Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Last night, Democrats flipped a Kentucky state legislative seat from red to blue — deep in Trump country. It’s the 37th such seat that Democrats have flipped into their column since the start of 2017, and many of these special election victories are happening in places that they aren’t supposed to, which has deeply alarmed some Republicans.

Why are Democrats winning these races, and what does this tell us about the 2018 midterm elections? The answer to this question doesn’t fit neatly into the debates inside the Beltway and in the Twittersphere over what Democrats should and shouldn’t be doing. Indeed, these victories are in many ways unfolding outside those arguments.

Linda Belcher, a former teacher and legislator, won a Kentucky state House seat last night by 68-32, in a district President Trump carried by 50 points. There were murky circumstances involving the suicide of the husband of her GOP opponent. But there is clearly a trend here: Of the 37 state legislative seats that Democrats have flipped since Trump took office, nearly 20 came in districts carried by Trump, some by very large margins, according to data collected by Daily Kos Elections.

I spoke to Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps boost Democratic candidates in state legislative races. She pointed to several factors driving these wins.

First, there really is a huge Trump effect. But it’s a mistake to reduce this simply to the widely discussed explosion in Democratic turnout we’ve been seeing. In many of these races, Post says, Trump has also produced a willingness of better-quality candidates to run who had previously refrained from doing so, as well as a big explosion in volunteer activity.

That volunteer activity is “a common factor in all of our special election wins,” Post told me. “Some of these people marched in the women’s march. They never volunteered before. Now they’re showing up at campaign offices.” Post adds that in one Minnesota special election, even though the temperature dropped to negative 15 degrees, “there were 25 people out door-knocking.”

Second, Trump is not figuring heavily into the campaigns these candidates have run. The Beltway and Twittersphere are consumed with debates over whether Democrats should or should not be speaking directly to anti-Trump anger, or whether their failure to more directly attack Trump’s tax plan is helping it (and Trump himself) edge up in popularity. But Post tells me that these candidates are mostly “campaigning on hyper-local issues.”

For instance, Post says, in Virginia, one Democrat campaigned on fixing local traffic problems. In Oklahoma, one stressed shortened school hours. And in southern Minnesota, one campaigned on expanding rural economic opportunities and improved access to hospitals. In rural and exurban districts, the quality of roads and schools is a big issue.

Third, independents are shifting toward Democrats. Post says that the Trump effect is complicated. In many of these races, it is deeply energizing the Democratic volunteer and voter base, while leading independents to generally want change, making them more receptive to what Democratic candidates are saying, which these candidates can capitalize on.

Democratic voters are “furious and want an outlet. So they’ll knock on the doors of other Democrats who are also furious. And then Democrats are turning out in huge numbers,” Post says. “Meanwhile, the candidate is talking to independents about local issues that really matter to their community, disconnected from Washington.” The result has been a “rebalancing,” in which districts that went heavily for Trump in 2016, washing out Dem local candidates, are now seeing quality Dem candidates reassert the Democratic brand.

This probably bodes well for Dems in the midterm elections, but with caveats. On the one hand, the Senate and House races will be more nationalized than these local elections have been, and it’s hard to predict the national political environment. On the other, most indications are that the energy among Democrats — the turnout and the volunteering — will sustain itself through 2018, especially since Trump shows no signs of curbing his vileness and depravity.

Beyond this, however, if Democrats can win a lot more of these state legislative races, that could matter immensely in coming years. Post tells me that Democrats are focused on flipping legislative chambers and are aiming at the state senates in Florida, Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and state houses in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

This could increase Democrats’ influence over the next round of redistricting maps drawn for the House of Representatives, which will be crucial in determining control of the lower chamber in the next decade whether or not Democrats do take back the House this year. So every one of these little races matters.

* KUSHNER AND KELLY AT WAR: The New York Times reports that White House chief of staff John Kelly’s drive to restrict interim security clearances amid the Rob Porter scandal has collided with Jared Kushner’s desire to maintain the clearance for himself:

Mr. Kushner … has told colleagues at the White House that he is reluctant to give up his high-level access … But Mr. Kelly, who has been privately dismissive of Mr. Kushner … has made no guarantees, saying only that the president’s son-in-law will still have all the access he needs to do his job under the new system.

Can’t Kelly just create an exception to his new rules for Trump’s son-in-law?

* WHY TRUMP CLAIMS HE’S ‘TOUGHER ON RUSSIA’: Trump has taken to claiming he’s “tougher on Russia than [President Barack] Obama,” and The Post reports on what’s really driving it:

On Russia and a host of other issues, aides and advisers say, Trump’s near-compulsion with measuring himself against Obama reflects an innate need to be judged superior to his peers and to have a singular opponent to target.

Trump also has one of the greatest temperaments in human history, believe me.

* HERE COMES ANOTHER BATTLE OVER THE ‘DREAMERS’: Politico reports that the big spending bill that must pass by March 23 offers another chance for a showdown over protecting the dreamers:

One possibility would be a scaled-down compromise that would extend protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants for an additional three years in exchange for three years of wall funding. That would punt the decision on a permanent fix past Trump’s first term as president.

This is probably Trump’s only chance to get his wall, and he’s fumbling it away because he has decided his base would object to protecting the dreamers, which is probably nonsense.

* SCHIFF REBUTTAL TO NUNES COULD BE RELEASED: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tells Esquire magazine that there has been “a lot of progress” in negotiations with intelligence officials who are objecting to the release of his rebuttal to the Nunes memo:

Schiff also said that … a deal could be announced within the next 24-to-48 hours. Less clear is whether that deal, if it comes to pass, will permit the public to finally view the Democratic memo, or whether it simply will be returned for another round of review by White House officials, who have previously blocked its publication.

One imagines Trump will be sorely tempted to block its release again, even if everyone else is fine with it.

* TRUMP TO MEET WITH FLORIDA STUDENTS, BUT … The president is set to hold a “listening session” today with people from the school where the massacre took place. Michael Shear reports on this from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

Ms. Sanders told reporters … that the session on Wednesday will include students and parents from the Florida school as well as people affected by school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. She did not say whether any of the student activists who have been critical of Mr. Trump were invited to the White House.

That’s an interesting conception of “listening session.”

* RNC PROVIDES ‘STEADY REVENUE STREAM’ FOR TRUMP BUSINESSES: The Post reports that major donors are ramping up their giving for the 2018 cycle. This is notable:

The [Republican National Committee] continues to generate a steady revenue stream for President Trump’s private business. Since Election Day in November 2016, the committee has spent nearly $400,000 at properties owned by the president’s family. In January, the RNC spent $93,492 at Trump properties, including the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., and Trump International Hotel in Washington.

The RNC is responding to the Republican president’s extensive self-dealing by shoveling money into his businesses.

 * AND YOU SHOULD BE GRATEFUL TO THE TRUMPS: Donald Trump Jr. is in India to promote Trump family deals, but he wants you to know that any talk of his father profiting off the presidency is nonsense:

Trump Jr., who along with his brother Eric now runs the Trump Organization, said when critics talk about them “profiteering from the presidency and all this nonsense” they forget about “the opportunity cost of the deals that we were not able to do.”

“It’s sort of a shame. Because we put on all these impositions on ourselves and essentially got no credit for actually doing that … for doing the right thing,” he added.

Trump Jr. really doesn’t quite get the point of this “public service” thing that his father has entered into, does he?