In this age of COVID-19, candidates are looking for new ways to engage voters — especially young voters — and draw in campaign cash. Democratic Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village (The Other Dude) is trying out one of those new ways.
Bridges is running for his first full term for Senate District 26, after being appointed to the seat in January 2019 when Sen. Daniel Kagan resigned. Republican Bob Roth and Libertarian Marc Solomon both are challenging to take the seat in November.
Bridges is pulling in some big-time help from stars from the Great White Way. (Don't get excited — it's a old expression for New York's Broadway Theater District, named thusly because of it was among the first to use electric light bulbs for signage.)
On Aug. 17, "Hamilton" star Ryan Vasquez will host a virtual Zoom fundraiser for Bridges, one of more than two dozen such events Vasquez and other Broadway stars are hosting for a variety of Democratic candidates between now and the end of September. The candidates picked by the organization Swing From Home include statewide legislative candidates like Bridges as well as Congressional and gubernatorial candidates.
Swing From Home is run by Vasquez, who's been performing in the Tony-winning Broadway musical "Hamilton" as James Reynolds, as the title character in Sunday matinees and as the Marquis de Lafayette. Vasquez also performed in the first national tour of "Hamilton" as part of the original cast. In the wake of COVID-19, Broadway is closed until Jan. 3, 2021, so Vasquez and his friends have some free time on their hands.
Swing From Home lists 28 states with competitive races. Colorado is well-represented; in addition to Bridges, Swing From Home also lists the races for Senate District 19, between incumbent Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada and Republican challenger Lynn Gerber; Senate District 25 in rural Adams County, between Republican incumbent Kevin Priola and Democrat Paula Dickerson; and Senate District 27, an open seat representing Centennial where the race is between Democrat Chris Kolker and Republican Suzanne Staiert. Four state House races and the U.S. Senate race also are included in Swing From Home's Colorado targets.
Swing From Home doesn't only do fundraisers; they also participate in phone banks — can you imagine picking up your phone and hearing "this is 'Hamilton' calling"? — and solicit volunteers for the candidates they support. Vasquez noted on his Instagram page last month that one such phone bank for a Pennsylvania state House candidate produced more than 1,700 calls in an hour.
And in case you're wondering; yes, there will be performances during the fundraisers as well as panel discussions by the artists. Bridges hopes he gets an opportunity to sing with them, calling it "a high school dream come true!"
Bridges said Vasquez contacted him to see if he wanted to participate in Swing From Home. "It's fantastic what they're taking their time to do, especially with a show like 'Hamilton' that has such a clear call for social justice and American values," Bridges said. "It's humbling to see these actors putting their time where their show is. They're living their characters and who they play on stage, and making a difference in the fabric of America."
Vasquez told Colorado Politics that about 50 artists from "Hamilton" and other Broadway shows are participating in Swing From Home. Artists have voices, too, he said; not just as "singing robots."
What's happening across the county is deeply personal to the community of artists, he said. "We are a country that admires celebrity," and Swing From Home makes an association between something popular — Broadway — and leverages it.
"We're seeing enthusiasm at an all-time high" but at the same time an all-time low, Vasquez said. "There's an aversion to talking about the president" but at the same time energy and activism have been ballooning during the pandemic, partly because of the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and other Black Americans — including Aurora's Elijah McClain — at the hands of police.
"People want to contribute but feel like a $20 donation to Joe Biden isn't moving the needle," when he can raise millions every month. That $20 "can also go far in a state legislative race where just nine votes make the difference. When an entire legislative campaign budget is $45,000 and we can raise $10,000, you can see meaningful change right in front of you."
It helps that the central message of "Hamilton" is about change, and that's what Vasquez and his fellow artists seek.
They also want to engage young people, Vasquez said. A record number are getting involved this year, but it's not enough.
"We're looking down the barrel of a future that looks apocalyptic," whether it's climate change or student debt, and issues like the pandemic, which he said was made divisive by President Trump. "Young people are engaged in changing the social zeitgeist," he said, and it needs to be more than volunteering or donating to campaigns. "We don't vote and then rage against the machine" that comes as a result, he said.
Vasquez said they chose the races based in part on efforts to flip legislative majorities in some states, and to hold onto Democratic majorities in others, such as Colorado. They looked at legislative districts where President Obama won in 2012 and Trump in 2016, for example.
"Flipping a chamber is sexy and exciting, and implies taking power" away from the other party. Holding a chamber, on the other hand, is more difficult, since the energy mostly goes toward flipping it. A lot of chambers are on the margin and "we want to focus that energy with a scalpel instead of a machete."
Swing From Home isn't only focused on the election. Redistricting, including gerrymandering, is also on their agenda for voter education.
Vasquez said there's a total lack of awareness of the role of state legislatures and the role that gerrymandering plays. He pointed out that in the 2018 Wisconsin election, Democrats won 55% of the vote but only 40% of the seats in their legislatures, which he blames on gerrymandering by Republicans and which he called a form of voter disenfranchisement.
"There will always be efforts to continue that disenfranchisement," so educating voters about upcoming redistricting is important. "It's not enough to feel something inside and know you're on the right side of history. You must contribute to the effort."
“Hamilton“ composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is taking part in a political fundraiser, too. Miranda is among a group of Broadway stars who will host a Zoom fundraiser on Aug. 25 for the Latino Victory Fund that celebrates 100 years of women's right to vote.