Like Ralph Northam, Democrats must build locally for Trump-era success

Like Ralph Northam, Democrats must build locally for Trump-era success.

by Guy Cecil, Opinion contributor
Some in our party remain fixated on rehashing the 2016 election. In other corners, there is premature speculation about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. We can’t let that stuff distract us.

Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam celebrates Nov. 7, 2017.
(Photo: Cliff Owen, AP)
Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s victory and the Democrats’ pickup of no fewer than 15 seats in Virginia’s state assembly shows how our party can regain momentum in the Trump era through down-ballot races.

The challenge now for Democrats is to maintain this focus on state and local elections in the coming months, even as we work to take back the House and Senate.

These days, there is plenty to distract Democratic activists, operatives and donors. Some in our party remain fixated on rehashing the 2016 election. In other corners, there is premature speculation about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Still others are singularly fascinated with calculating the odds of Donald Trump being impeached.

These subjects make for interesting political conversation. But they are no substitute for building our party. Democrats did not just lose the White House in 2016; since 2009, we lost roughly 1,000 legislative seats nationwide. To climb our way back, we can no longer confine the work of persuading and mobilizing voters to once every four years — or even every two years. We need to engage these voters year-round. We need to identify, and invest in, candidates for every level of elected office.

On Tuesday, we saw what’s possible when we commit to competing everywhere. Democrats captured a critical governor’s race in New Jersey, seized the state senate in Washington state, won two special elections in Georgia and took back the mayor’s office in New Hampshire’s largest city.

But no state delivered a more sweeping success for Democrats than Virginia. The results there provide a blueprint for how Democrats can succeed by going local.

The first lesson to draw from Virginia is the importance of candidate recruitment. Too often we concede races by not even fielding a candidate. But the backlash to Donald Trump’s presidency has created a political environment where no Republican-held seat should be seen as safe.

Even before Virginia, no fewer than eight Democrats had flipped seats in special elections across states as diverse as New York, Florida and Oklahoma.

Virginia Democrats applied this lesson by recruiting candidates in 54 of the 66 GOP-held delegate seats. Supporting candidates like these is a smart investment — and not just because of the impact they make in their state capital when they win. Their success builds a bench of Democratic officeholders and creates new ambassadors for the Democratic Party.

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Another takeaway from Virginia is that progressive groups can have a real impact on state and local races when they work together. Priorities USA — a group I chair — engaged in a first-of-its-kind partnership with Planned Parenthood, NextGen America, the League of Conservation Voters and others to run a $2.8 million digital ad campaign, reaching over 1.5 million voters. We shared targeting data and coordinated on the creative and sequencing of our advertising.

Since Trump’s election, new organizations have joined existing groups and are impressively harnessing activist enthusiasm. Virginia has shown how progressive groups can maximize our impact by working together. Virginia also shows the importance of investing online. Last cycle, Republicans outpaced Democrats by committing bigger slices of their ad budgets to digital communication. This is a strategic error. More and more voters — especially millennials who are critical for us to turn out — consume their information online. Especially in local races, where a little spending can go a long way, digital advertising can be a difference-maker in campaigns.

Local races also provide a useful venue to hone best practices. In September, Priorities USA coordinated digital advertising on behalf of Florida Democrat Annette Taddeo in her race to fill an open state senate seat. After Taddeo won, she called Priorities’ digital work pivotal to her win. Along the way, we performed tests to measure which types of GOTV messaging are more likely to motivate lower-propensity voters.

Priorities will continue this work in 2018 by investing $50 million in digital advertising in races across the country.

Several national surveys show voters prefer Democratic candidates for Congress by more than 10 points, the largest margin since 2006. But taking back the House is not guaranteed, and it would be shortsighted to make that our only goal. In fact, it is made even tougher because the districts are right-leaning by design due to gerrymandering that Republican-controlled statehouses carried out after the 2010 census.

The only remedy to that is to win back more state legislatures and governor’s offices in 2018. That’s just another incentive for Democrats to remain committed to state and local contests.

As Virginia shows, going local is the right way to begin rebuilding our party.

Guy Cecil is chairman of Priorities USA.

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