Democrats are running a staggering number of candidates in state-level offices this year, especially in conservative areas the party once wrote off.
It’s a testament to the massive outpouring of grassroots energy spurred by the Trump era.
In Texas, Democrats are contesting 14 of 15 state Senate seats up this year, as well as 133 of 150 state House seats—an almost 50 percent boost from 2016. For the first time in years, almost all of the 170 state legislative races in North Carolina will feature both a Republican and Democratic candidate. Pennsylvania Democrats have filed to get on the ballot in 180 of the state House’s 203 districts—the most they’ve engaged in since 2000.
A string of Democratic successes in special election races, some in districts President Trump resoundingly won, has upended expectations of which of those seats are in play. Conor Lamb eked out a victory in a deep-red pocket of Pennsylvania, while Doug Jones became the first Democrat in a quarter century to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate.
Rather than focusing just on flippable seats or purple states, Democrats, particularly on the state legislative level, are giving it a go pretty much everywhere.
The goal of this “flood-the-zone” approach isn’t just to win midterm races or regain control of the redistricting process, grassroots progressive organizations tell TPM. It is instead a concerted effort to channel the base’s current enthusiasm into local politics—a long overdue effort to get the Democratic Party engaged on the ground looking towards 2020 and beyond.
“It’s about rebuilding the Democratic bench from the ground up,” Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, told TPM. “It isn’t about a short term win. We don’t expect to take back the Oklahoma state senate in a year, or flip the Kansas state legislature. What we do hope is to make ground and take steps forward.”
Litman suggested that a Democratic candidate now running in those states could run for Congress or governor a few years down the line.
“We don’t get there unless we invest in it now,” she said. “It’s a long game we have to play with that in mind, and measure our success accordingly.”
While Trump’s election may have been the wellspring for the current torrent of progressive energy, plenty of Democratic candidates are running hyper-local campaigns focused on what they describe as extreme policies pushed by Republicans in their state governments.
“Forced fetal funeral bills, ‘bathroom bills,’ ‘arm-your-teacher’ bills, bills that ban public schools from teaching kids about climate change — things just way, way beyond the mainstream,” said Forward Majority communications director Ben Wexler-Waite by way of example.
In Kansas, it’s the failed tax cut experiment pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R). In Oklahoma, it’s the four-day school week enacted to allow economically struggling teachers to pursue second jobs.
In the surprising Virginia legislative elections last November, in which Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates, it got even more local than that.
“Danica Roem ran on fixing Route 28!” said Nicole Hobbs, co-founder of Every District, a group focused on investing in Democrats at the state legislative level. “That resonates with voters.”
Roem, the first openly transgender person elected in any U.S. state legislature, became the face of the kind of progressive wins possible in this climate after she defeated Republican incumbent Bob Marshall. Marshall — who sponsored one of the so-called “bathroom bills” aimed at forcing transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth gender — had held his seat for 25 years.
Forward Majority is focused on targeting these sorts of long-sitting state-level incumbents who have faced few or no real challengers, said Wexler-Waite. To account for the decline of local media, the super PAC plans to conduct opposition research and run targeted ad campaigns highlighting the voting records and gaffes of particularly out-there candidates.
“There has just been no one holding them accountable in any way,” he said.
This strategy is easier in states like Virginia, which have lax campaign finance laws. While the institutional Democratic party concentrated on the most winnable, flippable seats, outside groups flooded the state with advertising, volunteers, and money, providing crucial support for candidates in lower-profile races. Other states have stricter regulations that make it harder for outside groups to have as much influence.
That’s deterred some national Democratic groups from getting involved in local elections, according to Run for Something’s Litman. Republicans, meanwhile, were “willing to make the investment in it and figure it out anyway,” she said. “They’ve bought into local races being important for a lot longer than we have.”
Groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) have spent well over a decade cultivating candidates for local races. Though the RSLC is responding to the newfound energy and coordination on the Democratic side by channeling tens of millions more dollars into local races, the group says they’re not fazed by the sheer quantity of Democrats running this year.
“Flipping nearly 1,000 seats in the past decade for Republicans, on map lines largely drawn by Democrats, took having the right candidate with the right message and the right policies,” RSLC spokesman David James told TPM in an email. “During that same time period, liberals touted the quantity of candidates they had filed, which have usually been more than Republicans, with far fewer actual victories.”
Even if Democrats can pull off a blue wave in 2018, the GOP margins are so large in so many states — and districts are currently so gerrymandered in their favor — that Republicans are likely to retain control of the majority of state legislatures.
Progressive groups say they’re well aware of the constraints they’re up against. But they say any victories are steps in the right direction, and those are only possible if candidates are actually registered.
“I have really bought into the idea that if we don’t run, we can’t win,” Lisa Goodgame, board president at Indivisible Austin, told TPM.
Pointing to the dozens of contested races in play in Texas, Goodgame added: “It’s never too late. And thank God it’s happening now.”