Democrats Have a Reason to Be Mobilized by Hope

Yesterday in a special election, a 26 year-old Democratic lesbian mental health worker won a seat in the Oklahoma state senate, turning a district Trump had won 62-27. Allison Ikley-Freeman ran on mental health care, housing, and opposition of bathroom bills and won by targeting voters she knew would turn out for her in a low-volume election.

This marks the fourth pick-up by Democrats in special elections in deeply red Oklahoma this year, and the 14th this cycle nationally. Those numbers don’t count the wins in the off-year elections to the Virginia House of Delegates, which are likely to at least double the number once recounts are completed. If, as Martin suggested last week, it is critical to win back state legislatures all over the country, it looks like the effort has begun.

Will this winning streak carry forward into the 2018 midterms? That is the question of the hour, and since a lot can happen over the next twelve months, it is impossible to predict with any certainty. But other signs are pointing to a positive outcome for Democrats. I’m talking about things like the current Republican president’s approval rating hovering in the upper 30’s. There is a history of the the party occupying the White House doing poorly in midterms. And there’s also the numbers we’re seeing on the generic ballot, which simply asks whether or not respondents would vote for a Democrat or a Republican if the election for Congress were held today. Here is Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report reacting to the latest numbers on that from a Marist poll:

To avoid depending on a single poll, the RCP average on the generic ballot stands at +10.2 percent for Democrats without these latest results from Marist.

But there are reasons why these things don’t inspire Democrats to feel confident. First and foremost is that the party has a long history of pearl-clutching. That is justified if the assumption is that confidence leads to inertia. But it also can lead to timidity—something that would be disastrous right now.

I suspect that the big reason Democrats are hesitant to believe what is happening right now is that too many of us got burned in the 2016 election. Very few people saw it coming and it has shaken our assumptions about how politics works in the Trump era. That is essentially what Josh Marshall wrote about the day after last week’s election.

But the net result [of the 2016 presidential election] was to cast a pall of uncertainty over virtually every rule of politics and prediction…In the simplest sense, it seemed like gravity might not apply to Donald Trump.

When a President is locked below 40% approval and often closer to 35% approval, his party will face a brutal and unforgiving electorate. This was a fact a decade ago and it’s a fact today. We’ve just been stunned into an unwarranted uncertainty by the fact of Trump’s victory one year ago today. The so-called congressional generic ballot is running near 10 points in the Democrats’ favor at the moment. Again, that kind of margin will produce a punishing result for the party on the short end of the stick. It’s a similar kind of rule…

All of this is confirmation of a simple point. Gravity still applies in the political world.

Contributing to this is the mythology that has developed about Trump voters supporting him no matter what he does. That could be the case for the 35 percent or so who seem unmoveable. But as we saw in Virginia last week, his presidency is turning some of them into Democrats.

Michael Ross has been a loyal Republican for as long as he can remember. But voting in Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday, the retired advertising executive said he rejected every Republican on the ballot and chose Democrats — whether he knew anything about them or not…

“I’ve been with the Republicans my whole life, but what the party has been doing is appalling,” said Ross, 72, as he was about to get a haircut Wednesday in Lorton, a suburb about 20 miles south of Washington. “It’s completely divisive, and the politics of this country has gone berserk. Trump has demonstrated that he doesn’t deserve to be president.”

In other words, the electorate that gave us Trump and dominance by Republicans is changing. That isn’t happening on its own. As we’ve seen, Democrats are organizing all over the country in countless different ways and candidates are lining up to run for office in droves, often for seats that have been so red that Republicans ran unopposed in the past. And people are turning out to vote for Democrats. Trump and the Republicans have taken complacency off the table.

Recently the Dalai Lama took to twitter with some advice that might be pertinent.

That is essentially what community organizer Marshall Ganz wrote about the importance of hope.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Even in the midst of the toxicity created by Trump and the Republicans, Democrats have a reason to be mobilized by hope.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.