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What Virginia Taught Democrats About Winning Back the States

Last week's election was unique in some ways but provided a blueprint for success in next year's midterms.


No one was more elated about the Democrats’ stunning victories in Virginia last week than Carolyn Fiddler. The political editor at Daily Kos, a progressive blog community, she grew up in the tiny town of Warsaw in Richmond County and got her first taste of politics as a college intern for the state House Democratic Caucus. Fiddler has served as the state party’s deputy finance director and communications chief, though never under ideal circumstances. For all the talk of Virginia’s increasingly blue hue, Republicans have controlled the House of Delegates for her entire political career.

Last Tuesday may have changed all that. A Democratic wave washed over Old Dominion and wrested at least 15 House seats away from the GOP, throwing control of the chamber into question; several races are under recount, with Democrats just one seat away from a 50-50 split of the chamber. Fiddler, who predicted her party would flip no more than eight seats, told me she was “overcome with abject joy” as the results rolled in. Political analysts Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, wrote at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, “The Democratic gains in the Virginia House of Delegates were nothing short of extraordinary. Even the most bullish Democrats would have been thrilled with a low double-digit gain.”

These victories didn’t come in a vacuum. Washington state Democrats won a key state Senate race to capture control of the entire legislature, and the party picked up a number of seats across the country earlier this year. Now, Democrats are looking to next year’s midterm elections, when state legislative races and congressional elections coincide. After neglecting the states under President Barack Obama, the party controls just 31 of the nation’s 99 legislative bodies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “But faced with a historically low level of control of state legislatures, and with congressional redistricting in 2020 at stake, the party’s leaders, well-heeled contributors, and strategists are vowing to mount a never-before-seen effort to win these state-level battles,” Roll Call reported in January.

While Virginia has given Democrats hope for 2018, replicating its success across the country will require the party to overcome the following challenges—none of which is insurmountable.

Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, argued in an interview last month that “the first wall of resistance against Trump is in the states.” Acknowledging Democratic ineptitude in state politics through the Obama years, Post told Soledad O’Brien, “We thought that if we invested in the presidency, if we spent more money on paid communications, all of that would simply trickle down and legislative candidates would get elected. The reality is all of these candidates need to run their own campaigns with shoe leather, smart digital engagement, and better funding to get their own messages out. They can’t just run under the banner of the national presidential campaign, which I think was a longtime assumption.”

Post’s group made an effort this year to up its game. According to Yahoo News, “The DLCC has raised a record $10 million since President Trump was elected—a more than 450 percent increase from 2016. It says it has knocked on more than a million doors to turn out voters for the Virginia House of Delegates contests, more than doubling last year’s efforts in the state.” Yet as the saying goes, victory has a hundred fathers, and institutional Democratic groups in Virginia received help from a host of outside players. The list includes Run for Something, MoveOn, Future Now, Flippable, Forward Majority, Indivisible, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, Let America Vote, and Sister District.

Several groups say they made a difference in second-tier races where the party didn’t invest as much money—a model that can be scaled nationwide. Where the party had a set amount of resources and was focused on a set amount of districts, it was definitely an integral part of our strategy to come in with the resources we had and the strategy we had to focus on another slew of districts,” said Forward Majority spokesman Ben Wexler-Waite.The races we played in, despite the fact that they were in a more blue state, were seen as particularly unwinnable.” Forward Majority backed candidates like democratic socialist Lee Carter, who ousted the House majority whip, and experimented with text messaging—an alternative to robocalls that, as Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign showed, can be effective in making an authentic connection with voters. “It enables you to really engage in a back and forth with the voter in a manageable way,” Fiddler said. “I think there’s a lot of potential there.”

Post drew a few specific lessons from the Virginia results. The Democrats’ wins in Loudoun County show the party should target similar suburbs across the country, such as Chester County, Pennsylvania. They should see electoral as well as civic value in diversity after historic wins for transgender and Latina candidates, and they should appreciate the “reverse coattails” effect that quality state legislative campaigns can have. “In districts with highly competitive Delegate races in Virginia, Democratic vote turnout increased by 40 percent,” Run for Something co-founder Ross Morales Rocketto wrote at HuffPost on Tuesday. “Essentially, it means that the folks running for state and local offices were responsible for increasing turnout for statewide candidates like Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.”

The most important takeaway from last week, though, was the most obvious. “Honestly, it may sound a little flippant, but one of the most important things is to just have Democrats on the ballot,” said Steven Rogers, a Saint Louis University political scientist writing a book about state legislative elections. Rogers notes that attitudes about national politics shape state-level races significantly, making the anti-Trump mood a key contributor to Democratic success. “If you asked me to predict how a voter was going to vote, I would ask the voter’s party ID and what they think of the president,” he said. Most voters couldn’t name their state legislators, and they know less about them than their members of Congress.

Still, Democrats and progressive activists insist that campaigns matter, and the Obama era was proof that national electoral success doesn’t automatically trickle down to local races. “It’s not just about riding a wave,” PCCC co-founder Adam Green told me. “It’s about progressives creating and increasing a wave because voters want to turn out for genuinely inspiring candidates.” (The “wave” metaphor proves irresistible. Post: “If you want to ride a wave, you have to have surfers in the ocean.” Fiddler: “The anti-Trump sentiment lifting all boats is a real thing, but if you don’t have any boats to lift you’re out of luck.”) Skelley, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, agrees that Virginia shows “Democrats should try to run someone everywhere.... They didn’t let any of the potentially vulnerable Republicans get a free pass, and a lot of them won where they weren’t supposed to.”

There are ways in which Virginia was particularly well positioned for last week’s wave. The state, for instance, allows coordination between campaigns and outside groups like Forward Majority. “These outside groups didn’t have to operate in the dark in terms of knocking on doors a campaign had already knocked, or dropping a mail piece in an area that campaign had already hit,” Fiddler said. “It basically allowed candidates and campaigns to avoid duplication and maximize resources.” But most states “are far more restrictive in terms of how independent groups can work with state-level campaign committees,” Fiddler added, “and navigating those myriad laws is going to be a challenge for these new groups as they seek to extend their operations beyond Virginia next year.” Post acknowledged this challenge, telling me, “Part of our role is to help groups that have never taken part at the state legislative level before navigate through the campaign finance laws.”

And there’s the matter of finite resources. Only New Jersey and Virginia had statewide legislative elections this year, and the Democratic control of the former was a foregone conclusion. So Democrats poured money and organizers into Virginia. Next year, statewide elections are being held for 87 of the 99 legislative chambers in the country. “One of the biggest challenges of other states next year is you’re not going to be the only show in town the way Virginia was,” Fiddler said. “Next year these groups that helped so much in Virginia are going to have to scale up dramatically and also pick their battles.” But success begets success, and there will be no shortage of enthusiasm from donors or activists next year.