Given the party’s recent losses, Democrats’ latest attempts to compete at the federal level in traditionally red states may seem off base. In 2018, 10 Democratic senators are up for reelection in states where President Trump prevailed, while just one Republican incumbent is running in a state that Hillary Clinton carried. Yet despite the daunting landscape, some Democrats are setting their sights on races in Texas and, more unexpectedly, deep-red Alabama.
Unlike with previous bids to expand the electoral map, however, these Democrats are not relying on outside money or slickly produced ads. They are doing it with strong candidates who are running smart, locally driven campaigns.
The first opportunity for a Democratic pickup will come in December when Alabama voters head to the polls for a special election to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The race pits former U.S. attorney Doug Jones (D) against extreme right-wing candidate Roy Moore (R), a former judge with a history of espousing theocratic and bigoted views. Moore’s victory in the Republican primary last month put the race on the national radar, but Democrats now have a chance to compete because of work that Jones and his supporters, including local activists affiliated with MoveOn.org, have been doing on the ground for months.
For Alabama voters, the choice between Moore and Jones, who is best known across the state for prosecuting former members of the Ku Klux Klan, is stark. That is partly because of Moore’s extremism, but it’s also because Jones is running an unusually progressive campaign for a statewide candidate in Alabama. Although he stops short of endorsing Medicare for all, Jones supports a public option, saying that “health care is a right.” He is unequivocally pro-choice. And he has called for criminal-justice reform, an issue on which he is particularly qualified to lead, criticizing Sessions’s moves to roll back Obama-era sentencing reforms.
Just three years after Sessions was reelected with more than 97 percent of the vote — Democrats did not even bother to put up a nominee in 2014 — polls now show a surprisingly tight race with Moore’s lead in the single digits.
The situation is similar in Texas, where Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) is mounting a challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R), whose approval rating is underwater. Like Jones, O’Rourke, a former tech entrepreneur from El Paso, is attempting to prove that a progressive candidate can win over rural voters. A longtime critic of the war on drugs, O’Rourke is a passionate supporter of criminal-justice reform and has worked to build trans-partisan alliances on the issue. He has endorsed “a single-payer health care system for all Americans.” And he has used his standing as the representative of a border region to push for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
It is the kind of campaign that O’Rouke is running, as much as his policies, that makes him stand out. Lamenting that “politics has become very corporate,” O’Rourke is refusing to accept PAC money and spurning high-priced consultants. Meanwhile, he spent much of the summer crisscrossing the state to engage with potential voters. “In August alone, he held scheduled events in 32 towns and cities, and stopped in others along the way,” the Texas Observer recently reported, “many of them places that few prominent Democrats ever go.” O’Rourke has likened the campaign to his time in a punk rock band, explaining that it’s about “a direct, honest connection between people.”
While a poll this year showed O’Rourke running even with Cruz, he, like Jones, clearly faces an uphill battle. But it is notable that both candidates are gaining traction without running to the center or running, at least primarily, against Trump. Instead, they are going to meet voters — including Trump voters — where they live, talking about the issues that affect their lives and working to make a real connection that transcends partisan lines.
These are still uphill races. But both candidates are proving why, for Democrats to go from resistance to power, a bold 50-state strategy is critical. Even if the Jones and O’Rourke campaigns do not end in victory, there is clear value in mobilizing progressive voters and building the state and local infrastructure to compete in future races, particularly at the all-important state and local levels. On that front, the recent string of progressive victories in local elections nationwide, some in places where Democrats had not won in years, shows that there is a real desire for progressive solutions in every part of the country, including areas that many Democrats have unfortunately written off.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Vice Chairman Keith Ellison have discussed the importance of a 50-state strategy. Looking ahead to 2018, Democrats would be wise to remember the lesson that they could have learned during Howard Dean’s tenure at the DNC a decade ago — that they win the national argument if they are willing to take and make their case all over the country.