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Running Democrats In Every District Is Essential-- But Particularly Good Ones

"Hey. What Country Do You Think You're In" by Nancy Ohanian

The election analysis by Isabella Grullón Paz for the NY Times this morning, How Democrats Who Lost in Deep-Red Places Might Have Helped Biden, makes one crucially important point about running Democrats in every district, while leaving out entirely a related point. She pointed out how Biden took Georgia's 16 electoral votes by narrowly-- a 12,000 vote win-- beating Trump. Local candidates running for seats long abandoned by the Democratic Party helped turn out votes. She gave the example of Ebony Carter who ran in a red district south of Atlanta with no help from the Democratic Party. She took 40% of the vote, an astounding achievement. Carter helped raise Democratic performance for Biden in Newton, Butts and Henry by 5 points over Hillary's 2016 performance.

Ms. Carter said she had tried to start grass-roots momentum in the district. “For me, running for office was never an ambition,” she said. “It was more so out of the necessity for where I live.”
Ms. Carter’s district has grown exponentially during the last decade, bringing with it changing demographics and different approaches to politics. She knew through previous political organizing and her own campaigning that many people in her district, including friends and family, didn’t know when local elections were, why they were important or what liberal or conservative stances could look like at a local level.
Ms. Carter said she spent a lot of time during her campaign trying to educate people on the importance of voting, especially in local races that often have more bearing on day-to-day life, like school and police funding.
“I thought it was a lot of the work that people didn’t want to do or felt like it wasn’t going to benefit them,” she said. “We are not going to win every race, but we could win if we just did the legwork.”

Grullón Paz wrote that "the phenomenon appeared to hold nationally. Biden performed 0.3 percent to 1.5 percent better last year in conservative state legislative districts where Democrats put forward challengers than in districts where Republicans ran unopposed... The study showed a reverse coattails effect: It was lower-level candidates running in nearly hopeless situations-- red districts that Democrats had traditionally considered no-win, low-to-no-investment territory-- who helped the national or statewide figures atop the ballot, instead of down-ballot candidates benefiting from a popular national candidate of the same party. 'The whole theory behind it is that these candidates are supercharged organizers,' said Ross Morales Rocketto, a co-founder of Run for Something. 'They are folks in their community having one-on-one conversations with voters in ways that statewide campaigns can’t do.'"

I asked one of these first-time grassroots candidates who ran for the Florida state House in a red district north of Jacksonville, Joshua Hicks. He challenged right-wing incumbent Cord Byrd and pulled in 35,686 votes compared to 25,773 votes and 22,559 votes for the last two Democratic candidates to run in the district. "As a matter of principle, I've always believed running a candidate in every race makes sense," Hick told me this morning. "It moves margins and votes, in districts that are tough to win down ballot for Democrats but could impact statewide or congressional races at the top of the ticket. Unfortunately, in 2020, even with receiving nearly 30 endorsements and raising over $100,000 in my race for Florida State House, District 11 against a QAnon supporting incumbent, I still lost overwhelmingly in a deep red district. However, what I also did is move margins-- I received 5,000 more votes than any Democrat had ever received in ruby-red Nassau County and overall, when including Duval County, I received 10,000 more votes than any Democrat had ever received in District 11. And guess what? So did Joe Biden at the top of the ticket. Candidacies like mine in Florida, and other candidates around the country, put in the grunt work in these tough districts to move margins and win votes. We do this work for not only ourselves, with the hope of winning the election, but we are also doing it for our top of the ticket races. Oftentimes, we are the only campaign infrastructure in place to win votes... so having the resources and the candidates on the ground helps. Red district candidates win votes... we give our voters a reason to show up to the polls... we pull off upsets... and in rural areas and in tough states, when every vote matters at the top of the ticket, even in defeat, sometimes we win."

Kriss Marion, one of our hard-working, super-progressive candidates in Wisconsin, again in a red area, had a similar perspective. "In Wisconsin, where Joe Biden eeked out a slim but significant victory, dozens of talented Democrats who worked their butts off in gerrymandered red districts lost. From my perspective, we saw a HUGE Trump swell in SW Wisconsin-- coal rollin’ tricked-out trucks all hours of the day on Main Streets, weekly flag parades, gatherings of Trump supporters outside of Democratic campaign offices. We decided NOT to spend election night at our storefront campaign office because we felt increasingly threatened by people banging on windows as the campaign went on. But we had an incredibly motivated, hard-working, dedicated volunteer base that was on the phones, dropping lit, painting huge wooden highway signs, writing tons of letters to the editor, and sending thousands of postcards to get out the vote for me and for Biden. There’s not a doubt in my mind that the energy and effort of my grassroots campaign volunteers helped bring home the victory for Biden, though we fell short with 48% of the vote."

Grullón Paz continued that "in 2005, when Howard Dean became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he tried to institute a “50-state strategy” to build up party infrastructure and candidate recruitment at every level and in every state-- even in solidly Republican districts. The hope was that if there was at least one Democrat running in every county, it would help the party build a larger base for future elections. Mr. Dean was met with skepticism from national strategists who believed in a more conventional method of focusing limited campaign resources on swing districts. After his tenure, the strategy fell out of favor."

That certainly resonates with Fergie Reid, Jr, who runs 90For90 and worked recruiting candidates to run for every state legislative seat in Florida last year and for every state legislative seat in Virginia this year. In both cases, he had to contend with aggressive nay-sayers in the Democratic Party establishment. "90For90," he reminded me, "has been preaching this concept since 2015. Dr. Fergie Reid, Sr., the man being recognized and honored by the 90for90 initiative, has been preaching this sermon since 1955, when he started pushing back against the openly racist 'Byrd Machine' in Richmond, Virginia., the historic 'Capitol of the Confederacy.' It’s pretty simple-- it’s not complicated: register voters all year long, not just at the end of the election cycle. And, run candidates in every district, regardless of the 'winnability index' of those districts. Run candidates on every ballot line that is available: Federal, State, County, School Board, Row (Constitutional) offices-- Sheriff, Clerk of Court, etc... Soil & Water, Mosquito Abatement, Dogcatcher, etc. 90for90 and the Florida Environmental Caucus, with a great assist from BlueAmerica PAC and Matt Rogers, recruited something like 36 Florida state legislative candidates in 2020, making history in the state by fielding Democratic candidates in every one of the 140 races on the ballot. Every Democratic challenger lost; but, Trump had to spend extra time in Florida shoring up his position. He visited Pensacola, the Villages, Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Miami, Orlando, & Tampa. This is valuable campaign time that wasn’t spent in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. 'Who’s in the White House now?' 90for90 and Matt Rogers are currently doing the same in Virginia, recruiting candidates to run in all 45 GOP held districts. The Virginia Democratic Party and he Virginia Democratic House Caucus have not recruited any candidates. They are obviously disinterested in anything other that incumbent re-election. They are free to work that angle; Matt Rogers and 90for90 have handled the rest. 2 districts remain to be challenged, HD 17 around Roanoke and HD 16 around Martinsville. Since 2015, Virginia Dems have picked up 22 state house seats, 2 state senate seats, 4 congressional districts, and re-elected all 5 Statewide positions."

Grullón Paz wrote that "What tends to derail any such 50-state, all-districts strategy are the limited resources that both parties have in any election, and the realpolitik considerations that inevitably lead them to pour disproportionate amounts of money into certain races seen as particularly important and winnable. 'If you have candidates dedicated to ground game, then it could be helpful, but usually campaigns at the lower end of the spectrum don’t have that kind of money, and it’s certainly not done by parties as much anymore,' said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster. He said that one reason for this could be that controlling messaging down the ballot is hard to do when campaigns at the top of the ticket have different approaches to issues from those of local candidates. For the last few cycles, Democrats’ major priorities have been retaking the House, the Senate and the presidency. Now, with the party in control of all three, down-ballot organizers want the party to shift some of its focus to state legislative races."

Great, but what Grullón Paz missed in her report was another side of the coin, Democrats in deep blue-- usually "packed" GOP-gerrymandered districts-- who don't bother to campaign at all. Biden would have won Texas' 38 electoral votes except for the lack of voter engagement by lazy, worthless Democratic incumbents in some of the state's bluest districts. Overall, turnout in Texas (66%) was almost 7% higher than it had been in 2016 but not in districts where incumbents like Eddie Bernie Johnson (Dallas), Sheila Jackson Lee (Houston), Vicente González (Hidalgo and Guadalupe counties), Henry Cuellar (Webb and Bexar counties) and Filemon Vela (Cameron and Hidalgo counties) didn't even bother, knowing their reelections were guaranteed by demographics.

Progressive Democrat Charles Thompson is running for one of those seats. This morning he told me that "As a progressive Democrat, who was born and raised in Sheila Jackson Lee's district, I have witnessed historically low turnouts in both primaries and general elections. In recent years, the turnout rate within Texas' 18th district has been as low as 10%, or 22% lower than the Harris County average. This is deeply concerning because the primary season serves as an opportunity for Democratic voters to elect true progressives to represent the party during the general election. The lack of voter engagement from the incumbent, Sheila Jackson Lee, is directly responsible for low turnout in a Black and Brown majority congressional district. As a congressional candidate, one of my top priorities, along with fighting for progressive policies, is to ensure that we generate record turnout amongst African American, Hispanic, and young voters. By doing so, we can achieve our goal of turning Texas blue."

Dallas progressive Jessica Mason has a similar perspective and added: "In heavily blue districts, like TX-30, we have many corporate incumbents who stall progress. These districts can move the national discourse on policy in a more progressive direction. Additionally, Democrats need accountability if they want to be the party of the working class. They need someone to say, 'this bill is corporate welfare disguised as a bipartisan effort.' I am not afraid to say that, and we must elect more people who can say the same in deeply blue districts."

Opposite of that was Hays County, south of Austin, where challengers Julie Oliver and Wendy Davis plus incumbent Lloyd Doggett did campaign-- and furiously so-- and watched as 71.2% of Hays county's registered voters turned out-- an 11.7% increase from 2016-- and a red to blue flip for Biden!

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