How a Delaware state Senate campaign attracted more than 1,000 volunteers

Stephanie Hansen's special election victory on Saturday ensured that Democrats will maintain control of the Delaware state Senate. But she didn't do it alone. 

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Anti-Trump crowds chant and raise home-made signs during a women's march and rally in Denver on Jan. 21, 2017.

Stephanie Hansen scored a 58-42 percent special election victory in Delaware on Saturday, ensuring that Democrats will maintain control of the state Senate.

But she didn't do it alone. Ms. Hansen was aided by more than 1,000 volunteers from around the country, many of whom identified as first-time activists. While the race was fought primarily over local issues such as transit, education, and the state budget, a number of the Hansen campaign's volunteers hailed from outside the state, with some traveling two or more hours by bus to canvass in what was the first major election since President Trump's inauguration last month. 

The unusually high turnout, some volunteers say, is a reflection of a larger surge in civic engagement among Americans frustrated with the presidential election outcome in the weeks and months following Mr. Trump's victory and inauguration.

"Trump is politicizing the populace," said volunteer Nicholas Sewitz, who traveled from Brooklyn to canvass for Hansen, to The Huffington Post. 

The widespread desire to affect change has manifested itself in a wide variety of ways, with scores of Americans volunteering for political campaigns, donating to nonprofits, taking to the streets to chant and march, and even declaring plans to run for office themselves, as Jessica Mendoza reported for The Christian Science Monitor shortly after Election Day: 

As thousands of people took to the streets following the election in response to Mr. Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, scores of other Americans began articulating their feelings in a different way.

Some ... organized campaigns that raised funds for advocacy groups. Others started calling their elected representatives or signing petitions. Still others took more personal routes – like going vegetarian to protest the president-elect’s policies on climate change.

The sudden wave of political advocacy is rooted in a sense that perhaps certain rights and social trends were being taken for granted. Turning to collective action, experts say, is a way for such people to regain a sense of balance.

"I think much of the activism we’re seeing post-election stems from a need to reestablish some sense of control," Debra Mashek, associate professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., told the Monitor at the time. "Many in the nation were truly surprised by the outcome of the election. They are struggling to explain what unfolded and how their own sense of likely outcome could have been so wrong. This topsy-turvy sense can be steadied by taking action." 

Post-inauguration protests across the country, particularly the Women's March on Jan. 21, further ignited what participants call a burgeoning resistance movement. Now, a growing number of Americans are channeling the momentum of these demonstrations into grassroots advocacy efforts at the local and state level. Hansen's campaign experienced a significant swell in support in the days following the march, The Huffington Post reports. 

"Symbolism is incredibly important to social movements," Sarah J. Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, told PBS in the days leading up to the march. "For many people, and especially for many women who prior to this election weren’t necessarily engaged in activism, this is playing a really important role in promulgating these ideas and empowering people to make a change." 

Perhaps just as important as the symbolism behind large-scale demonstrations like the Women's March is the ability of such events to provide first-time activists with the tools and connections to take further political action, experts say. As the Monitor reported in January: 

The usefulness of a large-scale event, particularly one that brings together people from different backgrounds and geographic regions, goes beyond symbolism, says [David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine]. On a practical level, demonstrations provide participants – particularly first-time activists – with networking opportunities and advocacy tools that can then be put toward smaller-scale, grassroots action. 

"This is one way that demonstrations are actually really significant," Meyer tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "They’re building networks and building capacity." 

Ken Kidd, a volunteer with the Hansen campaign, attributed some of the volunteer turnout to a "resurgence in citizenship" in the weeks following the Women's March.

Another, Mitchaell Kawash of Brooklyn, told The Huffington Post that he decided to canvass for the first time because of the importance of state-level politics. 

"This is the election that matters," Manhattan resident Marsha Murray told the Post. "It matters to everyone, not just in Delaware." 

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