For Democrats looking to future, 2020 looms large

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The first impression of Tuesday’s midterm elections, which became a lasting one for many, was that it was a disappointing night for Democrats, despite seizing control of the House of Representatives by picking up what’s forecast to be 37 seats, the best midterm election for House Democrats since 1974.

Democrats also won seven governorships from Republicans and took back over 300 seats in state legislatures that they had lost over the past decade.

But some Democrats saw Tuesday night as the beginning of a long-term venture.

“People are looking too much at what got flipped and not at long-term directional trends,” said Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit that connects tech and campaign experts with candidates — most of them at the state legislature level — to help them modernize their efforts.

In terms of reducing the GOP advantage in states where Republicans have what is commonly known as “trifectas” — control of the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature — Democrats had some success, but not as much as they might have liked. Republicans, if Brian Kemp holds on to his lead in Georgia, will still have almost completely unchecked power over the legislative process in 23 states, though Democrats will have reduced that number from 26 before the election and upped their own number of trifectas from eight to 14.

State legislatures controlled by one party play a huge role in shaping experimental or innovative legislation, and also in many states will critically shape the districts for Congress and the state legislatures by approving maps after the 2020 census.

Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp from Georgia. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

Alter started Tech for Campaigns in 2017 with two other tech entrepreneurs to focus on this often neglected battleground.

Many Democrats have concluded that the unintended consequence of Barack Obama’s presidency was that Democrats focused too much on him and on national politics, and not enough on state parties and organizing.  

As a result, Republicans seized between 900 and 1,000 seats in state legislatures during the Obama presidency.

“I don’t have many policy agreements with Republicans, but one of the things they do well is think long-term,” Alter told Yahoo News. “You’ve got to start building up from the bottom. It’s very hard to fix things at the top.”

“It’s like a sports team,” she said. “If you don’t start at the farm team, you’re probably screwed.”

The challenge for Democrats is that President Trump is viewed as such an existential threat that a lack of total success in one election feels like failure.

But Alter was clear-eyed as ever about her multi-cycle focus when she spoke to Yahoo News, and she was encouraged about a number of developments in different states.

“People are missing the Texas story,” she said.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke became a media darling and a national celebrity in his campaign for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, but narrowly lost.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican Ted Cruz from Texas. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

But Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House. Tech for Campaigns worked on nine of those, helping bring modern data and digital capabilities to candidates who are typically low on money and know-how.

Alter’s nonprofit helped candidates identify which voters they needed to contact and gave them tools with which to do so. They helped candidates reach people by text message, and made sure that multiple points of contact with voters were used to amplify or reinforce the same message.

“One of the mistakes people make is that all the channels are siloed,” Alter said. “Saying, ‘Did you get our email? Just wanted to remind you.’ It sounds so simple but it’s really not done.”

In Texas, Tech for Campaigns worked with the state’s Democratic Party to build a list of unregistered voters and to organize efforts to sign them up.

Alter’s group worked on 115 campaigns in all in the 2018 cycle, including some statewide and congressional races. It helped Rep.-elect Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District to reach 200,000 people in the final two weeks of the campaign. Horn became the first Democrat to take the district since 1974, and she won by less than 4,000 votes.

Tech for Campaigns wants to flip as many state legislatures by 2020, either to all-Democrat control or at least away from Republican trifectas.

But Alter said Democrats are still lacking enough focus on state legislatures and on building long-term durable infrastructure. And the need for such things is greater than ever in an age when political parties — which historically did such tasks — are on the decline.

“It’s very spotty. What I don’t see is a party-wide commitment to it in terms of resources and discipline,” she said.

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