You wouldn’t know it from the news coverage of those gun-toting, mouth-breathing, Nazi-loving GI Joe cosplayers marching around the Capitol Building with guns in Lansing, but Michigan is on the verge of turning blue once again.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has become a star thanks to her handling of the coronavirus. Progressive ballot initiatives — including independent redistricting — passed with overwhelming majorities in 2018. And Dems are just a few seats away from flipping the gerrymandered State House of Representatives.
And yet, because national media can’t get enough of the domestic terrorism schtick, we’re often given a very different impression. As a result, a parade of far-right degenerates wind up setting the national agenda. Progressives tend to focus on the far-right fringe as well, but the smarter move is to point out their irrelevance and move on. During a conversation this weekend with Christine Morse, the Democrat running for State House in the very flippable 61st district in Michigan, I was guilty of pushing for her thoughts on the protests — fortunately, she was very smartly unwilling to cede the narrative to these fringe fear-mongers.
“There’s a lot of talk about these protests, which are actually organized by national groups,” Morse said, referring to the dark money from billionaires fueling the rallies. “They have the appearance of being this grassroots effort, but it’s 200 people. The polling is showing that the governor still has quite high levels of support. People take it personally when it impacts their life, so you can’t blame everybody, but I don’t feel like the protests really reflect what’s going on.”
That quote really says it all. Morse is empathetic and focused on achievable goals, unwilling to get distracted by peripheral clown shows or relentless right-wing attacks. And because she’s going to face a former Trump administration and Mitch McConnell campaign official with literally no mention of any issues on her campaign website, she’s likely to face a lot of right-wing attacks over the next six months.
The Democratic Party made much of its inroads in 2018 by picking off low-hanging fruit, flipping some legislatures and half of Congress by winning districts with big demographics shifts, mainly in urban and large suburban areas. It was a huge first step, but any hope of a sustained majority and transformative progress is going to require success in more rural areas, which have become the bright-red homes to some of the most unhinged right-wing Republican lawmakers.
North Carolina is a perfect example. Democrats, powered by new voters in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, won more votes in the state in 2018, and were able to break the GOP supermajority, but Republicans still won more seats in the state legislature and a whopping 10 out of 13 Congressional seats. Why? In a vile cycle of systemic evil that took decades to install, Republicans took control of rural areas, seized the state government in the 2010 wave election, and then gerrymandered the hell out of the state map. The NC GOP is a melange of unhinged reactionaries, and has been advancing blatantly anti-democratic, anti-human laws ever since, from voter ID to the ignominious anti-trans bathroom bills.
The 2018 election was a good first step for Democrats in the state, but the modest gains could prove short-lived if the 2020 election isn’t even better. “If it’s not divided at least between a majority in the two state houses,” explains Todd Zimmer, the co-founder of the activist group Down Home North Carolina, “the Republicans will be able to draw all the maps again right after the 2020 census and put us right back where we were 10 years ago.”
Democrats need to pick up five seats in the State Senate and six in the State House to take back the majority in each chamber, and now the road to restoring sanity and building equality in North Carolina runs through the still-red rural parts of the state. Down Home NC is helping to lead the charge. They’re working to build grassroots power 365 days a year, with an eye on winning elections at the local level up through the US Senate (North Carolina has a top-tier race in 2020), by organizing working people on a county-by-county level.
“We set out to start building permanent long-term infrastructure, including candidate pipelines,” Zimmer says. As a county-based organization with a state-wide umbrella leadership, Down Home North Carolina right now has three main chapters, two in Appalachian Mountain West and one in the central Piedmont of North Carolina. This will be a year of rapid expansion, with two more planned for 2019, one in the Appalachians and another Piedmont chapter closer to Charlotte. Unlike many groups, the local infrastructure is less a tool for disseminating top-down messages and priorities than rallying grassroots energy tailored to regional needs.
“When we enter a community, we do a several thousand door listening survey to find out what the top issues are for low-income people of all political stripes, and what their top solutions are,” Zimmer says. “We turn that into a platform and our members evaluate potential candidates based on that platform. We are really only trying to support candidates who are speaking to the top issues of rural communities.”
As Democrats continue to rebuild their state and local parties, they would be wise to look to Virginia. Once a solid red state, it has become reliably blue on both the national and state government level, giving its electoral votes to Democrats and sending Dems to both Congress and the Governor’s Mansion. The party even looks poised to flip the state legislature this fall, aided by new court-ordered nonpartisan maps. In broad strokes, Virginia is a major success story.
But drill down a little further and you’ll find an extreme partisan stratification that mirrors much of what we are seeing across the country. The Democratic waves have been powered mostly by the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia, while the more rural southwest, which is more impoverished Appalachia than planned communities of federal contractors, has become a Republican stronghold. The party has a lock on the state’s ninth Congressional District and many counties in the area; if Democrats ever want to improve conditions for people and compete nationally there, it will require a major injection of both support and fresh faces.
Enter Andrew Whitley and his new organization, Vote Local. He is a Virginia-based campaign veteran who has spent nearly a decade in the state’s progressive political infrastructure.
In 2017, Whitley ran Chris Hurst’s high-profile and ultimately victoriouslegislative campaign. Hurst was a young local TV anchor who pivoted to politics after his wife, a fellow reporter, was shot to death on air; he ran as a gun control advocate and defeated a card-carrying member of the NRA, a credit to both his personal touch and Whitley’s campaign skills.
After going out west in 2018 to manage a successful Lt. Governor race in Nevada, Whitley is returning home to southwestern Virginia with designs on rebuilding the Democratic Party in the region. Vote Local is building from the ground up, putting together a slate of candidates on the county level that can install progressive policy and eventually move on to bigger offices. The initial goal is flipping two seats on the Republican-held Board of Supervisors in Montgomery County this fall.
The group has announced one candidate so far, Robbie Jones, a former head of the Montgomery County Education Association and long-time community activist. Whitley gave Progressives Everywhere his pitch for the group earlier this month.
Virginia is trending blue — but the south has gone from blue to red. What’s Vote Local going to do about it?
I’m a southwest Virginia guy, born and bred there. That’s the area of the state that could benefit from and needs Democratic progressive policies the most, but rejects them the most. A lot of folks talk about how we can take back the ninth [congressional district] and unfortunately I’m subscribed to the mindset that it’s not possible right now. We’re not going to be able to take back a congressional seat and we’re not going to be able to win too many more legislative seats in the ninth right now. So where do we go from here? It’s local.
My goal is to find good, qualified, progressive candidates who are well-respected in their communities, run them for some of these local seats, and maybe after a few years of serving and showing that they’re good, outstanding citizens we can eventually have the take the step up, run for delegate, run for state senator, and over time, change the attitude and the perception of the Democratic Party in southwest.
People will see that there are people that you voted for that actually work for you, and these policies are a result of you electing them. Hopefully, it’ll make the difference. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but we’re definitely gonna give it a shot this cycle.
There are still some local Democratic office-holders in the area — why haven’t they made the leap? Why not work with them?
I think that these local officials, they know all too well that if they make that leap and if they do announce, they’re going to be left unsupported. They’re gonna have to raise a lot of money. And I’m not blaming the state party or the caucuses for this, but generally, the candidates have to do a lot on their own and they don’t get the support they need. So in [the officials’] minds, why would I leave an office that I’m doing really good in right now to take a chance to run for something that I’m probably not going to win and I’m not going to be supported in?
My hope is that if they look at this new wave of local candidates, they will see that they will get support and here’s how we can help them, then maybe they will take the step. And also, the good that they will do in these local seats, it can’t be understated. When I managed Chris’s race, I naively did not understand the power that local government has in Virginia, in the county Board of Supervisors.
Thanks to the Republicans on that board, schools haven’t been funded the way that they should. Teachers haven’t received the raises that they should. So even if they don’t run for higher offices, the good that we can do by getting some of these boards flipped with good candidates, I think is worth it.
How bad is the Democratic brand there?
I’ll speak anecdotally. The county that I’m from, Smyth County, it’s right near the Tennessee border. It has a Democratic sheriff, all the constitutional officers are Democrats. There are a couple of Republicans on the Board of Supervisors, but it’s dominated by Democrats. Then you get Scott County and other counties that are the opposite. So it’s definitely not one or the other. There’s still a really good crew of candidates, of local office holders there that proved that you can elect these local Democratic offices.
Chris Hurst ran as a gun control advocate, but he had a very unique story. Do you see him as a blueprint or an anomaly?
His story is obviously very unique, but one of the things that we did is we didn’t make the issue about guns. He wasn’t afraid to say what his position was when asked — and he was asked many times — but we talked about education. That was our big issue. Making sure the kids had a quality education. We talked about improving education, transportation, and local issues that make a difference in everyday people’s lives. And it resonated. So yeah, I do think that he is somewhat of a blueprint. If you get the right candidate to talk about the right issues, then it’s possible.
Some of these races are pretty inexpensive, maybe $3,000 to run a decent campaign. How do you plan on spending the money, what’s the campaign strategy?
I talked to a couple of friends of mine that are in the campaign world, and we’re going to focus on mail and we’re gonna focus on digital. I’m paying myself like a small stipend monthly to work on it as well. I think it’s like 90 percent of the budget is going directly to the candidates and campaign efforts. I’m going to be kind of their go-to guy to help guide them through any press stuff that they might have or if they need any help with fundraising themselves or if they want to do meet and greets or when you help with knocking doors.
I wanted to start small and keep the test study small, stick to Montgomery County to not overwhelm myself and also show that if we’ve got a good blueprint here, which I think we do, we can take the success that we have this cycle and move it forward to other localities.
So tell me about Robbie Jones.
She was a former Montgomery County Educational Association President, the first person to ever be elected president of the local MCEA that’s not an actual educator.
She’s head custodial staff. She’s a blue-collar worker, fits the district really well, cares about public education. Her opponent has done nothing but oppose what the school board has asked for. Our candidates care about the county. They care about our issues and they want to move it forward.
Democrats will likely end with 38 House pickups and new senators from Arizona and Nevada. On the state level, we flipped seven governorships (with Georgia and Florida still up in the air) and six state legislative chambers (including the State Senate here in New York!), with nearly 400 legislative seats flipped over the course of this election cycle. Democrats in Arizona narrowed Republican majorities, while Team Blue broke super-majorities in crucial states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. A majority of voters actually voted Democrat in NC; an absurd GOP gerrymander was the only thing that kept that party in power.
There was also an immense amount of progress made in Texas. Really.
On paper, rockstar Rep. Beto O’Rourke came just short of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz, who beat him by less than three percentage points. It comes as little consolation to many of O’Rourke’s national supporters that it was the closest race in Texas in years — we all desperately wanted to unseat Cruz, a cynical snake wearing a suit of second-hand human skin with a face only an exterminator could love. But even though Beto came up short, his all-inclusive grassroots campaign helped lift other Democrats across Texas, assisting in major gains in a number of areas.
Here we are, two days out from the most important election of our lifetimes, which is a statement that is eminently dramatic but somehow undersells the gravity of what we are facing. I truly don’t know what American democracy will look like if Democrats don’t sweep up at the ballot box on Tuesday. And it’s not just because of the threat posed by Trump and his sycophantic posse. All across the country, there are pitched battles being fought over issues that directly touch the lives of tens of millions of people — and will, more broadly, impact us all.
Here is a guide to the biggest issues and races to watch on what will be a very nerve-wracking, exciting Tuesday evening.