Democrats rising? Early statehouse wins
test new faces
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[October 12, 2017]
By Letitia Stein
(Reuters) - Democrats desperate to rebuild
after losing the White House last year have scored a string of election
victories for statehouse seats, testing a new generation of candidates
and activists eager to resist President Donald Trump's conservative
From New Hampshire to Oklahoma, Democrats have flipped eight
Republican-held seats in special legislative elections, having spent
millions of dollars on low-turnout contests mostly being fought over
local issues. The wins showcase how Democrats want to fight back after
losing to Trump and hitting historic lows in statehouses.
But the party faces challenges carrying this momentum into the 2018
midterm elections when thousands of seats are at stake, interviews with
nearly two dozen Democratic leaders, campaigns and other political
"Can we recruit enough capable candidates, and can we run enough modern
races?" asked Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic political strategist. He
said the party must test its future leaders in real time. "Are they
ready? The answer is: We don't know."
In November, Democrats will get an early read.
One critical test is in Washington state, where first-time candidate
Manka Dhingra is running for an up-for-grabs senate seat in Seattle's
suburbs. A victory on Nov. 7 would give Democrats full control of the
A prosecutor and school parent volunteer, Dhingra is a Sikh Indian
American whose political awakening began with businessman Trump's
surprise election victory over experienced politician Hillary Clinton.
Still, Dhingra steers clear of mentioning the president in her pitch to
"The Trump reaction, the way it works is by invigorating volunteers,"
Dhingra said. "There are a lot of people, like myself, who decided we
cannot be bystanders."
Nearly 2,000 volunteers have signed up through her campaign website
alone, evidence of what the party calls unprecedented interest in
An August primary, where Dhingra finished 10 points ahead of her
Republican competitor, had a relatively robust turnout, including nearly
6,000 voters who normally skip primaries.
Outside of Washington state, however, a few Democratic wins will do
little to change the political map going into the 2018 midterm
Republicans control 26 state governments and two-thirds of legislative
chambers. Democrats hemorrhaged power at the state level during
President Barack Obama's eight years in office with their attention on
Now Democrats see the states as critical for rebuilding, and an
opportunity to advance legislation pushing back against Trump's agenda
of gutting Democratic health care reforms and environmental protections
and cracking down on immigration.
The party plans to recruit hundreds of thousands of volunteers to
contact more than 30 million voters - double their outreach in
statehouse contests in the 2016 presidential cycle.
"Because of the gridlock in Washington, people are turning to
statehouses for security from Donald Trump," said Jessica Post,
executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
But the party's many inexperienced candidates must beat battle-tested
incumbents in elections next year with greater voter turnout.
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Manka Dhingra, candidate for Washington State Senate is seen in this
handout photo obtained by Reuters July 30, 2017. Manka
Dhingra/Handout via REUTERS
"If the Democrats have every bit of momentum and the wildest day
they could think of, they may take us from super majorities to
majorities," said David Avella, chairman of the Republican group
GOPAC. "But we will still have majorities."
Democrats have flipped legislative seats in Florida, Oklahoma, New
Hampshire and New York in 2017. Republicans picked up an uncontested
seat in Louisiana.
In Oklahoma, where Trump won 65 percent of the vote in the 2016
general election, the Democrats flipped three seats in districts he
carried. Candidates doubled down on local issues, such as a budget
crisis forcing four-day school weeks.
They had a chance to "represent themselves as real people that
weren't actually attached to Nancy Pelosi, or Hillary Clinton, or
Barack Obama," said Anna Langthorn, Oklahoma Democratic Party
Some of the special elections success reflects startup progressive
groups rallying voters. But they have yet to figure out how to
expand their scope for 2018.
Chris Walsh, a cofounder of Flippable, which is working to win back
state governments, went to Florida last month to help Democrat
Annette Taddeo beat a Republican former legislator who once competed
on Trump's reality TV show, "The Apprentice."
"There is a lot of knowledge out there that is siloed," Walsh said,
adding the party could help by sharing information such as district
voting data with new groups.
This year's most revealing contests will come in a statewide
election in Virginia, where Democrats face a long-shot bid in
November to pick up 17 seats and take back the House of Delegates.
In a show of enthusiasm to rebuild, the party is fielding a ticket
that is more than 50 percent larger than two years ago. Yet fewer
than one in four of the mostly women vying for Republican-held seats
have raised more money than their competitors, Virginia Public
Access Project data showed.
Republicans are also ramping up in defense. They anticipate state
contests will be central to Democratic efforts in 2018, given their
longer odds of reclaiming the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.
"The Democrats are trying to probe for the weakest link, and they
are looking for that at the state level," said Matt Walter,
president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. "It is our
job to make sure that doesn't happen."
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Grant
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