Donald Trump has certainly helped. But Democrats’ massive success in flipping statehouse seats in special elections this past year isn’t happening by accident.
The party’s dominance — it’s flipped 35 seats, and is hoping to make it 36 next week in a Florida House race — is also the result of old-fashioned political organizing. Nuts and bolts steps like funding year-round staff on the ground in the states, designing digital fundraising platforms, training volunteers, screening résumés for campaigns around the country and, of course, collecting huge checks.
At the center of those efforts is the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, mostly forgotten in the 25 years since it was founded as the D.C. hub for state legislative campaigns, but now working to coordinate efforts and partners, and along the way double its spending for the cycle to $35 million in strategic investments.
Realistically, most people working on state senate or assembly campaigns are young and don’t know what they’re doing. Often, it’s their first campaign, and many times, their only campaign. That can be true of the candidates, too, and certainly of the volunteers.
Over the phone and during regular check-in visits in person, the DLCC has been moving in with its experienced staff of operatives to get staffers and elected officials up to speed.
“The thing that’s surprising to them is they’ve known us forever, but now we’re able to show up to the table with a lot more resources,” said Jessica Post, who came on board as the DLCC’s executive director last year as part of an effort to expand the organization in the current environment. “Part of what we’re having to do is orient [local Democratic leaders] to say, ‘Play big, create big competitive maps, we’ll help you fund the infrastructure, and we’ll come in and invest with our partner groups.’”
The burst of voter interest and money in statehouse races and gerrymandering has shocked Democrats, including those working with former Attorney General Eric Holder at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (on whose board Post sits). Planned Parenthood is getting involved, as are the League of Conservation Voters and other groups. The new Forward Majority super PAC has promised to put $100 million into state races. The Democratic National Committee has pitched in with infrastructure and staff in several races.
With the DNC continuing to struggle with its own fundraising, and racing to meet chairman Tom Perez’s promise to increase funding for state parties, the DLCC infrastructure investments have proved particularly important.
Democrats in the states are so deep in the hole that the special election successes can seem more important than they are, argued Republican State Leadership Committee president Matt Walter. He pointed out that 20 of the special elections Democrats won were in districts that Hillary Clinton carried, and Republicans have flipped four special elections themselves in the past year.
“When you are at an all-time high, when you’ve flipped a thousand seats over the past decade, you are so far into your opponent’s turf, they’re just clawing back to neutral in a lot of respects, and attempting to capture districts where if they’d run good candidates with a good vision, they never would have lost them,” Walter said.
Still, the size of the special election swings is what has many Democrats excited.
A Missouri seat that the party flipped last week, like most of the special elections they’ve won since 2017, showed a massive change: Mike Revis won by 3 points in a district Trump carried by 28 points in 2016.
In 2016, there wasn’t even a Democratic candidate for the seat. Same for the three other seats where the Democrats ran but lost in Missouri last week.
The DLCC has made direct cash infusions into some races: $745,000 for an independent expenditure in a Washington state Senate race that gave Democrats the majority in the chamber; $450,000 into the September Florida Senate election that saw a former contestant on “The Apprentice” defeated; and $41,000 into the Wisconsin state Senate election win that Gov. Scott Walker tweeted was a “wake up call Republicans in Wisconsin” ahead of his own race for a third term in the fall.
“For them to be as strong as they are and as organized as they are is critical for us,” said Sharon Nelson, the leader of what became a Democratic majority in the Washington state Senate with the special election win.
For the Florida House races on Tuesday, the DLCC sent $10,000 to the state Democratic Party, and this past week sent an email on behalf of Margaret Good, the candidate they’re most hopeful about. The group also helped facilitated a Joe Biden endorsement for Good that raised $8,000 more for her.
In Pennsylvania — where a court decision throwing out the state’s existing congressional map guarantees it will be an epicenter of the redistricting fight — the DLCC funding has subsidized the salaries for nine finance directors for the Democrats in the state Senate and House. It has made similar investments in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.
In New Hampshire, after flipping four seats last year, the DLCC paid to help keep a campaign structure in place, with a staffer covered through November. In Minnesota, the DLCC put $75,000 into building out the Democratic caucus’ digital fundraising operation, along with money that went to Alaska for candidate recruitment ,and Maine and Michigan for other campaign infrastructure improvements.
The DLCC provides basic campaign infrastructure, from budgeting software to field training guides. In Virginia last fall, as House of Delegates candidates were swamped with volunteers that helped power the wave of wins on Election Day, it was as simple as sending out staff to help direct them.
In August, after Phil Miller won a special election for an Iowa statehouse seat in a district that went to Trump by 21 points but that Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012, the DLCC, in consultation with the local Democratic caucus, persuaded Miller campaign manager Caroline Closson to stay on and wrote a check for $25,000 to underwrite her salary.
Closson is not a veteran operative — she graduated from college at Drake in Des Moines in the spring of 2017, and had run only one statehouse campaign previously. But she’s become the point person for more experienced operatives in Washington who’ve helped guide her through the past six months of recruiting and training more candidates, operatives and volunteers.
“There are just an abundance of candidates in Iowa right now,” Closson said. “I wouldn’t have been able to groom them and train them to knock doors without the DLCC.”
A similar effort is underway in Ohio.
Despite all the chatter about a coming blue wave, the RSLC’s Walter predicted that in November, Republicans will take back several of the seats that have flipped in special elections and perhaps win new seats. Republicans might not win back the Washington state Senate seat they lost, he said, but they might gain in other districts chafing at a state under full Democratic control.
The RSLC is increasing its planned spending to $45 million, up from $37 million last cycle. Walter refused, however, to provide specifics on how they’re spending it, saying only, “An important functionality of what we do is share lessons learned and sound an alarm where people need to hear it.”
The DLCC is organized as a PAC, so beyond watching the state level campaign finance laws for contributions it makes, it faces very few restrictions on money that comes in. In addition to a big jump in online fundraising — in 2015, the DLCC raised $492,000 online, but in 2017 $2.77 million — several $100,000 checks from institutions and trade associations are financing the expansion.
After this coming week’s special elections — two in Minnesota, and one each in Georgia and Oklahoma, in addition to the targeted Florida House seat— there are 33 already announced special elections. (Separately, there’s an effort in Nevada to recall three state senators whose election turned the chamber to the Democrats.)
The most important factor is the blue wave Democrats are counting on to reshape the legislative landscape and the party’s bench of candidates. But a good environment can go only so far — campaigns are critical.
“Part of it is helping them build the sailboat, and putting the sail up when the wind’s blowing the right direction. If the winds are going the right direction and you don’t have a boat or a sail, you can’t go anywhere,” Post said. “At our level of the ballot, campaigns matter a lot more.”
Powered by WPeMatico