On November 8, 2016, Republicans held 66 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrats held 34. But Hillary Clinton, who won Virginia by almost 5 points, won in 51 of the 100 House of Delegate districts.
One year later, Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates and fundamentally changed the balance of power in the Virginia state legislature. How did this happen? First, the “Hillary 17” gave us a blueprint. It showed us where we needed to compete to take back the House of Delegates. Then, Democrats ran more candidates, raised more money, and had a better ground game than in recent years. All of this paid off, and Democrats flipped 14 “Hillary districts,” plus one other, to now hold 49 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. We supported 10 of those winners.
Democrats’ efforts in Virginia in 2017 were an amazing success, and EveryDistrict was proud to give significant grassroots donations to candidates running in the most competitive races. So, how do we replicate this success in other states? First, Democrats need a strategy. We’ve identified 162 districts across 16 states that Democrats need to, and can, flip. While Democrats have lost thousands of state legislative seats in recent years, we can build on the success of Virginia to take back even more seats next year.
To identify these seats, we developed something that is first-of-its kind. Political junkies are likely familiar with Cook PVI, the scoring system that assess the competitiveness of congressional districts across the country. Really big political junkies may even be familiar with the DPI, another scoring system. But no one before has developed a public competitiveness score for every state legislative district across the country and put it into an interactive map. Today, we’re launching our EveryDistrict State District Competitiveness Map that shows where Democrats need to focus to make the most impactful gains on the state level in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
The seats in this map have two goals: (1) to win back chambers and (2) to undo Republican supermajorities. After crunching the numbers for all of the approximately 5,400 state legislative seats in the country, we’ve identified these 162 as the top priority seats. The table below shows what the goal is in each state, and how many seats we need to win to get there. And while there’s more than one path to power, this map shows the easiest way to win by highlighting the seats that tend to vote for Democrats in statewide and national elections by the greatest margins, and therefore the seats that give us the best probability of success.
This map gives us a strategy. But what do we need to do to win these seats and replicate our success in Virginia? We aim to do three things: (1) compete in more places, (2) increase grassroots donors’ impact through peer-to-peer fundraising, and (3) implement strategies that build base turnout and broaden the composition of the Democratic base.
Compete in more places. Virginia was a watershed moment. It was one of the largest victories for Democrats in Virginia history and fundamentally reshaped the balance of power in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrats swept seats that had long been Democratic-leaning nationally, but held by Republicans locally. They also won in many Republican-leaning seats, and fell short in a number of “safe” Republican districts by only a small margin.
Most of the resources in Virginia concentrated on a small group of candidates in districts that reliably vote for Democrats in statewide and national elections. We expanded the playing field by supporting Democrats in more purple and red districts, and it worked. In Republican-leaning seats with strong candidates, for example the 10th, 72nd, and 85th Districts, Democrats won. But we might have done even better if more resources has gone to slightly more Republican-leaning districts. For example, we lost the 84th District by 700 votes, despite being outspent 10-to-1.
The 162 districts in our EveryDistrict State District Competitiveness Map show the narrowest path back to power. These are the seats we need to invest in now. But they’re not the only seats that matter. For Democrats to build sustainable majorities in state legislatures across the country, we have to compete everywhere. This map shows how we start doing that, and in the coming weeks we’ll be rolling out more maps that show where we need to compete to expand the playing field even more.
Empower grassroots donors. The excitement around the Resistance has created a great wave of energy among grassroots donors. We first saw this with Jon Ossoff, who raised a record-breaking $23 million in his ultimately unsuccessful bid to win Georgia’s 6th congressional district. In Virginia, we worked with grassroots donors to maximize their fundraising potential by not just relying on what they could donate, but by cultivating their networks, email lists, and friend groups to turn them from small- to large-dollar donors. In the more crowded atmosphere of 2018, we’re going to need to continue to maximize grassroots donor resources to ensure state legislative candidates have the money they need to run strong campaigns.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be releasing more tools to maximize the power of grassroots donors through peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns. Combined with our groundbreaking interactive map, we’re putting power in the hands of everyone who wants to make a difference at the local level to support strong candidates in winnable districts who are stepping up for Democratic values.
Build and broaden the base. Post-2016, Democrats seem caught in an endless debate about the base. Should we seek to rebuild our base turnout, particularly among minorities and young people, or do we focus on winning back the white working class? We believe that the answer is you have to do both. Ralph Northam and the House of Delegate candidates in Virginia succeeded in large part because of the Democratic base coalition. However, the districts that they ran in had many of the recipes for Democratic success in the age of Trump. They were highly educated and diverse, and increasingly trending blue.
In other places, in places where we have a real opportunity to shift the balance of power like Pennsylvania and Ohio, not all of those elements will be there. In some places, we’ll need to re-engage our base who might not vote frequently — or ever — on the state legislative level. We’ll need strong, long term organizing strategies that respond to the needs of these voters. At the same time, in districts where the win margin depends on Obama-Trump voters, we need organizing strategies to bring those voters back into the Democratic coalition. Our focus in working with candidates in 2018 will be to help them develop the strongest base organizing strategies available and to persuade where that’s what the race demands. We believe that Democrats can do both while maintaining core Democratic values.
So, that’s the plan, that’s the vision. With the right strategy, we can win these seats and lay the foundation to put even more districts in play in 2019 and 2020. If we do that, we can not only win elections, but install legislators who will enact long term change to benefit all Americans. We did it in Virginia, and we can do it again.