What Democrats Can Learn From This Week's Wins

Nov 11, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Democrats were cheered this week by state and local wins in elections across the country. They were especially happy in the state - excuse me - commonwealth of Virginia - where Democrats were elected governor, attorney general and won 15 more seats in the House of Delegates and may actually be able to challenge Republicans for control there. Winning state legislative seats is the focus of a newly formed progressive superPAC. It's called Forward Majority. And in Virginia, they helped Democrats win in districts that were thought to be unwinnable. The co-founder is David Cohen, a former Obama campaign staffer who joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID COHEN: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: As you read it, Mr. Cohen - and you've got a right to boast this week - even at the local level, was this all a vote against the Trump brand of the Republican Party?

COHEN: I think, absolutely, that was a key component of it. But at the same time, one of the things that I've seen over and over again on races is that campaigns just don't win themselves. It takes building a grass-roots organization locally, and then it takes real effort to get your message out. So for a lot of the races that we were working in, what we saw was a Republican incumbent who was certainly tied to Trump and to Trump policies. And it was about making sure that we were disseminating that information so that people really understood the connection between those two things - how national policy and Trump in the White House affects their lives in their local district.

SIMON: But you can do that in a local district? I mean, we might understand it in the Senate or gubernatorial race. But how do you do it in a local legislative race?

COHEN: Well, you know, in a lot of these districts the real area of focus was on health care. And many of these legislators had been in office without a challenger for maybe a decade. And so, you know, they had voted repeatedly against expanding Medicaid under the ACA. And they had come out in support of Trumpcare. And, you know, our job as we saw it was to hold them accountable for those votes and really shine a light on how they had voted and the policies they'd introduced and then how those policies would impact that local community in particular.

SIMON: Despite the big wins this week, a CNN poll shows that only 37 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Democratic Party. That's the lowest mark in 25 years. We'll note the Republicans are even lower, but that 37 percent has to be discouraging, doesn't it?

COHEN: I guess so. But at the same time, one of the things that is so important to us at Forward Majority is thinking about state legislatures as an opportunity to rebuild the bench of the party that's really been decimated in recent years. We've lost nearly a thousand state legislative seats in the last decade or so. And when you lose that many seats, what you're losing is people who are really connected with their local community who are the local face of the Democratic Party. One of the things that we'll want to do is identify new leadership that can come up from the grass roots and be elected at the local level.

SIMON: Do you cite the fact that Barack Obama, for example, was a state legislator? And so was Abe Lincoln, for that matter.

COHEN: Yeah, for sure. I mean, Barack Obama is a great example in many ways because when he was first in the state legislature in Illinois, you know, he was able to introduce pieces of legislation that really became his calling card when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. And so, you know, that propelled him to that stage in Boston at the Democratic Convention and, in many ways, onto the presidency. And the exciting thing about working in - with the legislative candidates is that the next Democratic leader is out there. They may not be somebody that we've heard of yet, but maybe they just got elected in Virginia this past week.

SIMON: David Cohen of Forward majority, thanks so much for being with us.

COHEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.