Part 3: Setting Candidates Up for Success
In the first piece of our series kicking off 2020, we outlined the landscape for Democrats in key 2020 states. In our last piece, we outlined our strategy and where EveryDistrict will focus our efforts between now and Election Day 2020. Today, we’ll look at candidates and talk about the results of our 2019 post-election candidate survey. Next, we’ll look at the dollar and demographic dynamics that will define 2020.
What makes a good candidate? What makes them “electable?” It’s a loaded question and often an exclusionary one.
We’ve been proud to support a diverse set of candidates in the seven states in which we’ve worked. We’ve helped to elect the first Latinas (Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala), first Iranian-American (Anna Eskamani), and first Muslim-American woman (Ghazala Hashmi) to their respective state legislatures. We’ve elected both moderate and progressive Democrats to seats held by the GOP for years. We’ve seen 52% of our female candidates win (compared to 48% overall).
And these successful candidates have not won primaries in safe blue districts. Rather, given where EveryDistrict works, these candidates have achieved success in competitive, “purple-to-pink” districts held by Republicans across the country. Through their candidacies, these groundbreaking candidates have shifted the direction of their communities.
What has been special about the 48 candidates that EveryDistrict has supported who have won seats the past three cycles? We’ve identified six factors that winning candidates share:
1. A strong connection to the district.
We see this as the single most pivotal factor for a campaign’s success. Winning candidates generally have a strong connection to the community that they wish to serve. There is a clear reason why someone who lives in the district would see them as an authentic member of the community. That connection can take many forms, from being a small business owner to a teacher or an active member of the PTA. But in every case, that connection signals that this candidate understands the lives and experiences of the district that they hope to represent in the legislature.
We see this theme strongly in our post-election candidate survey. Successful candidates point to their background and connection to the community as an asset to their campaign. In many instances, unsuccessful candidates will note their difficulty in overcoming the advantage of a longtime incumbent who’s well known in the district, even if their voting record is out of step with the majority of the district.
2. A smart message for the district.
Tied to the connection to the district is a message that resonates for the specific geography and communities of the district. In Michigan, for example, we have seen Democrats highlight the challenges that extremely high auto insurance rates place on working families.
On the other end of the spectrum, more universal issues like greater funding for education and better access to health care resonate with voters because of the number of voters who feel personally affected by these issues. Of the 21 campaigns who completed our 2019 post-election candidate survey, 11 identified education funding as a top issue raised by voters on the doors. Fourteen identified health care as a top issue. Of the 51 candidates who have completed our post-election survey over the past two years, 32 identified education and 30 identified health care as top issues talked about by voters.
On issues like education and health care, Democrats have the messaging advantage. Across the board, GOP-controlled legislatures have slashed education funding. National Republicans continue their efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Republicans understand this, which is why over 80% of respondents to our 2019 post-election survey said Republicans labeled them “socialists” or tried to tie them to national issues like impeachment. An effective message tailored to the district can help candidates overcome partisan biases that may exist and rally infrequent Democratic voters. Doing so will be particularly important in 2020, when over 70% of the must-win districts lean Republican.
3. Commitment to do what it takes to win an election.
Being a candidate for elected office is challenging. Most of our candidates have a full-time job, kids, and have now taken on the major effort to run a successful campaign for elected office. It is hard work. But the candidates who are willing to go the extra mile to make that phone call, to knock on that door, and to build that volunteer base see results. A strong connection to the community, as discussed above, also helps candidates marshal volunteers. It builds tremendous momentum to have a strong base of support from the beginning. State legislative campaigns are grassroots efforts. The larger the volunteer network supporting a candidate, the greater the magnitude of impact that the campaign can have. Candidates who can galvanize dozens of their friends, family, and the broader members of the local activist community to be involved tend to win more often.
4. Ability to get the financial resources that they need.
But volunteers alone can’t win a campaign. Many of the candidates we work with are first-timers and one of the areas that they struggle with the most is raising money. Often, candidates must hit certain fundraising targets on their own before other statewide and national groups will invest in their campaigns. We disagree with this strategy because it biases the candidate pool toward people who either have means themselves or have social networks comprised of people of means. We should be encouraging young people, teachers, nurses, veterans, public safety officers, organizers, and others to run. Our legislatures are better off when they include folks with these backgrounds. We shouldn’t punish people because they’ve chosen a profession that doesn’t surround them with wealthy people.
That said, we do know that candidates that get adequate resources perform better. We have discussed previously, and will talk about this more in our next piece, how Democratic money fails to get many candidates the direct resources that they need. But we saw the flip side of this in Virginia last year, where most of the targeted races actually had the resources they needed to run a competitive campaign, and it paid off. Of the Virginia candidates who responded to our survey, 75% said they had the fundraising advantage in the race, and campaign finance reports confirm that picture. In 2018, almost 55% of candidates surveyed said the Republican candidate held the financial advantage, and it showed when we failed to pick up winnable districts across the country.
Our state legislative candidates, particularly those without millionaire friends, need the support of Democratic donors across the country to help make change in their communities and achieve their potential as candidates. You can help with that effort by donating to our 2020 Fund, where 100% of your donation will go to helping candidates in target districts.
5. A great campaign team that supports them to victory.
It’s not all on the candidate. Hiring and trusting quality staff is key to success. Being able to hire a campaign manager early on in the cycle also pays dividends. Many campaigns we work with have very limited paid staff before the summer and fall because of limited funding, hampering their ability to succeed. This is why it’s so crucial to not just invest in state legislative candidates, but to invest early.
6. Courage to chart a unique path that makes sense for them.
If Democrats run the same playbook they ran in the states in 2018 and 2019, we’ll fall short in many of the critical districts across the country. Candidates need to evaluate the specific competitiveness and demographics of their district and ultimately be able to run a campaign that is responsive to those realities. (In two weeks, we’ll be spelling out these dynamics in greater detail.)
With a million people telling the candidate what to do, it can be hard to fight for the need for a unique approach. However, the ability for Democrats to win majorities in many states in 2020 will depend on candidates working with supporters and state parties to implement specific strategies for their communities. We’ll need to dispense with the old playbook and embrace innovative turnout and persuasion strategies for our different communities.
What this means for 2020
Candidate quality is the “X Factor” in the state legislative landscape. Strong, inspiring candidates can make marginal districts highly competitive. They can eke out wins in places that other people have written off. They continue to win once elected because of the factors that enabled them to get into office in the first place.
In piece 1 and piece 2 of our series kicking off 2020, we looked at the chambers and districts that will decide control of the states this year and outlined where EveryDistrict will be making investments. Now that we’ve identified those chambers and districts, the next step is finding candidates who have the qualities we’ve listed above. Stay tuned for our first round of endorsements in early February.
Are you interested in running for a state legislative seat in your community? Do you live in one of EveryDistrict’s 2020 target states? Or maybe you live in another competitive district across the country? You can check out our map to see where we are keeping an eye on nationwide. If you are, fill out our candidate form and a member of our team will be in touch to learn how we can help.