Last month, Election Day 2017 saw political pundits keep an almost laser-beam like focus on the race for Virginia governor, declaring the Democratic upset a referendum on President Donald Trump. But an equally important referendum was playing out in local and municipal races across the country, as progressive Democratic candidates swept dozens of races, unseating incumbent candidates.
It wasn’t just liberal enclaves on the East and West Coasts that flipped from red to blue. The most obvious example is the special election for US Senate in Alabama, in which Doug Jones became the first Democratic senator Alabama voters elected in 25 years.
Jones’s 2017 race saw the Democratic Party get involved in a deep red state in a way it hadn’t in decades. But there were many more progressive groups, both local and outside, that were also on the ground, helping turn out voters and propel Jones to his historic win.
The age of Trump has energized Democrats across the country, as progressives focus on winning races in parts of the country that had been deemed out of reach electorally. And while Congressional special elections get the most headlines, progressive groups are also turning their focus to state and local elections.
During the 2017 elections, groups like the Working Families Party, Bernie Sanders’s group Our Revolution, Run for Something, Democracy For America, Mobilize America and Sister District all endorsed or assisted local candidates, offering help like field organizing and fundraising assistance. These groups either complemented or filled in for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic party’s arm focusing on state legislative races.
The 2017 elections showed these groups are getting results; in addition to municipal wins, Democrats flipped the Washington State Senate and managed to win back a substantial number of seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates. And they are already gearing up for next year, where many more local seats will be in play across the country.
The Trump backlash is putting progressives in municipal office
Not many pollsters track municipal elections — but starting this fall, the few who do noticed a backlash to Trumpism that reverberated all the way down the ballot.
“I definitely think it’s a reaction to Trump,” said election analyst and writer Nathaniel Rakich, who writes for FiveThirtyEight and Inside Elections. “I think progressives are waking up and realizing that in order to defeat this far-right strain … that they need to seriously organize on all levels.”
And in November, that backlash translated into wins as a historic wave of diverse candidates, including women, transgender people, and people of color, won offices ranging from mayors to school board members. Progressive Democrats ran and won mayoral races in places like Helena, Montana; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Jackson, Mississippi.
In Aurora, Colorado, 23-year-old Democratic Latina candidate Crystal Murillo was one of three progressive women to unseat Republicans on the Aurora City Council. Before Election Day, the city council had nine Republicans and one independent.
The first in her family to graduate from high school and college, Murillo ran for the open Ward 1 city council seat, challenging pro-Trump Republican Sally Mounier, the incumbent since 2012. Local issues in Aurora intersect deeply with national politics; Ward 1 is predominantly made up of immigrants and refugees, and Mounier was opposed to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to Colorado Public Radio.
“She had very strong and scary opinions of what immigration should look like in this country,” Murillo said. “That was alarming and scary, especially for me.”
Beyond immigration, there were many more issues in Aurora’s Ward 1 that were out of the national spotlight, including the lack of affordable housing and need for better public transportation. Coming from the area, these were issues Murillo understood deeply, and they made up the pillars of her campaign.
“People, I think, are struggling, and that’s the truth,” Murillo said. “It’s an immigrant and refugee community … people are subject to some volatile rental rates, people are not benefitting the way other people are in Aurora.”
“It should be more about issues we care about then acting out of fear,” she added.
Local issues, combined with a nationwide strategy
Mayors, city councilors, and school members often don’t get nearly the attention as races for governor or Congress. But they’re arguably just as important, if not more so; they have far more of a direct impact on their local communities than politicians at the federal level.
“These folks decide policies that impact folks lives every day,” said Carolyn Fiddler, political editor and senior communications advisor at the Daily Kos who tracks local races. “I think a lot of folks in their day to day normal lives don’t always realize that.”
The lack of attention to these elections is reflected in low voter turnout; a 2016 study from Portland State University found that in half of the 30 most populous cities in the US, mayoral elections brought out less than 20 percent of voters to the polls. Those who were voting were often older and white, and not necessarily reflective of their larger communities.
So with Republicans currently in control of all three branches in Washington, DC, it makes sense that progressive activist groups would be turning their sights outward into America’s cities.
“I don’t think there’s a position too small to start building progressive power, especially with all the energy you’re seeing among progressives this year not just in opposing Trump, but also recognizing how important it is to push for progressive policies like minimum wage to universal health care,” Democracy for America spokesperson Vivek Kembaiyan told McClatchy’s Alex Roarty this summer.
Groups like the Working Families Party, Bernie Sanders’s group Our Revolution, Run for Something, Democracy For America, Mobilize America, and Sister District all either endorsed or assisted local candidates in different ways, whether it was with field organizing or fundraising assistance. These groups either complemented or filled in for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic Party’s arm focusing on state legislative races.
“There’s always been a part of the Democratic Party apparatus that does state legislative races, but more groups are either being created or shifting their focus to state level politics,” said Fiddler, who used to work for the DLCC.
After Trump’s election in November, Fiddler said she started seeing progressive groups getting engaged with state and local races in a way they hadn’t before.
“They started coming out of the woodwork last winter,” Fiddler said. “I’ve worked in state politics a long time, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
That strategy worked on Election night 2017. Democrats held onto the 62 mayoral seats they had in the nation’s top 100 largest cities and elected diverse candidates openly espousing progressive values to many seats, including in Minneapolis, Helena, Albuquerque, and Hoboken, New Jersey. They won many more city council and school board seats, flipped numerous seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates and turned Washington state’s legislature back to blue.
It worked again the following month in Alabama’s special election, as local grassroots activists organized to get black voters to the polls to cast their ballot for Democrat Doug Jones.
While many had stories that resonated on a national level, they campaigned hard on local issues. Democrat Danica Roem, the transgender candidate who won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, beating a Republican who had been in office for 26 years.
Roem’s story became national news. But all along, her campaign strategy was about messaging on local issues, most notably Virginia’s congested roadways.
“You have to make a compelling case, and you’ve got to speak fluently on the issues that directly affect the office that you’re seeking,” Roem told Vox in a recent interview. “You can’t just say, ‘I hate Trump, vote for me.’ That doesn’t win you the House of Delegates. If you can’t speak fluently about your local issues, you’re just not going to win, period.”
Strategists are already ahead to this class of 2017’s chances in future elections, and progressive groups are excited about what increased local engagement means down the road.
“The town councilors and school board members of today are very often the mayors, state legislators and candidates for congress for tomorrow,” said Working Families Party spokesperson Joe Dinkin. “For 2018, it shows the potential is really there to take back Congress from Trump and the Republicans. It shows the direction we should be looking in, candidates with that kind of bold and transformative, visionary message.”