After building their bench in 2018, Dems risk losing focus on state and local races

Democrats are giddy to start the presidential race but the group of party leaders who spent 2018 focusing on state and local office have an urgent request: Don’t forget about us.

These Democrats they are worried that the party risks overlooking important campaigns amid a presidential contest that’s almost certain to gobble up the left’s attention, enthusiasm, and, critically, dollars.

“It is not an existential crisis, but it can very quickly become an existential crisis,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a progressive start-up that encourages young men and women to run for office.

Run for Something didn’t even exist before Donald Trump’s election in 2016 but became an important group in part because of its funding from big donors, who supplied half of its budget, according to Litman.

But the group’s co-founder says she already senses more reluctance from donors since the midterms and she thinks that’s because interest has shifted to the presidential primary. She and others worry that fundraising won’t become any easier as the relatively small community of big-time donors are regularly hounded by multiple White House candidates.

“It’s already an uphill battle,” Litman said.

Losing focus non-presidential races was a significant problem for Democrats during Barack Obama’s presidency, when the party lost about a thousand state and federal offices. The defeats drove Democrats out of power in Congress and many state legislatures.

Party leaders and rank-and-file voters appeared to correct the problem in 2018, not just funding low-profile races but setting record turnout levels for a midterm election. That led to sweeping wins up and down the ballot, including gaining 40 seats and a majority in the U.S. House

But even amid that success, party leaders express concern about the tougher test they face during the 2020 election cycle.

“The challenge we may have is with Democratic donors and the national narrative,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a group that helps party candidate running for state legislative office. “We feel we received so much strong coverage from the national press this cycle. And we also feel like national Democratic donors got interested in our level of the ballot.”

The boost in attention and funding paid off for the DLCC: Democrats flipped more than 400 state legislative seats in 2018.

Maintaining that focus means not just giving money to state legislative races, but continuing to fund a network of grassroots progressive groups that sprouted in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. These groups, including Indivisible and Swing Left, supplied support and resources to campaigns across the ballot.

Some Democratic leaders say they remain confident that the party won’t repeat its mistakes.

“There is a history where we get so into the presidential race and forget the others,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “But I think around the country, with the state chairs, it’s a different mindset now. You want to run everywhere with a bench you’re always building.”

Pepper acknowledged that donors will receive a lot of attention from presidential candidates. But he added that 2018 featured an overwhelming number of Democratic senators running for re-election in red states, not to mention a plethora of competitive gubernatorial races spread across the country. The load will be lighter this election cycle (there are just 11 gubernatorial races in 2020, as opposed to 36 in 2020), easing the burden on donors.

“You have presidential fundraising, but you don’t have all these other races,” the chairman said. “Maybe that equals out in the short term.”

Pepper and other Democratic leaders say down-ballot candidates and other groups not focused on the presidential race will have to devise messages to attract donor interest, even if it piggybacks on the top-of-the-ticket race.

Post said the DLCC has drawn attention to the legislative and congressional redistricting that happens after the 2020 race, a process partially controlled by state legislatures in many states, and other issues such as voting rights.

The key, some Democrats say, is demonstrating how success down the ballot is not only essential to the party’s future but will complement whatever success the party has at the top of the ticket.

“We have to try to not compete with the imperative of defeating Trump and taking back the White House,” said Greg Speed, president of the liberal group America Votes. “But we feed into this energy and direct it toward a strategy that maintains winning the White House as an imperative, but extends any measures of success by how broadly we win Congress and at the state level.”

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Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.