Nine special elections, all for state legislative seats, have taken place since Donald Trump was elected president in November. In seven of them, Democrats ran ahead of Hillary Clinton’s performance.
In party circles, those results are raising hopes that Democratic fortunes are poised to surge after six weeks of polarizing policy proposals, angry town halls and White House chaos. But the special elections are also reviving the discussion over a sore subject: the question of whether Clinton was a worse candidate than many Democrats thought.
The nine state legislative elections aren’t exactly a representative sample — they’ve taken place in just four states. They’re not even all Democratic wins — the party won five of the contests, and Republicans captured four. But the common denominator was unusually high Democratic turnout, as well as a spike in Democratic performance over past elections for those seats.
It’s leading some to question whether the party brand is as damaged as some have feared — or whether the Democratic presidential nominee was the problem.
“Our message and our policies are absolutely sound and truthful and will resonate when delivered by credible messengers,” said former Maryland governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley.
O’Malley, who traveled to Iowa and Delaware to campaign for three Democratic candidates in recent special elections, recalled seeing Delaware state Senate candidate Stephanie Hansen’s headquarters packed with hundreds of volunteers at 9 a.m. one day.
“I think we can sometimes overanalyze our loss in the last presidential election,” he said.
Added veteran party strategist Lynda Tran: “There’s no question that when you look at the straight numbers, there are significant challenges facing the Democratic Party next year, and in all likelihood for the years to come. But it’s a significant and shortsighted mistake to assume that because we lost in 2016 we did everything wrong.”
Democrats believe anti-Trump animus is also clearly driving grass-roots enthusiasm. The Trump factor has undoubtedly advanced the cause of those who have insisted the party doesn’t need a gutting and rebuilding. While Democrats traditionally see desultory turnout in off-year elections, for example, voter participation shot up in February’s Delaware state Senate election, which allowed Democrats to keep unified control of the state’s government.
Hansen, who got some campaign help from former vice president and home state hero Joe Biden, won by a comfortable margin of 58 to 41 percent to beat a Republican who had lost the seat by just 2 points in 2014.
In Iowa in December, Democrat Jim Lykam won his state Senate race by 48 points — 31 points better than Clinton’s performance there just the month before. The Democratic candidate running to replace Lykam in the state House won his old seat by 45 points in February — 34 points better than Clinton’s margin. National Democratic leaders cheered further on Tuesday as they took two of three contests in Connecticut, winning a state House and state Senate seat on their way to keeping unified control there.
“In my city of Davenport, we’ve had many groups arrive since the election, organizing on local issues and state and national issues,” said Monica Kurth, the teacher elected to replace Lykam in the Iowa House in January. “People have been pretty laissez-faire for a couple of years, and now it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ The most frequent question I got when I was door-knocking or on the phone was, ‘Are you a Democrat?’ When I said yes, they said, ‘OK, I’ll vote for you.’ They didn’t need to hear anything more.”
Some of the rebound may be attributable to the absence of Clinton atop the ballot: The margins are largely closer to the results in the 2012 presidential election than 2016. Plus, Clinton ran significantly behind Barack Obama’s numbers in all four states where there have been special elections so far.
To Democrats trying to carve the party’s path ahead, that suggests their lot may improve considerably now that they don’t have an unpopular figurehead whose negative ratings may have dragged down other candidates nationwide.
Optimistic partisans digging through the data have even found reason to cheer some of the special election defeats: In one of the Democratic losses, a race for a Connecticut seat held by Republicans for more than a century, the GOP candidate won by 10 percentage points, compared with a 22-point GOP victory margin in an election for the same seat just three months earlier.
In a February Minnesota state House victory, the Republican margin of victory was just 6 points — 23 points lower than Trump’s 61-32 percent margin in the same seat in November.
To many Democrats, the wins are evidence that the party should be reorienting toward local races — rather than undergoing a comprehensive rebuilding — at a time when it has unified control of only six states and holds just 16 governor’s mansions.
For months, many of them have refused to make that case out loud for fear of being called out of touch, but the sentiment is now peeking into the open.
“We had a great candidate who really connected with the voters, and I think that connection is important because it speaks to what Democrats are missing nationally, and in particular during the presidential election,” said Delaware Gov. John Carney, noting the intense anti-Trump enthusiasm obvious at Hansen’s campaign events. “These are the kinds of voters that the Democratic Party nationally needs to be appealing to, and the national party can take a lesson from that.”
The efforts to get Democrats to turn their attention — and money — to local races is already underway, between the launch of a redistricting group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and a new investment from major donors in the State Innovation Exchange group (known as SiX), which works with state legislatures.
“There was a lot of attention put on [the Delaware race] because Joe Biden and a lot of other people got in on it, but what made the difference was the get-out-the-vote operation driven by volunteers getting out there and mobilizing the base. So to me that means there is an energy, people want to get involved, they’re mad,” said SiX executive director Nick Rathod. “The party needs a broad rethinking, but that thinking needs to start locally, and that’s where all of this grass-roots energy is. That’s where there’s a lot of opportunity to make changes.”
Swinging a state legislative seat with an influx of money and manpower is relatively easy compared with swinging a U.S. House or Senate seat, he said.
Because these races are typically so inexpensive and involve persuading and turning out such a small electorate, it might not take a massive expenditure of political capital to set the party on the track toward winning back the local seats it hemorrhaged during the Obama era.
“You lose that top office and people don’t pay attention to other things: We won more seats in the House, we won more seats in the Senate,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a party organizer who worked for the Clinton campaign before serving as the Democratic National Committee’s national field director during the general election.
It’s a mistake, he said just days after a trip to Delaware to campaign for Hansen, to view the party as mired in its deepest hole in a century. “A lot of the concerns that people have in terms of where the party is right now are primarily due to a lack of infrastructure over the last eight years. We’re in 2005 all over again.”
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