Democrats ris­ing? Early state­house wins test new faces

Financial Chronicle - - AROUND THE GLOBE - LETITIA STEIN

DEMOCRATS des­per­ate to re­build after los­ing the White House last year have scored a string of elec­tion vic­to­ries for state­house seats, test­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of can­di­dates and ac­tivists ea­ger to re­sist Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s con­ser­va­tive agenda.

From New Hamp­shire to Ok­la­homa, Democrats have flipped eight Repub­li­can-held seats in spe­cial leg­isla­tive elec­tions, hav­ing spent mil­lions of dol­lars on low-turnout con­tests mostly be­ing fought over lo­cal is­sues. The wins show- case how De­moc- rats want to fight back after los­ing to Trump and hit­ting his­toric lows in state­houses.

But the party faces chal­lenges car­ry­ing this mo­men­tum into the 2018 midterm elec­tions when thou­sands of seats are at stake, in­ter­views with nearly two dozen Demo­cratic lead­ers, cam­paigns and other po­lit­i­cal ex­perts show.

“Can we re­cruit enough ca­pa­ble can­di­dates, and can we run enough mod­ern races?” asked Si­mon Rosenberg, a Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal strate­gist. He said the party must test its fu­ture lead­ers in real time. “Are they ready? The an­swer is: We don’t know.”

In Novem­ber, Democrats will get an early read.

One crit­i­cal test is in Wash­ing­ton state, where first-time can­di­date Manka Dhin­gra is run­ning for an up-for-grabs se­nate seat in Seat­tle’s sub­urbs. A vic­tory on Novem­ber 7 would give Democrats full con­trol of the state.

A pros­e­cu­tor and school par­ent vol­un­teer, Dhin­gra is a Sikh Indian Amer­i­can whose po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing be­gan with busi­ness­man Trump’s sur­prise elec­tion vic­tory over ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cian Hil­lary Clin­ton. Still, Dhin­gra steers clear of men­tion­ing the pres­i­dent in her pitch to swing vot­ers.

“The Trump re­ac­tion, the way it works is by in­vig­o­rat­ing vol­un­teers,” Dhin­gra said. “There are a lot of peo­ple, like my­self, who de­cided we can­not be by­standers.”

Nearly 2,000 vol­un­teers have signed up through her cam­paign web­site alone, ev­i­dence of what the party calls un­prece­dented in­ter­est in leg­isla­tive con­tests.

An Au­gust pri­mary, where Dhin­gra fin­ished 10 points ahead of her Repub­li­can com­peti­tor, had a rel­a­tively ro­bust turnout, in­clud­ing nearly 6,000 vot­ers who nor­mally skip pri­maries.

Out­side of Wash­ing­ton state, how­ever, a few Demo­cratic wins will do lit­tle to change the po­lit­i­cal map go­ing into the 2018 midterm elec­tions.

Repub­li­cans con­trol 26 state gov­ern­ments and twothirds of leg­isla­tive cham­bers. Democrats hem­or­rhaged power at the state level dur­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s eight years in of­fice with their at­ten­tion on na­tional elec­tions.

Now Democrats see the states as crit­i­cal for re­build­ing, and an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance leg­is­la­tion push­ing back against Trump’s agenda of gut­ting Demo­cratic health care re­forms and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions and crack­ing down on im­mi­gra­tion.

VOTER OUT­REACH

The party plans to re­cruit hun­dreds of thou­sands of vol­un­teers to con­tact more than 30 mil­lion vot­ers dou­ble their out­reach in state­house con­tests in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cy­cle.

“Be­cause of the grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton, peo­ple are turn­ing to state­houses for se­cu­rity from Don­ald Trump,” said Jes­sica Post, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic Leg­isla­tive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

But the party’s many in­ex­pe­ri­enced can­di­dates must beat bat­tle-tested in­cum­bents in elec­tions next year with greater voter turnout.

“If the Democrats have every bit of mo­men­tum and the wildest day they could think of, they may take us from su­per ma­jori­ties to ma­jori­ties,” said David Avella, chairman of the Repub­li­can group GOPAC. “But we will still have ma­jori­ties.”

Democrats have flipped leg­isla­tive seats in Florida, Ok­la­homa, New Hamp­shire and New York in 2017. Repub­li­cans picked up an un­con­tested seat in Louisiana.

In Ok­la­homa, where Trump won 65 per­cent of the vote in the 2016 gen­eral elec­tion, the Democrats flipped three seats in dis­tricts he car­ried. Can­di­dates dou­bled down on lo­cal is­sues, such as a bud­get cri­sis forc­ing four-day school weeks.

They had a chance to “rep­re­sent them­selves as real peo­ple that weren’t ac­tu­ally at­tached to Nancy Pelosi, or Hil­lary Clin­ton, or Barack Obama,” said Anna Langth­orn, Ok­la­homa Demo­cratic Party chair­woman.

Some of the spe­cial elec­tions suc­cess re­flects startup pro­gres­sive groups ral­ly­ing vot­ers. But they have yet to fig­ure out how to ex­pand their scope for 2018.

Chris Walsh, a co­founder of Flip­pable, which is work­ing to win back state gov­ern­ments, went to Florida last month to help Demo­crat An­nette Tad­deo beat a Repub­li­can for­mer leg­is­la­tor who once com­peted on Trump’s re­al­ity TV show, “The Ap­pren­tice.”

“There is a lot of knowl­edge out there that is siloed,” Walsh said, adding the party could help by shar­ing information such as district vot­ing data with new groups.

This year’s most re­veal­ing con­tests will come in a statewide elec­tion in Vir­ginia, where Democrats face a long-shot bid in Novem­ber to pick up 17 seats and take back the House of Del­e­gates.

In a show of en­thu­si­asm to re­build, the party is field­ing a ticket that is more than 50 per­cent larger than two years ago. Yet fewer than one in four of the mostly women vy­ing for Repub­li­can-held seats have raised more money than their com­peti­tors, Vir­ginia Public Ac­cess Project data showed.

Repub­li­cans are also ramp­ing up in de­fense. They an­tic­i­pate state con­tests will be cen­tral to Demo­cratic ef­forts in 2018, given their longer odds of re­claim­ing the Repub­li­can­con­trolled U.S. Congress.

“The Democrats are try­ing to probe for the weak­est link, and they are look­ing for that at the state level,” said Matt Wal­ter, pres­i­dent of the Repub­li­can State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee. “It is our job to make sure that doesn’t hap­pen.”

From New Hamp­shire to Ok­la­homa, Democrats have flipped eight Repub­li­can-held seats in spe­cial leg- isla­tive elec­tions

Demo­crat Linda Sanchez says it’s time for House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi and other vet­eran lead­ers to make way for a new gen­er­a­tion of Demo­cratic lead­ers

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