- Matthew McGovern has been executive director of the Colorado Democrats' House Majority Project since the 2016 election, overseeing the party's legislative campaigns in the lower chamber.
- Since he took the helm, Democrats have grown their 34-seat House majority to 41 members, the largest majority the party has enjoyed since the mid-1960s.
- The 32-year-old Colorado native is a 2010 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado, where McGovern got a degree in political science.
- McGovern worked as a legislative aide in the 2013 session but has otherwise stuck to campaigning. Before the HMP stint, he managed campaigns for now-state Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and several legislative candidates in New Jersey. He was also deputy director for a cycle of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which handles campaign duties for 100 House and 25 senate races each election year.
Colorado Politics: You’ve just completed your third election cycle heading up the House Majority Project, the campaign arm of the Colorado House Democrats. With the loss of one district and flipping another from Republican hands, you finished with the same 41-member majority the Democrats held going into the election. What did you learn about the Colorado electorate this time around, and were there any surprises?
Matthew McGovern: Every November you end up taking away lessons that may or may not be relevant in the next election, and this cycle was no different. The 2018 trends mostly held in Colorado: we solidified our gains in suburbs that are getting younger, more diverse, and less agreeable to a Trump-dominated Republican Party that won’t agree to wear a mask to protect their neighbors. Picking up another seat in Arapahoe County and being competitive in Highlands Ranch and Ken Caryl would have been absolutely unthinkable when I went to high school in Centennial; and I’m not that old. As millennials start to move to the suburbs, whether through being priced out of Denver or because they’re settling down to start a family, they are fundamentally changing these former bastions of conservatism.
One lesson that I took away from 2020 is that high turnout doesn’t give an inherent partisan advantage. In 2018 there were a lot of conservative unaffiliated voters who had no interest in showing up for a country-club Republican like Walker Stapleton. They were motivated by Trump and his incendiary rhetoric. In most districts that doesn’t fundamentally change the calculus, but it limits the places that you can try to expand.
CP: How were the campaigns you ran this year different than in previous cycles?
McGovern: This was a weird year, for so many reasons. We pride ourselves on running very strong field programs; candidates, volunteers and staff pounding the pavement to have direct, in-person conversations with voters. That obviously looked very different this year, and so we focused a lot more on creating digital content and trying to use our limited budgets to get our message to people stuck at home scrolling on Facebook or watching reruns of "Seinfeld" through streaming services. It had a lot less of the immediate feedback that you get through a field program, but I believe it ended up being very effective. We did have big phonebank programs and many campaigns did have socially-distanced and masked field programs, but they looked very different than in past years.
This year also had a bizarre element where the top of the GOP ticket featured a man who everyone had strong opinions about, but our opponents were almost entirely unknowns. Running against a slew of activists and conspiracy theorists was beneficial when making the argument that they were going to be rubber stamps for an increasingly extremist GOP defined by Donald Trump. But I believe it may have hurt our normal ability to peel off GOP voters downticket because they were all basically viewed as a generic Republican. Before I get blasted in the comments, one exception was former Jefferson County Commissioner Donald Rosier, who was more similar to some of our previous opponents in his profile.
CP: Running legislative campaigns — and overseeing a whole state’s worth of races — seems like a specialized skill. What kind of work did you do before taking over at HMP, and how did it prepare you for what you’ve encountered?
McGovern: As one of the nerdiest kids in the state of Colorado, I always had an interest in government and history. Both my parents were journalists, and so the kitchen table conversation was largely about the issues facing either Denver or Colorado politics. But I didn’t realize I wanted to run campaigns as a career until the 2010 cycle, a bad year to start your path in Democratic politics. I knocked doors for Betsy Markey in Greeley that year and was actually an intern for the House Majority Project.
I ran a few individual legislative races and realized that I enjoyed all aspects of the campaign rather than specializing in one field (communications, field, finance, etc.). A caucus director needs to have a varied skillset and a degree of expertise in everything that makes a campaign run. When I was the deputy director in Montana I remember days where I would have check-ins with my managers in the morning, meet with our organizational partners in the afternoons and then work long into the evening writing mail pieces. Caucus jobs are all about controlled chaos and making sure that you’re putting out the most urgent fires first.
All of it prepared me for this job, but no problem is a carbon copy of one that you’ve faced before. Every day really does bring a new set of challenges. I love working with multiple candidates, many of whom are running for the first time, so legislative races have a great appeal to me. I also strongly believe that your state legislature usually has more of an impact on the day-to-day lives of people in a state than what goes on in Washington, DC.
CP: The 2022 campaign cycle could be one of the more challenging ones in recent memory for Democrats. You’ll not only be running against the kind of midterm headwinds that usually confront members of the party that controls the White House, but your candidates will be running in redrawn districts, created by the new reapportionment commission. How do you anticipate these circumstances will affect legislative campaigns?
McGovern: The new maps will make 2022 a lot more unpredictable. There’s an institutional memory that develops around seats by the second or third cycle in any given set of maps. It can sometimes be a trap where you’re chasing a seat that used to be competitive but has moved away from you, and sometimes you don’t recognize opportunities until it’s too late because of how a seat has performed historically. The uncertainty around new maps will mean that people all have different views on what seat are in play.
It also makes candidate recruitment tough because you won’t know exactly where a seat is going to be and if it will or will not draw in an incumbent. We have less to worry about on the recruitment end because we have relatively few legislators who are termed out, but the reshuffling will undoubtedly bring about some shakeups.
Our majority has held since 2013 and so I am confident that any midterm headwinds can be mitigated by our strong candidates and solid campaigns, but there could be some real dogfights in areas that we first started winning in the 2018 cycle.
CP: In 2019, along with Michael Whitehorn, who was running the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund in the previous cycle, you headed up the Democrats’ efforts to protect legislative candidates targeted with recall campaigns, though none of them made the ballot. How did you approach defending lawmakers as opposed to trying to get them elected?
McGovern: Well, I was glad we won, but I was mostly just upset that they decided to launch recalls in the middle of my planning my wedding and honeymoon. Sending emails from Zambia at 2 a.m. wasn’t entirely part of the plan.
The recalls were fascinating because it was really the last arrow in the quiver for the Colorado GOP. They had been successful in 2013 and there was a lot of concern that a hyper-partisan environment where you only needed to find 10,000-15,000 voters to launch a recall could replicate their previous success. We focused on stopping them cold by doing proactive outreach that was similar to campaigns in its structure, mail, door knocking, etc.
Our approach differed by making sure that when they had signature-gatherers in parking lots and community events that we had our voices there as well to counter their message. Eventually I think a lot of the proponents viewed their goal as fighting us as opposed to actually getting signatures, which was fine with me. I’ll never forget one day in a Pueblo parking lot where both sides had been explaining the pros and cons to potential signers and we were packing up our table, leaving them uncontested. They noticed our folks leaving, claimed victory and packed up themselves. After I saw that dynamic develop I felt very good about our chances.
Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I don’t think recalls are a viable strategy moving forward, at least as a means to obtain a majority. Voters have been voting for Democratic control in general elections for the better part of two decades. If the GOP wants to change that, they should figure out how to appeal to more Coloradans instead of perpetually riling up an increasingly extremist base.
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