With all eyes on the 2022 midterm election, eight Oxy students canvassed, coordinated, and cold-called their way through the political process in six battleground states
As campaign fellows for Democratic incumbent Angie Craig in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District—historically a swing district just outside of the Twin Cities—Ava Wampold ’24 and Ella Rubin ’24 spent much of their time canvassing in the field, training volunteers, coordinating the internship program, and posting on social media. But the main thing that took up most days was “other duties as assigned”—whenever any part of the campaign needed something to be done, they got to do that.
That led to “some really interesting experiences,” says Rubin, a politics major from San Francisco—like going to the Half-Way to St. Paddy’s Day festival in the tiny Le Sueur County city of Kilkenny (complete with toilet bowl races, fireworks, and a 3-mile Leprechaun Fun Run).
Less than five weeks before the election, the death of third-party candidate Paula Overby (running on the Legal Marijuana Now ticket) threw a wrench into the contest. A GOP-leaning super PAC bought ads encouraging Minnesotans to vote for Overby posthumously, potentially siphoning votes away from Craig and tipping the election toward Republican challenger Tyler Kistner. While Overby ultimately garnered 3.3 percent of the vote, Craig was elected to a third term with 51 percent of all ballots cast—beating Kistner's 46 percent.
Not only were Rubin and Wampold in the war room with senior staff on election night, they were doing data entry as the returns came in. “The districts that Ella and I were inputting are the ones that ended up winning us the campaign,” says Wampold, a religious studies major from Mercer Island, Wash. “That moment was totally surreal. It was the coolest night ever.”
Swept up in “Obamamania,” a number of Occidental students were eager to campaign for first-term Senator Barack Obama ’83 when he ran for president in 2008. Politics professors Peter Dreier and Regina Freer encouraged their efforts—even if they initially disagreed on what the best approach would be.
“I said, ‘Quit college for a semester, go work, and live on somebody’s couch,’” recalls Dreier, who left Syracuse University in 1968 to work on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Freer suggested an alternative: giving students credit for their field work—which would likely appeal to parents who didn’t want to see their children drop out of college. Seventeen students wound up working on campaigns that fall—mostly for Obama, but for Senate and Congressional races as well—and Campaign Semester was born.
Since 2008, more than 125 students have participated in Campaign Semester, which gives students a full semester of credit (16 units) to work on a political campaign. (Oxy remains the only college in the country with such a program.) Participants choose which campaign to work for, with the only requirement being that it must be a “battleground” or “swing” contest. “We consider this to be akin to an immersive abroad experience,” says Freer, adding that the International Programs Office’s ongoing support of the program has been “amazing.”
After 10 weeks in the field—culminating in Election Day—participants return to campus for an intensive five-week seminar with Freer and Dreier examining issues such as campaign finance, voter turnout and suppression, and how voters' age, race, gender, and class shape elections. “We want to give students the chance to put their on-the-ground experiences in a broader perspective,” Dreier explains.
While COVID-19 restrictions relegated the program to a mix of in-person and remote experiences in 2020, Campaign Semester returned to the field in 2022, with eight students traveling to six battleground states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington) for the midterm elections. Common themes cropped up across the country as key campaign issues, including inflation, abortion, health care, and crime and safety. Others were more regional in nature, such as water policies and the border crisis in Arizona.
In choosing to canvass for Craig in Minnesota, Rubin and Wampold worked alongside campaign manager Wellesley Daniels ’17, who has shepherded seven political campaigns since 2018, including four congressional races. “Ella and Ava ended up being such an important part of the community, which I think is awesome,” she says. “It would be easy to come into a space like that and not really know where you fit, and just be kind of shy, but I don’t know what the campaign would have been like without them.”
Kate Reinhard ’25 worked for Congresswoman Kim Schrier, a pediatrician who was first elected in 2018 and was running for re-election in Washington State’s 8th Congressional District. Washington’s bipartisan redistricting commission redrew the district in 2021, potentially tipping the balance toward Republican challenger Matt Larkin, making it a battleground race. “It created what was anticipated to be an even closer race because a huge rural part of the district had been added,” says Reinhard, an urban and environmental policy major from Campbell, Calif., who worked as a field organizer for Schrier’s campaign.
“The main reason that I chose to do Campaign Semester was because I felt like I didn’t really have a full understanding of how politics works,” she continues. At first she found it scary to cold-call prospective volunteers to get them involved with the campaign, but soon those calls became her favorite part of the day.
Schrier won with 53 percent of the vote—even better than her previous elections. As sweet as that victory was, Reinhard’s favorite moment of the campaign happened on the day before Election Day, after her get-out-the-vote efforts in rural Covington, Wash., were cut short when a volunteer fell into a ditch and shattered his phone. (“This is kind of a sad story at first, and then it gets better,” she promises.)
After making sure that their volunteer was OK, she and a co-worker drove past the Covington Library, “which is where the ballot drop box is in that part of our district,” Reinhard says. There they watched from a distance as voters queued up in their cars to drop off their ballots—a validation of their efforts and “a really cool, surreal moment,” she adds.
According to a September 2022 study by Politico, nationwide redistricting resulted in 79 competitive districts out of 435 (a dip of 11 compared to a decade earlier). Because of redistricting, Elissa Slotkin—who had served two terms representing Michigan’s 8th Congressional District—found herself running in 2022 against state Senator Tom Barrett in the neighboring 7th Congressional District. “There were tons of new voters who hadn’t seen our candidate before,” says Noah Weitzner ’25, an urban and environmental policy major from Washington, D.C., and one of eight field organizers for Slotkin’s campaign.
A self-identified “democratic socialist,” Weitzner was assigned to rural, red Shiawassee County, where his role was to recruit and manage a volunteer base of canvassers, phone bankers, and text bankers. He quickly learned how to make lists and target voters based on public records and information from the Democratic Party. He also attended many small community meetings to learn about the area and recruit volunteers.
When all the ballots were counted, Slotkin sailed to victory in the redrawn district with 52 percent of the total vote. She tallied 42.8 percent of the votes in rural Shiawassee County—a seven-point jump from the Democratic candidate in 2020—which contributed to her overall margin. And, much to his surprise, Weitzner’s personal politics never became an issue: “I actually developed a lot of respect for moderacy, which I never thought I’d say.”
Sunari Weaver-Anderson ’24, a politics major from Richmond, Calif., worked with Unite Here Philly, the hospitality and food service union of the Philadelphia region, whose members are primarily“I came in with an interest in labor and in the labor movement, for sure,” she says. “It was one of the reasons why I picked being a part of this campaign over doing an individual candidate’s campaign.”
As a community canvasser, Weaver-Anderson knocked on anywhere from 60 to 120 doors a day, with a focus on working families in Philadelphia’s Black, Brown, and low-income neighborhoods. (All totaled, Unite Here’s effort—called knocked on 980,000 doors in .) In one memorable encounter, she met a 25-year-old single mom named Ariel, who—after initially asserting that she didn’t vote because she “didn’t care” about politics—not only registered but made a plan to go vote on Election Day with her mail-in ballot. “That was really awesome,” Weaver-Anderson says. “I was able to have a lot of experiences like that.”
Her Campaign Semester experience upended her perceptions about the prerequisites needed to run a campaign. “My supervisor was a bartender who worked in New Orleans and then rose up and headed a labor union,” says Weaver-Anderson, who worked alongside cooks, servers, and other hospitality workers from all over the country. “It definitely made me think, you can be anyone and participate and make a difference,” she says. “That was really inspiring to me.”
Noah Sullivan ’24 worked on Mission for Arizona, the Arizona Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign to elect Democratic candidates. Founded largely in support of incumbent Senator Mark Kelly—who won a special election in the increasingly swing state to fill the remainder of the late John McCain’s term in 2020—the campaign also aided candidates running for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, Congress, and even legislative district races. The Democrats won every statewide seat.
“Your job is like managing 20 to 30 relationships at any given time,” says Sullivan, a politics major from Petersburg, Alaska. “It was still harder than what I had expected—it took some getting used to.”
Sullivan learned about Mission for Arizona after regional organizing director Sarah Young ’20 reached out to Oxy asking for help on the campaign. A diplomacy and world affairs major, Young had previously been a field organizer for several campaigns in Virginia and Michigan, “but we just happened to cross paths in Arizona this year,” Sullivan says.
Staying in touch with the other Campaign Semester participants made Sullivan’s work easier, Sullivan adds, because they could relate to one another’s experiences. “I would send a screenshot of what I was doing, and someone would be like, ‘Oh, I recognize the app you’re using.’ We’re sending texts, or we're knocking on doors with the same infrastructure, basically.”
Thomas Carney ’25 worked as a field organizer for Congressman Greg Stanton’s re-election campaign in Arizona’s 4th Congressional District. He recruited volunteers to do canvassing and make phone calls. “My favorite part was working with the legislative districts, not just with the top-ticket folks,” says Carney, a politics major from Washington, D.C.
Democratic candidates Stacey Travers and Patty Contreras, running in state Legislative District 12, were first-time candidates on the ballot. “It was really helpful to get that connection going early in August and September and then fold in with Mission for Arizona and get more resources and volunteers,” Carney explains. “We really helped them get the word out about them.” Both Travers and Contreras won their races.
In one of the most heated contests in the country, Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake lambasted her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, as “chicken” for refusing to debate her. At a campaign event hosted at Mission for Arizona’s office in October, Hobbs had just been introduced when a cluster of Lake supporters dressed as chickens tried to storm the door.
“They probably spent $20 on these costumes,” says Carney, who was staffing the event alongside Sullivan. “One of our colleagues had to run across the room and hold the door shut while their people were trying to get into this event. I was holding signs in front of the windows to block them.” The episode was “fun,” he adds, “but also a little traumatizing. Afterward we all got food and were pumped up on adrenaline.”
Having gone through eight election cycles now, Campaign Semester has generated a pipeline of former participants who have continued their work at the professional level, fostering meaningful connections and resources for the program to utilize. (Senator Claire McCaskill’s re-election bid in Missouri in 2018 had three generations of Campaign Semester alumni working on the campaign.)
Win or lose, it’s hard to put a price on the Campaign Semester experience—even when the outcome (as with the McCaskill campaign) doesn’t turn out as hoped. As a campaign fellow for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign in Decatur, Ga., Violet Appelsmith ’24 worked as a digital organizer and co-managed a program named Students for Stacey, organizing at high school and college campuses across the state.
“There were some incredible opportunities for meeting people,” says Appelsmith, a politics major from Sacramento. “If I decide to work on another campaign, I will have an incredible network of some great political minds and people whom I can reach out to for that.”
While her Campaign Semester peers ultimately participated in winning campaigns, Appelsmith knows what it’s like to be on the other end of the projected call: Abrams lost to Republican incumbent Brian Kemp with 45.9 percent of the vote, a larger margin of defeat than in her 2018 run.
Appelsmith texted all of her student volunteers after the election, “telling them how much I appreciate all the work they did,” she says. (One of them texted her back and said, “Regardless of the outcome, I’ll always be a Student for Stacey.”)
Two days after the election, when the Abrams team were having their final staff meeting at campaign headquarters, “Everyone was a puddle of tears and kind of a mess,” Appelsmith recalls. “To have put all of that work into something like that and not have it turn out the way you hoped was incredibly difficult.”
That day, Abrams came and spoke to everyone in the office. “She told all of us, ‘Sometimes in life you are holding the gate open and that means that you don’t get to go through it, but that doesn’t mean that you close the gate and you don’t let anyone else through.’ That was one of the most powerful moments from my entire tenure there”—and a Campaign Semester memory that will last a lifetime.
Haley Jones ’22 is a reporter for The Lancaster News in South Carolina. This is her first article for Occidental magazine.
Top photo: Ella Rubin '24, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Ava Wampold '24 at Angie Craig's campaign headquarters.