to this, let’s be clear. But the level of win at all costs? Damn the country that I’ve seen the Republican Party become. You know, yes, they have a different vision for the country, but at a certain. Point we are all. In this country, together they will forgive any sin as long as they. And that cannot be the way forward in our country. It just cannot. Because what it does to young people in this country is it shows them that, you know, integrity and ethics are malleable. They’re situational. That’s no way to run a country, and that’s what they’re showing us what they’re going to do.

11:24 (Music Break)

12:16 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Robijn Van Giesen. He is the political director for Kirsten Engle’s congressional race in Arizona. Just looking at the latest polling for our listeners, the Fox Insider Advantage Poll, which I think had been leaning, according to the people who evaluate the polls, had been very much a Republican leaning poll. I think it had Herschel Walker up by three and its previous poll and then first week of October had Warnock up by three. The Survey USA poll, which I think had Warnock up by four or five points, had him up by 12 points.

12:58 RVG – Yeah, that’s malarkey.

12:58 AW – It might be malarkey, but the negative press that Walker is getting is having an impact, it seems.

13:07 RVG – Let’s be very clear about timing. This is a pure op-research hit. This did not happen by accident. I don’t know this. I’m not on the campaign but it’s pretty indicative that it dropped now, with enough time to bake it in and enough time not only to affect the polls, but affect fund-raising and all the rest of it.

13:26 AW – But saying that, his op-research makes it seem like otherwise Walker would be a perfectly adequate candidate and he’s very ill prepared. I mean, he seems way out of his league. He has no record of public service. I was thrilled to have shaken his hand at the Walter Camp Trophy ceremony when I was like 11 years old, when he was a really good running back. But that was the last time I think he did anything of importance since he retired from the NFL.

13:53 RVG – Well, I mean the other thing is he’s just, he’s, he’s a fabulist, right? At one point he has said I think recently, oh, I was in charge of 6 hospital, right? I mean, what? And the thing is that it just, you know, he he clearly never learned the rule of holes. He just keeps digging and nobody is there. What mystifies me, Alex. Is nobody is there apparently to, you know, for lack of a better term, and I realize it’s a bit puny, but to coach the guy on sticking to the script, maybe there is no script. I don’t know. I just don’t know. Candidates sometimes are hard to manage, but they chose this guy and now they’re paying the price.

14:36 AW – So, Robijn, I I can’t help but think that Pennsylvania is not going to be as close as a lot of people are thinking, but not just because of doctor Oz and his zany history. But I think that while the polls show Fetterman ahead in the single digits, he’s going to be buoyed by Josh Shapiro, who seems well ahead of Doug Mastriano and in the governor’s race. And I think that’s going to have more of an impact than the polling shows. What do you think?

15:06 RVG – I actually, I absolutely agree with that and it’s funny because. I mean, oftentimes the coattails that you’re referring to go the other way, right? The federal candidate can pull up a a tough governor’s race. But in this case, I I absolutely agree with you. The fact that the differential in the governor’s race is so substantial, it’s undeniable. And then the second piece of that is that I am not convinced that Doctor Oz killing over 300 animals, including puppies, and overseeing experiments that did that as gruesome and horrific. To be clear, as that is, is, as I hate to say this, as important as the fact that he’s from New Jersey.

15:48 AW – And Fetterman’s been just nailing him on that repeatedly.

15:51 RVG – Well, he should. Like, I’m sorry, you may not agree with 100% my politics, but don’t come to me saying you’re from my back door when you live across into New Jersey, right? That’s not gonna fly in Pennsylvania.

16:03 AW – So let’s turn to Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Those races, those seem to be razor thin. Are you optimistic about all three of those states or where do you fall, Robijn?

16:18 RVG – Well, I think I’m, I’m more optimistic about Ohio. Honestly then than the other two at this point.

16:25 AW – For our listeners, Tim Ryan, the longtime congressman, is running against JD Vance, who is like an author and Republican rabble rouser. I don’t really know what he does, but he he seems to be one of those personalities.

16:38 RVG – Well, again JD Vance wrote Hillbilly Eelegy. And he has become a, you know, a darling of of darling, of the right. And Trump is fear, as I call it. But I just think Tim Ryan has deep roots, deep history, deep engagement with Ohioans in a way that’s authentic. And he’s not. You cannot paint him as. As at one of the ads that’s hitting us, they do all this absurd stuff and then they say outrageously liberal about Kirsten, and then they’re trying to make that playbook in the house everywhere. And you just can’t say that about him. And I think that resonates with the high winds. And in the end they’ll come. Home it’s a tough race.

17:19 AW – And that polling has been razor thin. I mean, nobody has been ahead by more than four or five points in in the polls. And I think the last poll had Ryan up by three, but the one before that had Vance up by 1. Like they’re just neck and neck. And so that’s where the ground game comes into play, doesn’t.

17:38 RVG  Exactly right. And again, big Union state. Lots of lots of, lots of structural experience doing that. Dan, Tim Ryan, you know, his focus has been a lot of the rural stuff, which you absolutely need to win. You can’t just do it in Cincinnati and Columbus. You have to in Dayton. You gotta get out there in the world. He’s been doing that and doing it very, very well. Now, naturally, one would think that JD Vance. Hillbilly Elegy will appeal more to that, but I don’t. I don’t believe that. That’s an entirely foregone conclusion. You cannot cede ground in races like this. You have to fight for every county in every precinct, and that’s been running that race for a very long time. I agree with you, it’s razor thin. But I think in the end that that the voters will come home for him.

18:21 AW – Let’s turn now to Mandela Barnes versus Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Cheri Beasley versus – is it Ted Budd in North Carolina?

18:30 RVG – Yeah, that’s correct. I mean, a lot of people are sort of putting North Carolina away, trending towards Budd at this point again. It’s lean Republican and everything I’ve seen and that’s been tracking consistently. But again it’s an interesting election where fundamentals on the ground are moved by externalities, the biggest of which throughout the country, as we’re seeing here in Arizona, is the Dobbs decision. You know, there are Republican grandmothers that have Republican teenage granddaughters, and I guarantee you they’re terrified and it’s in Arizona. Our tracking has shown consistently, both from the primary through our polls here in the general in Arizona, which has just made abortion illegal. 60% of voters in Arizona, and this includes well over 20% of Republicans, say that abortion must remain legal, safe and accessible.

19:29 AW – So you feel more confident about Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin than you do Sherry Beasley. Even though Beasley has been closer in the polls, average margin of that Bud has in North Carolina is is under 2%, while Johnson.

19:43 RVG – I would not say I’m more confident. Let me put it this way. The battle scars of electoral counts in Wisconsin are well known, and they’re well prepared for any. How can I say this on the radio? Any malarkey that may come, right, because they’re used to it. That’s kind of what they do up there.

20:02 AW – It’s a mullarky filled zone.

20:05 RVG – Whereas, you know, in North Carolina, and keep in mind it’s a different ground a little bit the way they do it, right?

20:12 AW – What do you mean by that? Just the way they count the votes because there was some real shenanigans in 2018, right with in terms of that congressional race that got tossed out?

20:23 RVG – The way the adjudication account is done is slightly different than it is in Wisconsin and you know I, I worked down there a couple years ago to get rid of the supermajority in in the legislature down there and to help with some judicial races and North Carolina, they’ve gerrymandered it, of course, because that’s the only way they win, right? In some of these areas, they, they, they, you know, they stacked the deck, but N Carolinians are not despite the gerrymandering, not as monolithic or you know, deep Red as one would think. Especially around the research triangle around Charlotte, around in that area, certainly Asheville. The point is that it is no longer possible to just say if you’re rural, your vote red. Trump brought a lot of that to the floor, obviously, but they’ve seen what Trump isn’t brought also. And I gotta believe that some of their N Carolinians were very, very disturbed about what happened at our nation’s capital, be there Republican or Democrat. And I’m not suggesting that we should run the campaign on that. But what that points to me and I’m hearing out on the trail and I’m certainly seeing it here in Arizona, is lifetime Republicans saying hold on. This has gone too far and I think that will come to play in unexpected areas there in North Carolina.

21:55  (Music Break)

22:47 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to political insider Robijn Van Giesen. He is the political director for Kirsten Engel’s congressional race in Arizona. Lastly, I wanted to touch upon something that’s just near dear to my heart and those are the governor races in Georgia and Texas. I can’t help but think that the narrative, if they do lose Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke, is that they’re losers. You know, two time losers, three time losers. But I think that the work that they did just taking on these incumbents is admirable and I think they are looking at the long game of flipping those traditionally red states blue, and I think we should tip our hats to them because I think in many ways they’re falling on electoral swords, and even if they don’t win, they’re really changing the electoral landscape of those states. I hope they win, but it’s not looking great for either of them right now.

23:46 RVG – I agree with you, Alex, and, you know, to be clear, Stacey Abrams came to national attention with exactly what you’re talking about how do we turn Georgia Blue, right? And this has been a meticulous, relentless, inch by inch strategy, frankly, in Georgia to do just that. But Georgia did flip for us, lest we forget who won there.

24:12 AW – Yeah, the Senate is democratic by one vote – because of that election.

24:19 RVG – It is working and again, change is not always put in your quarter and get the result. It takes time, it takes focus, it takes money. And it takes patience, frankly. And Stacey Abrams has done all of that. She’s an absolute hero down there. Turning to Beto. Beto was at an event yesterday. There were so many people it spilled out with thousands outside that even what then went to talk to.

24:44 AW – He had Harry Styles posing with him yesterday. My daughter was very excited about that. But you were talking about like your district being one where you have to drive 6 hours. I mean, he’s trying to run in an enormous state and he’s got the same kind of verve and energy as what you’re talking about with your candidate. Kirsten Engel is that Beto wants to do in Texas – He wants to shake every hand in the state.

25:08 RVG – And, and you know I I saw that, I mean just going back, pressing the rear, pressing reverse on The Time Machine. Alex, there was a governor candidate, John Garamendi, House member, who ran for Governor of California. Never forget it, he said. I’m going to go to all, every single county in California and work in every single county. He went to all 52 counties and he worked like. With workers doing their job in every single county exhausted him. Didn’t end up winning, but that’s the kind of thing I see in Beto O’Rourke. It’s a similar thing. It’s not, you know, of course there’s a political point to it, but this man, I’ve seen him. I’ve heard him. I’ve listened to him. This is real to him. He needs to know what Texans are about and how they’re hurting and how he can help his opponent is not going to do that. I’ll just leave that right there. So I think in the end, Beto, he may not win, but the fact that he’s out there talking to undecided voters, independent voters face to face, or even his surrogates doing it, that matters. And it’s going to continue to matter because it’s a Democrat that did that.

26:16 AW – Yeah, because that person who might say, hey, that guy Beto is pretty cool. The next Democratic comes along they might listen to in a different way.

26:24 RVG – I’m going to leave you with one story from our campaign trail that that gets to this we were canvassing out in a very rural area. South of Tucson, but not all the way to what a town called Sierra Vista, which is near the Mexican border. And we had what they call turf. In other words, you get addresses which you think is, you know, you know, as an independent or a Democrat. So we go driving out there. It turns out the area we were going to was a gated community and my candidate being my candidate in an old RAV4 says, “so let’s go down that road.” I said, “We can’t go down that road because, but there’s more houses over there.” So we go. Then we drive up down this dirt road to somebody’s house with a big antenna on the roof. We come out of the car and he comes barreling out with his dog and but, you know, we thought, oh, we’re in trouble now, and he says “wait, you’re you’re Kristen I saw you on TV!” And the only way you saw that because he had TV antennas, and we had done ads over the air. The point is that we ended up talking to that guy for 15 minutes. He’s a retired union member, independent his whole life, and has decided to vote Democrat. Why? Because “Kristin” came and talked to him and his dog. That’s why you go talk to folks in the rural areas. That’s why you do it, and that’s what Beto is doing and I think it builds and you’ll never know. It’s not just this guy Carlos. But it’s him and his 10 buddies he talks to in the next 10 minutes. That’s why it matters.

27:46 AW – Well, good luck to your candidate, Kirsten Engel. Folks in the 6th District of Arizona should read up on her and support the work that my friend Robijn is doing. Robijn van Gieson, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 RVG – Great pleasure, Alex. Good to see you.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Eddie Harris, Bob Dylan and Jackie Wilson. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.