How Democrats Can Really Win Back Power

The party has long neglected its candidates for local office. Amanda Litman wants to change that.

It’s hard to hear Amanda Litman’s voice at first. She’s speaking on the phone from a noisy café in Chicago. Based in Brooklyn, she’s spent the past six weeks bouncing around the country for fundraising events, media interviews, and volunteer meetings. This has been her life since early 2017, when she co-founded Run For Something, a progressive advocacy organization that recruits and supports young candidates for down-ballot offices.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Litman worked as the email director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. After the election, she was without a job. But within a month, she started to create a group through which she could back first-time political candidates. Her explanation for jumping from the federal to local level is quite simple.

“Local government is where shit gets done,” Litman told me flatly.

And she’s been busy. In 2019 alone, Run For Something has endorsed nearly 200 candidates running for positions ranging from the school board to the state house. Winning local seats, Litman believes, is the key to rebuilding the Democratic Party in the long-run.

While the national party has invested millions in local races, it is focused narrowly on candidates for legislative seats. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), for instance, allocates resources to all 50 state parties but puts a special emphasis into states “where increasing Democratic representation of post-2020 redistricting is crucial.”

In other words, these traditional engines of Democratic mobilizing have left a vacuum at the local level that Litman wants to fill. In turn, she may just be creating an infrastructure to maintain Democratic power in states and cities—and the country—for decades.

Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories may have been a triumph for the American left, but Republicans made enormous gains over the course of his presidency by winning governor’s mansions and the majorities in dozens of state legislatures.

That’s not an accident. Republicans have invested much more heavily into winning locally. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) spent $40 million on state races between 2015 and 2016. Its counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), spent roughly $17 million on similar races during that same cycle, according to someone familiar with the group’s spending.

This uneven allotment goes further back. Ahead of the 2010 census, the RSLC launched the REDistricting Majority Project to win greater Republican representation after the lines were drawn. Championed by George W. Bush’s former strategist Karl Rove, the initiative was guided by a simple mantra: “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”

Now, with the next census in 2020, Democrats are susceptible to the GOP expanding its capacity to hold onto Congress by controlling the redistricting process in states across the nation.

This is where Run For Something comes in. Even though it’s only raised nearly $3 million since its inception, the organization going for a wider reach than the DLCC, supporting candidates at all levels of government in every state.

For Litman, these races are where the work of building a pipeline of Democratic candidates begins. But it’s not merely about preparing Democrats for the big leagues. It’s about protecting progressive values where they are most vulnerable.

Amanda Litman

Part of the reason why we find ourselves in the position we’re in now is because we got comfortable,” Run For Something’s co-founder, Ross Morales Rocketto, told me. After taking the House of Representatives in 2006 and electing a Democratic president in 2008, the party got complacent. Then, Republicans started making inroads at the state level, where they would go on to roll back the gains Obama had made.

In the 2014 midterms, the GOP flipped 11 state chambers, giving them control of 68 in total (out of the 87 up for election that year). By the end of Obama’s term, Democrats held just 18 percent of state legislatures, compared to the GOP’s 50 percent.

And that’s where Republicans have implemented their most draconian right-wing policies, like Georgia’s and Alabama’s laws that dramatically undercut abortion rights.   

When Amanda and I meet face-to-face, she’s excited to announce that Run For Something has just endorsed 38 new candidates that day, several of whom she hopes will achieve something that others might write off as quixotic: creating a progressive presence in Trump Country.

Litman, who has knocked on doors in red districts for candidates her organization has endorsed, was surprised when Republican voters told her in the run-up to last year’s midterms that they had never met a Democrat asking for their vote before.

Most of them ultimately maintained their party allegiance, she said, but not all of them. And that played a key role in 2018, when rural success was key to Democratic victories in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Montana, where simply performing less poorly in those areas than in 2016 made the difference between a Democrat winning and losing.

Beyond improving overall Democratic performance, Run For Something has taken a key interest in expanding the demographic makeup of Democratic representation.

Take Anna Eskamani, who won a seat in the Florida State House in 2018 as a 28-year-old first-time candidate. Eskamani grew up in Orlando with working-class parents who had immigrated from Iran. In another era, her story would be unfathomable. But when the Trump presidency galvanized her to launch a bid for public office, there was an organization there to help.

As the former senior director for public affairs and communications at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, Eskamani put her life on hold to mount a campaign. At the same time, she was pursuing a PhD at the University of Central Florida (which, by the way, she’s still working on). Run For Something was one of the first groups to endorse her. Along the way, the group set up monthly fundraising calls, provided campaign resources, and hosted Twitter town halls for her. All of which was pivotal to her success.

But helping candidates like Eskamani is just a piece of the larger story. After its first two years, Run For Something’s numbers showcase an impressive diversity: 55 percent of its successful candidates are women, 16 percent are LGBTQ, and roughly 50 percent are people of color. All in all, they have flipped 20 state legislative seats from red to blue. Not only is the group mobilizing people who have long been marginalized from the political process, it is helping them win.

Despite Trump being a major impetus for many of these candidates entering the political fray, they make a point of rarely citing him on the campaign trail. The reason, both Amanda and Ross tell me, is that the point of Run For Something—which its candidates seem to buy into—is much broader than 2020.

Litman said she is playing a long game to not only help Democrats win back control of government at all levels—but to keep it. That’s why she’s putting all of her energy not into the defeat of Donald Trump, but into the defeat of Republicans in state houses and city halls and school boards across the country, from Texas to Tennessee to Alaska.

If GOP officials get to redraw Congressional lines after the next election, the consequences will be felt long after Trump leaves Washington. “It won’t make a difference who’s in the White House, because we’ll lose Congress in 2022 after redistricting,” Litman said. “And we will lose it for a generation.”

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Tabitha Sanders

Tabitha Sanders is a communications associate with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She is a former editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.