Can Democrats Channel Anti-Trump Anger Into Votes at the State Level?
The party is hoping to regain seats it lost during the Obama years. Democrats say there are already signs of change, but Republicans argue there's no proof of that yet.
Democrats lost a ton of state offices during the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama. Now they're hoping the presidency of Donald Trump will provide all the motivation their voters need to fuel the party's comeback.
"During the Obama presidency, people just felt like, 'Obama's the president, so we're all set,' and didn't pay much attention to what's going on in their states," says Phil Vogels, a progressive activist in Colorado.
Vogels wants to fix that.
He founded a new group, reFocus 50, that aims to inform citizens about politics and policy at the state level. It's just one among a number of groups that have recently sprouted up. The most high-profile, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, is headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and has support from Obama himself. It's holding its first fundraisers this weekend in California.
"Democrats are increasingly engaged and interested in state-level races," says committee spokesman Jared Leopold. "There's a broad recognition that we have to build from the states up."
Democrats have quite the job ahead of them. They lost more than 900 state legislative seats, nearly one-quarter of their total, between Obama's first election in 2008 and Trump's win in November. Only 16 states have Democratic governors and just a handful are under full Democratic control, with the party holding both the governorship and the legislature.
But party officials believe the tide is about to turn their way.
Polls taken during Trump's young administration show that he has near-universal disapproval from Democrats -- not so unusual in our polarized times but still surprising this soon in a presidency. Democrats hope that disapproval -- expressed so far through protests, phone calls to lawmakers and angry social media posts -- will soon translate into actual votes.
Two states will be electing new governors this year, New Jersey and Virginia, and Democrats are optimistic about their chances in both races. Republicans hold 27 of the 38 governorships up for grabs this year and next, including 15 where the GOP governor will be term-limited.
"People are very concerned about the direction of this country," says Shannon Jackson, executive director of Our Revolution, a progressive group that grew out of the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. "One of the best ways to change that direction is to look at the local level and support the candidates that share the values we're fighting for."
An appetite for change is already evident on the left. In special elections that have been held since November, Democratic candidates have generally outperformed typical party results and voter turnout has been higher than normal.
"Progressives aren't just marching and protesting -- they're investing in their political future by supporting Democrats every way they can," says Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "DLCC is outraising our totals during the strongest months of a presidential election year."
But Republicans correctly point out that, while Democrats have been bragging about special election results, they have yet to actually flip a seat.
"Democrats have competed and invested aggressively in several states with special legislative elections, and all they have to show for it is the equivalent of a participation medal," says Ellie Hockenbury, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Although the Democratic Party is united against the president, it's clear that it remains internally divided. Progressive candidates are challenging so-called establishment politicians in races from the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee on down to last week's primary in the St. Louis mayor's race.
Being part of the opposition, though, is powerful for any party. The Republicans learned that when they enjoyed sweeping midterm victories during the Obama years. Democrats are confident their supporters will similarly back anyone who promises to challenge Trump.
"It's the same kind of energy that Republicans saw in 2010," says Leopold, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee spokesman. "We think that 2018 could be a boomerang cycle to that."