While most of America was paying attention to President Donald Trump slamming a multibillion-dollar sports industry or, worse, the election of one Southern-fried bigot over another in Alabama, something else amazing was happening.
Democrats won the special election in Florida’s 40th district (which includes Miami), giving them the largest number of state Senate seats in 17 years. More important, this special election marked the eighth state special election since Trump was elected in which Democrats have flipped a Republican seat. Democrats are actually winning elections again—a lot of them—in important places. If only the national party would stop navel-gazing long enough to see the good news popping up around them.
Nationally, the Democratic Party has been clutching pearls and tucking in their chains ever since Trump got elected. Party leadership wants to chase after working-class white guys who haven’t voted Democratic since Bill Clinton had interns. They want to spend money on high-profile symbolic racism; they want to give lip service to running more African-American women as candidates; they want to pander to the Bernie Bro wing; they want to come up with a catchier message, etc., etc.
While Democrats in Washington, D.C., spend all this time talking about how they want to win, regular folks are out here just winning. Just consider the Democratic record in state special elections since November 2016:
- May 23: Democrats flip the 9th Assembly seat to the New York State Legislature 58 to 42 percent in a district Trump won by 7 points just a few months earlier.
- May 23: Democrats flip the 6th House District in New Hampshire—an 11 percent improvement margin from Trump’s election there in November.
- July 11: In Oklahoma—a state so red that the last time it voted for a Democrat for president, Martin Luther King Jr. was alive, Lyndon B. Johnson was in office and Donald J. Trump was hiding out in military school—Democrats pulled off two more victories. They flipped House District 75 and Senate District 44.
- Sept. 17: Two more Republican districts turn from red to blue: New Hampshire’s 9th District and Oklahoma’s 46th. Oklahoma was probably the most stunning; not only was it the third seat to turn red to blue this year, but Democrat Jacob Rosecrants ran for the seat in November 2016 and lost 60-40. Less than a year later in the special election, he won the same seat 60-40.
- Sept. 26: Annette Taddeo wins in a Florida upset, and in New Hampshire, another Democrat flips a GOP seat in an upset so big and by a margin so close that Republicans are already crying for a recount.
To put this into a larger perspective, Democrats have picked up about 30 percent of special election seats against Republicans, and we aren’t even in November yet. If anything even close to those numbers holds until next year, the U.S. Senate could flip, and the House margin for the GOP would be cut in half.
More important, your farm team for any political party comes from the state legislatures, not your members of Congress. It’s state legislatures that will be redrawing voting districts after the 2020 census; it’s state legislatures that will decide on early-voting and registration deadlines for 2018; it’s state legislatures that decide how much funding will go into some parts of Affordable Care Act advertising and how to negotiate health exchanges that Republicans are trying to sabotage. If the states are laboratories for democracy, then Democrats are finally getting back into the mix.
Is there a formula here that Democrats at the national level can pay attention to? Yes. Politics are local, and effort matters. In the case of Taddeo, District 40 came open after incumbent Republican Frank Artiles got busted calling black legislators some derivation of “nigger” (maybe he used “er” instead of “a”?) and he chose to resign.
In July’s Oklahoma special elections, Republican seats were open after one incumbent was accused of sexually harassing two of his legislative assistants, and the other was caught soliciting sex from a 17-year-old boy. One of the New Hampshire seats flipped by Democrats was open because the incumbent Republican bragged on Reddit about taping women he had sex with so they couldn’t accuse him of rape later on. In other words, politicians who engage in scummy behavior can galvanize local voters more than a terrible politician in the White House.
Now, you may not be lucky enough to have scandals like that across the country (although I’m sure there are plenty of Reddit-using, child-sex-soliciting sexual harassers out there), but Democrats can still take a lesson in how to see an opening and exploit it for electoral gain. Moreover, in each of these special elections, while Donald Trump played a role, the candidates were all local people talking about local issues in Florida, Oklahoma and New York and whatever mattered to regular people. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.
So why aren’t national Democrats seeing this? Why is there hand-wringing about elections in Virginia, where Democrats have a healthy lead, or concerns about voting in 2018 when Democrats are winning in 2017? Some of it is the natural tendency of Democrats to be pessimistic. Republicans lose the popular vote by 3 million people and still walk into Washington like LaVar Ball ready to legislate like they have a mandate.
Democrats spent eight years of Barack Obama worrying and second-guessing everything and getting ready to ditch him at every turn. And to be fair, under Obama, the Democrats all but ignored state-level races, assuming that blue would stay blue, never noticing that much of the country was taking the red pill.
However, this all really just boils down to arrogance: an arrogance on the part of the Democratic Party that messages need to be developed nationally and test-marketed against mythical Midwestern Trump-curious, Kaepernick-hating Duck Dynasty fans instead of listening to what’s happening on the ground and helping that to grow organically.
Fortunately, the future isn’t dependent on the national Democrats; it will be handled by local men and women of all colors working together to stem the tide of white nationalism masquerading as the modern Republican Party. Democrats are winning again, and if the national party can’t lead or help, the least they can do is be quiet and get out of the way.