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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Learning from the 2006 Midterm Elections

By Amy Chapman
The months since the election have been filled with a variety of polls and opinions explaining why Democrats were able to sweep both the House and the Senate. In reality, each of the most commonly-cited factors–war fatigue, Republican corruption, a coordinated media effort and boots on the ground–contributed to winning this year. However, as we look deeper into the results, Democrats at every level of government won in this election, and it is clear that the Party infrastructure built early in states was critical to this result.
What happened?
Besides the obvious change in congressional control, one of the most exciting–and important–results of the 2006 election was that Democrats won up and down the ticket in states across the country. Though most of the national focus rested on the House of Representatives and the Senate, the large number of Democrats who were elected to state legislatures, statewide offices, city councils and school boards will be of tremendous value to the Party and the nation for years to come. These newly elected leaders will function as our farm team for higher offices, as leaders for progressive policy, and as liaisons to a new generation of activists. The Party as a whole won in this election.
Critical to this success was the focus on creating a permanent Democratic Party infrastructure. State parties played a vital role in recruiting down-ballot candidates, training precinct leaders to implement a ground operation, and providing vital communications, research and voter file resources to candidates and to county and local parties. It was this ‘build-up’ of a permanent party structure that helped to elect the state and local candidates and support the many federal candidates who won or came close. In many states, the state parties provided the fabric that extended coattails beyond House and Senate victories and made sure that local candidates had the attention and resources they needed.
One example of this success was Kansas. The Kansas Democratic Party worked hand in hand with the Governor’s office, candidates, county parties, the national committee, faith organizations, and other allies and activists—including Grassroots Democrats, the organization I head–to make unprecedented gains at the local, state and national levels. The State Party knew what was happening on the ground, understood the electorate better than anyone outside the state, and used every tool at its disposal to win.
As a result, the Party kept the Governor’s office, picked up the Attorney General spot, increased the number of Democrats in the State House by double digits and beat a popular incumbent in the 2nd Congressional District–a race no one outside of the state was giving attention a month before the election.
In Indiana, the Democratic State Party was fighting on every level to rebuild after what had been a devastating 2004 cycle, in which the state had voted for Bush and Republicans had taken the Governorship, Lieutenant Governorship and the state House of Representatives. The state legislature then removed the dedicated funding source state parties had received, leaving the Party with a $750,000 budget shortfall.
Financial support from Grassroots Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and staff subsidies from the DNC Partnership Program—along with the political atmosphere in Indiana going into 2006–gave the State Party the opportunity to organize support for the strongest candidates early in the cycle. They were able to then build an efficient on-the-ground organization to mobilize voters on Election Day. In just two short years, the State Party was able to build a financially self-sufficient operation, take the lead in communicating the overall message to the electorate, coordinate events and field operations for candidates across the state, and lead the Party to unparalleled electoral success.
As a result, Indiana Democrats gained three Congressional seats, regained control of the state House, and are positioned to successfully defend the eight Democratic mayors in the state’s ten largest cities in 2007 as well as to field challengers in the two remaining mayoral races. Because the Indiana State Party remains fully-staffed, active, and focused on the long-term strategy of winning, more Democrats are competitive earlier in the cycle and on more levels than in previous years.
In Washington state, Democrats have steadily expanded their reach as the State Party built stronger ties to its volunteer community during the heat of the victorious, yet bloody, 2004 gubernatorial campaign. That year, the State Party was instrumental in delivering the win to Governor Christine Gregoire. The Party made the critical decision to insist on a recount, then assumed the debt associated with the recount and raised the necessary funds to cover its cost. They also provided most of the volunteer observers to staff the recount and shepherded the entire Democratic community through the effort, basically acting as the coordinated campaign leader for the recount.
The quick and able maneuvering by the State Party gave Democratic voters in Washington a vested interest in their party. This carried into the 2006 cycle with more grassroots candidates and volunteers participating in the election and more success at every level. Democrats in 2006 successfully defended Senator Maria Cantwell’s Senate seat, improved their majority in the state Senate and picked up seven seats in the state House.
The importance of early investment in states has been the subject of heated conversation over the last two years. The DNC’s “50-State Strategy” highlighted the importance of what Grassroots Democrats has been working on since January 2003.1 Strong organized state parties with professional staff and year-round operations will lead to more Democratic victories. While the results of the 2006 election will not end the debate, they have certainly strengthened the argument for building infrastructure and long-term investment.
What needs to be done before the next election?
Despite the progress that has been made over the past four years by Grassroots Democrats, and since the last presidential election by the DNC, we have really just begun the process of genuine state party infrastructure building. In contrast, the Republican Party has focused on building from the ground up for over 30 years. They have invested money and training in their state and local parties; recruited, trained and paid for key state party staff; and, most importantly, have made state parties an important part of their electoral strategy.
The 2006 election showed that investment by our side will work and that when Democrats talk to people in every county of every state, they listen. We need to make sure Democratic state parties are well-funded and reasonably self-sufficient in their fundraising. Although most states can use non-federal money to pay for up to 72% of their costs, most state parties instead principally rely on federal dollars from national sources in order to operate. By forgoing non-federal money, which ordinarily can be raised in greater amounts than federal dollars and from a wider variety of sources, state parties are using precious federal dollars for operational costs like electric bills and paperclips. This means there is less money to advocate for federal candidates and undertake direct voter mobilization during election season, which federal funds are uniquely able to underwrite.
Additionally, we need to make sure state parties have well-trained professional staff on a year-round basis. It doesn’t work to have a volunteer receptionist for 18 months of an election cycle and then a huge, temporary staff for the last six months. It especially doesn’t work if you want to elect Democrats up and down the ticket. The field and communications staff provided by the DNC was a good start in helping states build a strong, stable staff. However, we must continue to invest as a complete organization should consist of professional staff that is trained in compliance, communications, research, field operations, online strategy, political outreach, information technology, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment.
We need to make sure each state party develops clear goals and a detailed strategy to elect Democrats up and down the ticket using the best available targeting, enhanced voter files, and research. In addition, parties need to be at the forefront of both traditional on-the-ground field work as well as new forms of online grassroots mobilization in order to maintain an electoral edge.
Finally, we need to make sure that all Democratic elected officials and allied organizations are partners in building strong and useful full-time state party infrastructures. There is too much work to be done to leave it to one organization, the Governor or the Presidential nominee.
The only way to sustain the Democratic wave of 2006 into the next election and beyond is through dedicated grassroots action with state parties as the key building block.
1In contrast to the 50-State Strategy, which focuses on federal expenditures, Grassroots Democrats helps states with their non-federal expenditures in the areas of compliance, finance, online strategy and communications, technology, and political management. In compliance with the current campaign finance law, Grassroots Democrats and the DNC do not coordinate efforts but, by nature, work towards the same goal–strong state parties. For more information on federal and non-federal expenditures, visit www.grassrootsdemocrats.com/faq

Amy Chapman is Executive Director of Grassroots Democrats. She is a seasoned political strategist specializing in campaign management, coordinated campaigns, field programs, labor and constituency group outreach. Amy has extensive experience managing all levels of Democratic campaigns, including many local and state races in her native state of New Jersey, and in both federal and non-federal races throughout the country, from presidential to senate, and gubernatorial.

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