WASHINGTON — With sweeping victories Nov. 7 in Virginia, New Jersey, as well as in local races and on left-leaning ballot questions around the country, Democrats are poised to ride a wave through the 2018 elections.
Many commentators and pundits declared these races to be an important measure of how Donald Trump’s presidency is sitting with today’s voters.
The answer was swift, wide-reaching and decisive. Perhaps the most telling results were the massive number of legislative seats picked up by Democrats in Virginia.
Having held a majority since the election of 1999 and sporting a 66-34 margin, Republicans are now counting on a handful of recounts to retain control of the House of Delegates.
It would seem that by simply running against Trump, Democrats are likely to make major gains. While mid-terms are notoriously unkind to a first term president’s party and Trump is particularly unpopular, he cannot seem to stay off Twitter or get out of the way of his own agenda. He is his own worst enemy.
There’s a less positive side, though, to the long term impact that Democrats could have. Humorist Will Rogers quipped, “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat,” and it has been a tough stretch for the Democratic Party as an organization.
Despite the optimism generated by this November’s victories, massive losses at the state and local level have depleted the farm team, demoralized the base and eroded the ability to compete.
Organizing infrastructure has been replaced with an unhealthy reliance on slick ads, social media campaigns and mobilizing an ever disconnected base. The once strong connection to local needs has largely been lost in the mix.
Here’s where a significant lesson could be learned. In the race for Virginia House District 13, a classic polarized battle could easily have emerged.
The Republican incumbent had once lauded himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and sported a legislative record straight out of a wedge politics playbook. His Democratic challenger was a progressive transgender woman with experience in the media.
What happened harkens back to the line, most associated with former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local.”
Despite being a direct target of one of incumbent Republican Bob Marshall’s social crusades to restrict bathroom usage by transgender individuals, Democrat Danica Roem ran her campaign from start to finish almost exclusively on local issues: traffic, jobs, schools and wages.
Yes, she did mention and discuss equality, but in a broader sense even when a narrow path seemed so obvious.
“Fix Route 28” could have been all you needed to know about Danica’s platform in a growing commuter community clogged for a decade by its main roadway and with little to no help from the area’s sitting representative in the state house.
National advocacy groups on both sides weighed in with money and help. The media, during and after, focused on the fact that Danica would be one of the first openly transgender people elected to office.
But that was never what Danica focused on. Even after her election as the national media came calling, Danica kept talking about traffic, jobs and schools and refused to criticize her opponent.
The campaign reportedly knocked on 75,000 doors in multiple passes through a district with approximately 55,000 voters. They pled the case for change and connecting with voters on these important local issues.
This is just one pullout story but the lesson it could provide Democrats nationwide is to connect with people face to face about issues they care about. Then Democrats may turn a wave into a tsunami not just in 2018 but beyond.
Don Kusler, a native of Texas, is national director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the nation’s oldest progressive advocacy organization. Readers may write him at ADA, Suite 300 1629 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20006.