Barry McNamara  |  Published February 17, 2021

Tales from the Campaign Trail

Six young Monmouth College alumni tell stories from the 2020 election trail.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A half-dozen recent Monmouth College alumni had front-row seats to the craziness of the past election season, and some of them even found themselves in harm’s way as historic events unfolded.

The six graduates took turns sharing their stories Monday during a Zoom event organized by the College’s political science department.

D.C. RIOT: Josh Perschall '19 was on Capitol Hill when the Jan. 6 insurrection occurred. D.C. RIOT: Josh Perschall '19 was on Capitol Hill when the Jan. 6 insurrection occurred.No one had a scarier time than Josh Perschall ’19, who was part of the team that helped Randy Feenstra defeat incumbent Steve King in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. Perschall is now part of Feenstra’s staff in Washington, D.C. It was only his fourth day on the job when the Capitol Hill insurrection occurred on Jan. 6.

“It was an absolutely horrible event,” said Perschall, who was in the Longworth Building, next door to the Cannon Building, where a more serious breach occurred. “I’d only lived in Washington for a week. It was very surreal. I was a little bit in fear for our safety, but there wasn’t any commotion on our floor. … We were holed up for six hours. We didn’t get to go home until the National Guard showed up.”

Alex Altamirano ’19 also recalled some tense moments going door-to-door in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in Jacob Blake’s neighborhood. On Aug. 23, 2020, Blake was shot seven times by Kenosha police, an event that sparked outrage across the nation.

“The struggles with the new reporting app the Democratic Party developed was one of the first signs that 2020 was going awry. If only we knew then that the whole year was going to go awry.” Libby Meyer

“I wouldn’t say it was fear, but I was at times concerned because the tension was just so thick in Kenosha,” he said. “There was definitely animosity there. There was definitely tension there.”

In the end, Altamirano and his co-workers were not able to tip Kenosha County’s vote in the Democrats’ favor.

“Unfortunately, my effort in the county didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but that’s just the game we play.”

Iowa and Georgia

It was an unusual year in politics and in the world, and Libby Meyer ’15, who writes for the online site Iowa Starting Line, said maybe we should have seen that coming after the struggles by Iowa Democrats to provide timely results of the February caucus.

“Pete Buttigieg won by a hair, but The Associated Press actually never declared a winner,” said Meyer. “The struggles with the new reporting app the Democratic Party developed was one of the first signs that 2020 was going awry. If only we knew then that the whole year was going to go awry.”

Iowa had another instance of a candidate winning by a hair, as Mariannette Miller-Meeks edged Rita Hart by just six votes out of nearly 400,000 votes cast in the 2nd Congressional District, the narrowest margin of victory in a U.S. House race since 1984.

“Iowa would still be a Democratic state, and we’d be celebrating Rep. Rita Hart,” said Steve Oaks ’16, who said he regretted the strategy of pulling back from door-to-door campaigning during the pandemic. “But we wanted to be above it all. We wanted to be the safe campaign.”

Tony Salgado ’20 worked a close campaign in Georgia, where two special Senate run-off elections were held Jan. 5, with the balance of power in the U.S. Senate at stake. He was stationed in Atlanta after working in Omaha during the run-up to the presidential election.

“It didn’t feel Midwestern-y at all,” he said of Georgia. “I felt a little more intimidated there. A lot of the Republicans I spoke to were dissatisfied. They didn’t feel a push to get out and vote. I saw a spike in voter fatigue. I firmly believe Trump questioning the results of the election hurt the Republicans’ chances there.”

Lessons learned

“This is a celebration of our students’ achievements,” said political science faculty member Robin Johnson while introducing the event. “Monmouth College graduates can go out and work on anybody’s campaign. We’re very proud of you and excited for the success you’ve all had in your career.”

“The only reason I got into campaigning was because I took your class – that got the ball rolling for me,” Alex Cruz ’20 told Johnson near the end of the Zoom session. Cruz worked for the Progressive Turnout Project, primarily contacting inconsistent Democratic voters.

Meyer cited a key element she received from the late political science professor Ira Smolensky and from former faculty member Annika Hagley.

“The confidence they gave me in myself – that I could do big things and that my opinion was valued,” she said.

Salgado’s takeaway from the 2020 election was that more subjectivity is needed.

“The only way to get better is to take away the reality TV part of politics – worrying less about ratings and more about subjectivity,” he said.

Altamirano spoke to that sentiment, and also about learning to take his lumps and to keep moving forward.

“Yard signs don’t vote, and nobody wants to talk to you on the telephone.” Steve Oaks

“Josh and I don’t usually agree, but it doesn’t influence what I think of him as a person. We agree to disagree. … As for campaigning itself, you’ve got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You’ve got to learn to take the punches and roll with them.”

Said Salgado: “Be empathetic to people, be patient. Knocking on doors is truly like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

But, as Oaks said, being face-to-face sure beats a phone call – one of two rules-of-thumb he said applies whether the subject is the wild 2020 election, or one from previous years: “Yard signs don’t vote, and nobody wants to talk to you on the telephone.”

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