I THINK I CAN, I THINK I CAN
The ALS Activist Who Thinks He Can Flip a Deep Red Arizona District
Ady Barkan made a name for himself with viral video confrontations. Now he’s getting really political.
Democratic outside groups have largely held their fire ahead of Tuesday’s special election in the deep-red 8th congressional in Arizona.
But as many have chosen to avoid the fray, one man has decided to step into it, with hopes that pulling off an electoral miracle could refocus the national conversation on health care policy.
Ady Barkan is quickly becoming one of the more publicly-known health care advocates in the country. Diagnosed with ALS over a year ago, he became a fixture in the halls of Congress, pleading with lawmakers to not axe Obamacare. He no longer is on the Hill. But he is still involved politically. His organization is investing in congressional races and Barkan himself is directly engaging candidates and lawmakers on the need to protect health care rights.
A video of him confronting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) about the repeal of the individual mandate in the GOP tax bill became a viral sensation last December. And last week, Barkan directly challenged a lawmaker once again, this time approaching Republican state senator Debbie Lesko, who is running to replace former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) in the special.
In a brief video posted to his Twitter account, Barkan asked Lesko about an article from The Washington Post in which House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said last year that Republicans were going to be looking at curtailing entitlement spending. Lesko challenged the premise of the article, though promised that she would read it in full when it was offered to her.
That wasn’t enough to change Barkan’s support for the Democrat in the race, Hiral Tipirneni. Though, to be fair, he wasn’t exactly approaching Lesko with the possibility that his endorsement could be won. Barkan is not just a viral video creator. He’s an electoral activist. And he has built a team around him, which recently made a $100,000 investment in to the Arizona race.
It’s an odd choice, because few think that Lesko will lose. President Trump won the district by 21 points in the 2016 presidential election and national Republicans have spent about $1 million collectively on the contest. Meanwhile, Democrats have been mostly content with allowing the Arizona Democratic Party to assist Tipirneni’s campaign directly. The Democratic National Committee, according to a source familiar, awarded a $75,000 grant to the state party as part of a total investment of over $175,000 through online fundraising, digital ads, texting and staff on the ground and through infrastructure investments into the party to support its efforts to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not spent money on television on her behalf.
But where others see a lost cause, Barkan sees an opportunity.
“She’s a doctor and she’s running on a really robust progressive vision of Medicare buy in for all,” Barkan said in an interview, explaining his support. “I’m excited about her and believe it’s a crucial referendum on politics of healthcare in America which many people believe is the top issue for voters.”
Last week, Barkan and a host of progressive activists announced the launch of the Be a Hero initiative, created in part by the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a group that has consistently protested efforts at health care repeal and the GOP tax plan.
Along with their launch, organizers put out a heart-tugging video of Barkan talking about his struggle with ALS over the past year and addressing his young son Carl. The stated purpose of the group is to galvanize support for progressive candidates in the midterm elections. But those close to Barkan saw an opportunity to first test his message in Arizona before November comes.
On Thursday, the progressive group Working Families Party announced that they’d be teaming up with Barkan to front the $100,000 for the ad campaign, which featured some of the previously mentioned Barkan footage and an appeal from Barkan to vote for Tipirneni. The spot will run through election day.
“We think Ady's story is particularly powerful, and this special election is an opportunity to test drive it before November, and learn if it can help move the dial,” Joe Dinkin, communications director for WFP told The Daily Beast. “If this race in a Republican district shows up as even close, I think we'll know that Ady's story and stories like his are powerful electoral tools to show the human impact of Trump and the Republican congress' greed.”
Barkan also has his eyes on what comes after Arizona. His Be a Hero campaign will continue raising money and attempting to get low propensity Democrats to the polls in the midterm elections.
All the while, Barkan is realistic about his future and his personal struggle with ALS.
“I’m trying to make lemonade,” said Barkan, who noted that his political advocacy began when he worked on Rep. Adam Schiff’s (D-CA) campaign when he was a sophomore in high school. “I’d obviously much rather be doing the advocacy I was doing in 2015 and ‘16 before I got sick but [you] don’t always get to choose the battles that you fight and you got to fight as best you can with the cards that you’ve been dealt.”
— This article has been updated to reflect new totals in money spent on the race by the DNC.