Tory Gavito isn’t afraid to play the long game. As co-founder and president of Way to Win, a California-based network of progressive donors and strategists, Gavito spends a majority of her time collaborating with community organizations around the country to gather funding for local, statewide, and national elections. The strategies she implements as she works to shift the electoral balance take patience and require a long-term, comprehensive plan.
“We have really specific goals,” Gavito said. “We want to win the White House in 2020, we want to fight for the Senate, we want to hold Congress and make gains in Congress. We also want to take back state legislatures in time for the influencing and drawing of maps.”
Gavito, a Texas native, says her career was inspired by her grandmother, who immigrated to the state from Mexico in the 1940s. She has spent more than a decade utilizing her law degree to advocate for immigrants in the workplace and advance progressive causes. In 2013, she launched her political career as the founding executive director of the Texas Future Project. The organization works to bring together the best ideas with the biggest resources to advance progressive policy issues in Texas and support candidates who are more reflective of the communities they represent.
The general election losses of all three branches of government in 2016, however, led Gavito to reevaluate her focus and think of how she could make a broader impact. After reflecting on which campaign strategies went wrong and why, she focused her energy on which problems she could help solve. One of the biggest tasks was figuring out where to allocate resources. That’s when she created Way to Win with co-founder Leah Hunt-Hendrix.
Gavito, Hunt-Hendrix, and their all women-led team organized donors around multiple races in the 2018 midterm elections, ultimately moving $22 million to progressive candidates and initiatives. They collaborated with local community organizations to mobilize voters during the Texas Senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz. Although O’Rourke lost the race, Gavito still considers the outcome a victory. O’Rourke’s loss margin was 2 points; when Way to Win jumped in, the campaign was down by 14. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has also credited Way to Win with providing critical resources in the early days of her historic campaign that same year.
Although one of Way to Win’s primary goals is to lift up candidates in the Democratic Party, Gavito stresses that the message behind each candidate is a higher priority. “We believe really fully that the quality of the candidate matters,” she said. “We don’t want a Democrat just for the sake of winning. We want them to be Democrats that are really going to make change when they’re in office. We see this as a virtuous cycle of civic engagement.”
Getting Democratic voters engaged, however, has been no easy task. In 2015, Gavito invested in a series of focus groups in Texas to figure out the reasons people were sitting out elections. She assumed that nonvoters would claim their blue vote was washed out in a blood-red state. Instead, participants in the focus groups stated that when they’d voted for Democrats in the past, nothing in their life had changed. These responses generated entirely different problems for Gavito to help solve. It also prompted a more specific requirement: that Democratic candidates be champions for the people they represent.
To mobilize people on the left, Gavito says the best strategy to bring nonvoters to the ballot box is to poll them on issues they care about. The effort to push a particular candidate takes a backseat. Take Arizona in 2016, for example: While Democratic voters in the state weren’t enthused about voting in the presidential election, polling indicated that issues surrounding minimum wage hikes and bringing in a new sheriff were high on the priority list. Gavito says these are the issues that affect people’s lives directly, which is why choosing candidates that fulfill these criteria has been a focus of hers. People “will turn out and vote when we talk about issues that really matter to them,” she said. “If we engage new voters who are typically voters of color and young people, we can make gains.”
Although Way to Win is keeping its eyes on 2020 and beyond, Gavito and the organization are not currently backing a specific candidate for the presidential election. Instead, the focus is on states such as Arizona, Virginia, and Texas. All three states have the earliest local elections and will be battleground territory in 2020. When considering the demographics in these states and the multiracial coalitions that can be built, Gavito says Democrats can easily win if they focus on targeting the right voting blocks and lead with a strong message.
“There are some Democrats who refuse to see that multiracial coalition-building is the way of the future,” she said. “It’s not just racism that is keeping them from building these coalitions. I think they think incrementalism is sort of the only way to make palatable, fundamental change. If you just stand for a policy position because it’s morally the right thing to do, getting there is easier.”
As a way to keep candidates on message, Gavito and her team created a Presidential Playbook for community organizations to utilize. To create the playbook, they referred to campaigns over the past few election cycles and compiled a list of strategies and patterns that result in a winning campaign. The list of categories focuses on everything from policy to voting rights. The purpose of the playbook is to encourage organizers to ignore the gut feeling of what is electable and provide an analytical framework for winning an election.
As for whether this playbook will be effective, “only time will tell,” Gavito said. “We are in uncharted territory in our political system in the United States of America.”
Right now, voting rights have become a critical piece of Gavito’s work as she looks toward 2020. She hopes to get ahead of the problem in the South, so that voters can cast their ballots without intimidation or interference. She is dedicating her time to investing in organizations that do year-round voter contact and education work. She is also pushing for automatic voter registration, backup paper ballots, and the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
“Some of the most meaningful work that I've done in this position is holding the door open for more people to come through,” she said. “It’ll take time and it’s a fight.”
Carolyn Copeland is a writer, radio producer, and podcast producer based in the San Francisco Bay area, and owner of Carolyn Copeland Consulting.