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In Socially Conservative North Dakota, a Gay Candidate Using the Web to Win

BY Cody Lyon | Friday, August 3 2012

Joshua Boschee. Photo: Joshua Boschee for District 44

Joshua Boschee is an openly gay candidate for public office in a socially conservative state, but observers say he's got a real shot at becoming one of Fargo, North Dakota's next representatives in the state legislature.

Boschee's home state of North Dakota has, according to one study, the lowest proportion of same-sex couples in the United States. It's a conservative state, although "conservative" means something different in the only state in the Union with a state-owned bank and a state-owned grain mill and elevator.

The 30-year-old activist and assistant director of leadership and organizations at Minnesota State University is a special case in part because he and his campaign manager say social media is offering him a competitive edge. People he might not otherwise know how to find in a city like Fargo, such as people who respond to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues but aren't already a part of LGBT-focused communities there, he can find on Facebook instead. And when he builds his constituency anywhere, he says, he immediately sees those persuadable voters following up to find out more about him online.

Boschee is not a social media newbie. He told techPresident that he and other activists learned the power of online organizing when they were working in 2009 to pass legislation in North Dakota to amend the North Dakota Human Rights Act and Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

And the nature of the district he wants to represent lends itself to campaigning online — at least, that's the hope.

"Josh is running in a district that houses one of North Dakota's largest universities," said Andrew J. Young, Boschee's new media manager.

Young, who is 23, said millenials like him often don't consider something to really exist if it doesn't also exist on the Internet.

"So, from my perspective, Josh doesn't exist to many of his voters unless he's on Facebook or voters can watch a video of him on YouTube," he said.

The web allows for more than that, of course. Boschee said the campaign plans to reach out to LGBT voters in Fargo through Facebook with ads based on a variety of demographics and key phrases.

"I could target people that work [at] or attend North Dakota State University and/or are LGBT in hopes of reaching people in the district that I may not know of, or perhaps they are not aware of me," Boschee said.

Old-school campaigning has new-school results, too, Boschee said.

He recently went to visit several sorority and fraternity houses in the course of old-fashioned door-knocking, only to find a number of students "like" his Facebook page — creating the opportunity for him to follow up with them online.

Through Boschee's political Facebook page, he's been able to download contact information for 3,100 of his nearly 3,800 contacts — all of which are now in a spreadsheet that could become the core of an email marketing campaign or new voter outreach.

"If they're tracking me, I'm also tracking them," he said. "And I'm using that information to eventually reach out to them further by phone or email."

Online tips and tricks are a growing part of the trainings that many outside groups host in hopes of raising the odds for candidates that fit their ideological mold. Boschee went through one such training with the Victory Fund, an organization dedicated to electing LGBT candidates regardless of partisan affiliation.

At a recent three-and-a-half-day training in Minneapolis, Minn., 36 candidates from across the country ran through topics ranging from online tools like the ones Boschee uses to how to raise money and manage a volunteer-driven ground game. The Victory Fund also throws money behind the candidates it endorses — 129 candidates so far this year, including Boschee, and a likely 170 before election day — as a show of support.

"We integrate websites, social media and online advertising into all the different sessions," said Joe Fuld, the lead trainer for the fund and founder of a campaign and advocacy consulting and management firm called the Campaign Workshop.

Victory Fund is paying more attention to online organizing because its staff have seen how outsider candidates, especially in traditionally conservative districts with little attention from the opposition, can use the Internet to win where the barrier to entry might have otherwise been too high to compete.

Back in November 2008, Nick Shalosky, then 21 and in college, was volunteering for openly lesbian South Carolina Democrat Linda Ketner's congressional bid. He was also about to write a large research paper, "Internet Technology and Local Political Campaigns," for a class at the College of Charleston. Shalosky, also openly gay, had no idea he would be the star of his own paper.

Two weeks before election day, Shalosky went to vote early and saw no one had filed as a candidate for his local school board seat, District 20 in Charleston. Shalosky decided to write in his own name. Then, testing the organizing power of Facebook, he set up an event page for an impromptu write-in campaign and invited everyone he knew to join. He told no one face to face, he said, although he did follow up to make sure people knew how the correct spelling of his name.

The mood at Ketner's headquarters on election night was dimmed by her narrow defeat, but Shalosky managed to pull together 22 write-in votes to win that school board seat. It may have been a modest title, but Shalosky's election to the school board made him the first openly gay elected official in South Carolina. He was also the most efficient winner that night — Ketner had spent $2 million on her campaign while Shalosky hadn't spent a dime.

In the course of his term on the board, Shalosky has become its chairman. A law student, Shalosky doesn't plan on pursuing politics now — but he's learned lessons he says he will put to use when he returns to the field later.

The Internet also fueled Victory Fund trainee Gregory Cendana, who told techPresident he hadn't planned to stand for an election but left a 2011 training in Houston inspired to work. Cendana, 26, lives in Washington, D.C. and is executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO and APALA education fund. About a month out from the March 3 vote for D.C. District One delegates to the National Democratic Convention, Cendana decided to throw his hat in the ring alongside Marion Barry, D.C.'s "mayor for life," for one of the spots. Barry received one of the nods to go to Charlotte this year for the DNC as well, but Cendana outpolled him, Washington City Paper notes, by nearly 50 votes. A recent Washington Post poll found that Barry, who now sits on the City Council, is the District's most popular currently serving official.

Cendana ran a modern organizing campaign. He used door-knocking and built a coalition of labor and LGBT group support as well as a Facebook page, Facebook ads and constant attempts to connect on Twitter — the kind of competitive game Boschee is bringing in North Dakota. The Internet plays host to a second field and fundraising campaign; it can't be the only medium for a candidate who really wants to win, unless they're hoping for a Shalosky-like victory at the margins of political interest.

But in conversations with techPresident over this election year, insurgent candidates who used the Internet to scale up a campaign that otherwise wouldn't have been credible have said again and again that it just might mean the difference in a race where enough voters are online. Lori Compas in Wisconsin, for instance, attributed her loss to State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald in part to an influx of financial and other support for Fitzgerald from his party and from outside groups, but also to an electorate that was older, rural, and, in her estimation, probably not online. This neutralized any advantages she might have gained on the Internet, she told techPresident after the recall elections in her state.

Boschee, on the other hand, is in a young, tech-savvy district, and he's viewed as a credible candidate.

Chad Nodland, editor of North Dakota political blog NorthDecoder, called him "smart" and "strong."

"Boschee is an eloquent, hard-working, locally active, creative, no-nonsense leader," he said. "You hear about people who grab people’s attention when they walk into a room, Josh is one of those people."

To win, Boschee must be one of the top two vote-getters in a four-way race he shares with another Democrat, writer and editor Bob Jansen; and the two incumbents, Donald Clark and Blair Thoreson, both Republicans. Barack Obama carried the county that encompasses Fargo in 2008, and while it's been a long four years for Democrats, only a three-point spread separated all four candidates in the last District 44 election — and it's been a long four years, one might argue, for any incumbent.

So Boschee seems ready to give a statehouse race a legitimate shot, and to be the most tech-savvy candidate in his campaign. (One of the two incumbents doesn't appear to have a campaign website.) If the role of social media in statehouse campaigns is still something to test in 2012, his will be a prime race to watch for an answer.

Cody Lyon is a techPresident contributing writer.