After decades of getting out-organized and outspent in battles to control state legislatures, Democratic strategists have woken up to the importance of defending against Republican gains at the grass roots.
The anger and fear provoked by the advent of President Trump have led to explosive growth for progressive advocacy groups determined to oppose the president’s agenda and, crucially, to elect Democrats to local office — groups like Indivisible, Run for Something, Emerge America and Color of Change.
The number of Democratic candidates filing for office at all levels of government has surged; the trickle of money into liberal grass-roots programs has become a flood; and turnout in post-2016 Democratic primaries has reached record levels.
Until this year, liberals and Democrats have been notoriously neglectful about building local organizations to back candidates for school boards, City Councils and state legislatures. And in fact the differing levels of participation by the right and the left remain striking. The electoral effects have been stark.
In 2009, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, there were 4,082 Democrats serving in state legislatures and 3,223 Republicans. By 2016, the numbers had reversed: 3,135 Democrats and 4,177 Republicans.
In 2009, Democrats controlled both the state senate and house in 27 states, the Republicans 14. After the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled both branches of the legislatures in 32 states to 14 for the Democrats.
The importance of these trends cannot be overstated. State legislatures not only control redistricting in most states — a key to determining which party will control the House after the 2020 census — but also serve as a training ground where politicians learn the ropes of winning elections and governing. In this respect, state legislatures are a key source of new talent.
Emerge America, an organization that recruits Democratic women to run for office, is stressing the need for candidates to file for state legislative seats. In the first six months of 2016, the group raised $500,219; during the first half of this year, it raised $2.03 million.
Andrea Dew Steele, the organization’s president and founder, describes Emerge as “the beginning of the food chain,” performing basic training for women, many of them seeking office for the first time.
In 2017, Emerge expanded operations from 17 to 22 states, including such deep red states as Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana. Unlike Emily’s List, a more established group that supports Democratic women, Emerge pointedly does not have a litmus test requiring its candidates to back abortion rights.
One of the biggest successes so far this year is the organization called Indivisible, founded in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election by Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, a married couple who both worked as aides to Democratic congressmen. Indivisible now claims 5,983 local chapters, with at least two in every congressional district.
Indivisible has played a leading role in turning out voters at congressional town halls to voice their opposition to Trump’s plan to repeal Obamacare — a tactic explicitly copied from the Tea Party’s organizing drive in 2009-2010.
While support for these relatively new groups on the left is growing, the track record of some of the more established organizations is mixed.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has traditionally been the single most important group devoted to winning state senate and state house seats. In terms of financial support, it has seen a modest increase. In the first six months of 2016, the D.L.C.C. raised $4.03 million compared to $4.36 million during the first six months of 2017.
Organizing for Action, an offshoot of Obama’s presidential campaigns, has experienced a steady drop in revenues: from $26 million in 2013 to $14.4 million in 2014 to $9 million in 2015 to $6 million in 2016. O.F.A. raised $3.4 million during the first half of 2017, according to Jesse Lehrich, the organization’s communications director.
Money is not the only factor in politics — if it were, the efforts of these progressive groups would be doomed.
Republicans and conservative organizations have had the financial advantage in the fight for state legislatures, and they will continue to have it during the 2018 election cycle.
Take the Republican State Leadership Committee. It has raised $6.53 million so far this year, $2.17 million more than the amount raised by its Democratic counterpart.
On a larger scale, the immense network of organizations created by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors far outstrips the structures that Democrats and liberals are piecing together. USA Today reported in June that in 2017-18 the Koch machine plans to spend $300- $400 million on elections and lobbying at every level.
If we look at enthusiasm, however, Democrats have the clear advantage this year. Take special legislative elections.
In an analysis published by FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich found that in the first 15 special elections to fill vacant state legislative seats in 2017, Democratic candidates outperformed past Democratic presidential candidates by an average of 14.4 percentage points. On Aug. 8, Phil Miller, a Democrat, won a special election to fill a vacant seat in the Iowa House by 10 points in a district that Trump carried by 22.
Another gauge of enthusiasm is the willingness of prospective candidates to enter contests in the first place. Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and a professor of political science at the University at Albany, tracked the number of Democratic and Republican challengers (in other words, nonincumbents) who filed their candidacies with the Federal Election Commission and had raised $5,000 as of June 30.
Malbin compared the data to prior years and his findings are noteworthy: So far this year, there are already 209 Democratic challengers, more than in any of the previous seven election cycles — and more than double the 78 Republican challengers in 2009, the year that led up to the Republican wave election of 2010.
While motivation is high on the left, there is no guarantee that it will be well directed. Many of the newly involved enthusiasts are political neophytes.
Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, has been studying the rise of Indivisible in eight mid-western counties.
In a phone interview, Skocpol said the quality and effectiveness of Indivisible chapters “ran the gamut” in terms of efficacy, with only some developing structured organizations. There are groups, she said, that are equipped to mobilize members to act on specific issues and to get voters to the polls, while others are far less prepared to engage on either front.
Along similar lines, a Democratic operative with extensive experience in grassroots organizing — who asked not to be identified — told me that
We are working with many of these new organizations in a variety of ways. As we have non-disclosure agreements with all of the organizations we work with, details have to come from them. The growth in activism that these groups have both spurred and harnessed outstrips anything I have seen in decades previously. That said, this activism is pushing against strong structural headwinds and entrenched power. Further, still unknown is whether the geographic distribution of this activism will be aligned with and find the political fulcrum points.
By geographic distribution, this operative means that the renewed vitality on the left is most heavily concentrated in New York, Massachusetts and California, which are already Democratic.
Resilience in the face of setbacks will be a key test of the long-range viability of activist liberal organizations across the country.
David Wasserman, an election specialist, describes the likelihood of Democratic frustration in 2018 in a detailed analysis published by FiveThirtyEight, “The Congressional Map Has A Record-Setting Bias Against Democrats.” As Wasserman writes,
Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points — a pretty good midterm by historical standards — they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats.
The combination of Republican gerrymandering and the clustering of Democratic voters in urban centers “has moved the median House seat well to the right of the nation,” Wasserman notes.
The result is what Wasserman calls a structural “partisan bias” favoring Republicans in Congressional elections:
Trump lost the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, but Republicans won the median House seat by 3.4 points and the median Senate seat by 3.6 points.
Which is to say that Democrats will have an uphill struggle in 2018 to wrest control of either the House or Senate. Of the 25 Senate seats held by Democrats that are up for election next year, 10 are in states that Trump carried.
In the past, Republican commitments to building strength at the local level have been sustained by trade associations and corporations with a financial stake in decisions made at the county and state level. There is every reason to believe these interests will continue to invest time and money to protect their profits.
From 2010 to 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was the single largest contributor to the Republican State Leadership Committee, steadily increasing its support over this period to a total of $14.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Such companies as Walmart, Reynolds American, Eli Lilly and AT&T are also substantial R.S.L.C. backers.
The liberal donors and activists who have mobilized this year have a less materialistic stake in the outcome of local elections. If, as Wasserman’s data suggests, a major victory is beyond reach in November 2018, will these players regroup and fight on? Or will they retreat at the state and local level, as they have in the past, leaving this refractory terrain to their highly motivated Republican adversaries?