Can the Democratic Party Make a Comeback in 2018?

Dec 14, 2017, 02:00 PM

After losing the White House in 2016, the Democratic Party finally has a string of victories to celebrate. In November, Democrats won high-profile races in Virginia, New Jersey, and other states. And on Tuesday, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a stunning upset in the Alabama Senate special election.

But the unique circumstances of the Alabama race, where Moore faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls, aren’t likely to be replicated. The party also hasn’t yet proven it can win national races in states that flipped from blue to red during the 2016 presidential election.

Party officials are still cheering the wins as a sign of good things to come. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez predicted on Wednesday that the party can win the House and the Senate in 2018. “Last night was not a fluke, it was a message: The days of Donald Trump are numbered,” Perez said.

Democrats have real advantages heading into 2018. The president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections, and Trump is a historically unpopular president. Democrats have also consistently outperformed expectations in special elections, a sign that voters are energized. And progressive groups and the DNC have, to some extent, found common cause in a strategy that emphasizes grassroots organizing.

“Republican candidates in 2018 might not be as flawed as Roy Moore, but the battleground districts and states won’t be as Republican as Alabama,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “This race had started to close before the allegations came out because of backlash against President Trump … and one of the keys that put us over the top was a coalition of organizing that included the DNC and others.”

The DNC, for its part, is emphasizing a commitment to the grassroots. “The new DNC is all about talking to people in every zip code, building relationships in every zip code,” Perez told reporters on Wednesday. As the party seeks to repair its battered image, Perez is also trying to prove it has learned from its mistakes. “In the past, the Democratic Party all too frequently took voters for granted,” Perez said, adding that those days “are in the rearview mirror” and that “the new Democratic Party is organizing everywhere.”

One of the most pressing challenges for the DNC is to win back trust lost in the last election when hacked emails showed then-Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz disparaging Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders. As new progressive organizations have cropped up to channel the frustration and anxiety of Democratic voters in the aftermath of the presidential election, the DNC faces pressure to prove it can also be an effective conduit for pent-up grassroots energy.

The DNC invested close to $1 million in the Alabama senate race, all of which helped fund voter contact and organizing efforts to drive up black and Millennial voter turnout. A surge in black voter turnout helped propel Jones to victory on Tuesday evening.

A broad array of liberal organizations were also working to get out the vote for Jones in the Alabama Senate race, including progressive groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, and the Working Families Party. MoveOn volunteers sent thousands of text messages encouraging people to vote, while Working Families Party volunteers helped recruit people to phone bank and knock on doors in Alabama.

“I think the real story is that the DNC and traditional institutions in the Democratic Party are not the only game in town. There are a lot of outside groups doing really important work to tap into grassroots energy and activism,” said Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party.

National Democrats kept a low profile in the race. The DNC did not publicly announce the extent of its investment in the race until the day of the election in Alabama as part of a strategy to keep the focus on Jones and his campaign. “We operated below the radar screen because that was in the best interest of the race....