Tuesday night, Democrats flipped a Kentucky state legislative seat from red to blue — deep in Trump country.
It’s the 37th such seat that Dems have flipped into their column, and many of these special election victories are happening in places that they aren’t supposed to, which has deeply alarmed some Republicans.
Why are Democrats winning these races, and what does this tell us about the 2018 midterm elections?
The answer to this question doesn’t fit neatly into the debates inside the Beltway and in the Twittersphere over what Dems should and shouldn’t be doing. Indeed, these victories are in many ways unfolding outside those arguments.
Linda Belcher, a former teacher and legislator, won a Kentucky state house seat by 68 percent to 32 percent in a district President Donald Trump carried by 50 points.
There were murky circumstances involving the suicide of the husband of her GOP opponent.
But there is clearly a trend here: Of the 37 state legislative seats that Democrats have flipped since Trump took office, nearly 20 came in districts carried by Trump, some by very large margins, according to data collected by Daily Kos Elections.
I spoke to Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps boost Dem candidates in state legislative races.
She pointed to several factors driving these wins.
First, there really is a huge Trump effect. But it’s a mistake to reduce this simply to the widely-discussed explosion in Democratic turnout we’ve been seeing.
In many of these races, Post says, Trump has also produced a willingness of better quality candidates to run who had previously refrained from doing so, as well as a big explosion in volunteer activity.
That volunteer activity is “a common factor in all of our special election wins,” Post told me. “Some of these people marched in the women’s march. They never volunteered before.Now they’re showing up at campaign offices.”
Post adds that in one Minnesota special election, even though the temperature dropped to negative 15 degrees, “there were 25 people out door-knocking.”
Second, Trump is not figuring heavily into the campaigns these candidates have run.
The Beltway and Twittersphere are consumed with debates over whether Democrats should or should not be speaking directly to anti-Trump anger, or whether their failure to more directly attack Trump’s tax plan is helping it (and Trump himself) edge up in popularity.
But Post tells me that these candidates are mostly “campaigning on hyper-local issues.”
For instance, Post says, in Virginia, one Dem campaigned on fixing local traffic problems. In Oklahoma one stressed shortened school hours.
And in southern Minnesota one campaigned on expanding rural economic opportunities and improved access to hospitals. In rural and exurban districts, the quality of roads and schools is a big issue.
Third, independents are shifting towards Democrats.
Post says that the Trump effect is complicated. In many of these races, it is deeply energizing the Dem volunteer and voter base, while leading independents to generally want change, making them more receptive to what Democratic candidates are saying, which these candidates can capitalize on.
Democratic voters are “furious and want an outlet. So they’ll knock on the doors of other Democrats who are also furious. And then Democrats are turning out in huge numbers,” Post says.
“Meanwhile, the candidate is talking to independents about local issues that really matter to their community, disconnected from Washington.”
The result has been a “rebalancing,” in which districts that went heavily for Trump in 2016, washing out Dem local candidates, are now seeing quality Dem candidates reassert the Democratic brand.
This probably bodes well for Dems in the midterm elections, but with caveats.
On the one hand, the Senate and House races will be more nationalized than these local elections have been, and it’s hard to predict the national political environment.
On the other, most indications are that the energy among Democrats – the turnout and the volunteering – will sustain itself through 2018, especially since Trump shows no signs of curbing his vileness and depravity.
Beyond this, however, if Democrats can win a lot more of these state legislative races, that could matter immensely in coming years.
Post tells me that Dems are focused on flipping legislative chambers, and are aiming at the state senates in Florida, Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, and state houses in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
This could increase Dems’ influence over the next round of redistricting maps drawn for the House of Represenatives, which will be crucial in determining control of the lower chamber in the next decade whether or not Dems do take back the House this year.
So every one of these little races matters.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog from a liberal perspective.