Recent Democratic electoral victories were fueled by popular anger at the policies of the Trump administration and Republicans, but they also marked a significant increase in political engagement among voters and thousands of volunteers, many of whom had never been involved in politics before. These races have been characterized by grass-roots campaigns that have invigorated the party with new energy.
Leaders in the local Democratic Party need to reflect on what it will take to duplicate these electoral results locally in the 2018 midterms. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker is vulnerable because of his uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump’s agenda and his party-line votes for unpopular health care and tax legislation that will raise the national deficit and harm working families and businesses in his own district. To win elections, however, Democrats need to do more than point out the shortcomings of Republicans. They must also develop strategies to build up existing grass-roots momentum and welcome newcomers and challengers into the fold.
Across the country, new candidates entered the fray, bringing inspired voters and volunteers with them. In mayoral, gubernatorial, state house, and city council seats, new candidates from diverse backgrounds won in a surprising number of races.
Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala became the first Latinas to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, defeating Republican incumbents. Virginia Delegate Danica Roem mobilized hundreds of volunteers and knocked on doors 75,000 times, running a campaign based on quality-of-life issues like traffic and water safety. Her opponent, incumbent Robert G. Marshall, focused on Roem’s identity as a transgender individual, touting himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” He lost to Roem by almost nine points. Mayoral races across the country also resulted in Democratic victories. These candidates depended on motivated volunteers to knock on doors; they ran on inclusive platforms such as education, jobs and health care.
Democrats in Lancaster County also achieved a number of victories, including winning seats that Republicans had held for more than a generation. They won borough council, school board, township commission and supervisor positions in Manheim Township, Marietta, Ephrata, East Petersburg, Columbia and Elizabethtown, in addition to sweeping Lancaster city council, mayoral and school board positions. These newly elected officials are young and reflect Lancaster’s racial and ethnic diversity. Janet Diaz, for example, won more votes than anyone else on City Council by knocking on hundreds of doors, despite not receiving a primary endorsement from the local Democratic party.
The Lancaster County Democratic Committee leadership should encourage a vibrant, contested primary among congressional candidates running to replace Smucker, as well as in other races. To avoid the appearance of coronation, party leaders should not endorse any candidates before the primary election. To average voters, party endorsements suggest the leadership is putting a thumb on the scales of the race and running an exclusionary clubhouse instead of a participatory political party. Such moves dampen enthusiasm for all the candidates before the general election. Not taking sides before the primary makes it easier for everyone to come together after the primary and get behind the nominee for the general election.
My argument is not against independent organizations making endorsements in a primary race. But what’s true for an independent membership organization is not true for the Democratic Party itself. The party has a process to endorse a nominee: the primary election, and this year it’s scheduled for May 15. Until then, everyone should be free to support whichever primary candidate they’re enthusiastic about.
The conventional wisdom has been that contested primaries and open debate about the direction of the party will weaken candidates, but there’s no evidence to support this notion. Consider Tom Perriello, the progressive gubernatorial candidate in Virginia who lost in this year’s primary to centrist Ralph Northam. The primary race against Northam encouraged interest and built momentum among new voters that extended into the general race. Northam went on to win the gubernatorial election. People who vote in a primary are far more likely to vote in a general election than people who do not vote in a primary — even when one’s preferred candidate falls short of the nomination. It’s good to have multiple candidates running parallel door-knocking operations, registering new voters, building enthusiasm and getting out the vote for the primary.
We need to challenge the conventional wisdom that dissent within the party is a sign of weakness. Contested primaries bring new people to the party who are energized. It’s time to mobilize and inspire new bases of people who feel they have been left behind by politics as usual with an inclusive and aspirational message.
Laura Shelton is assistant professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.