Dems’ new plan for 2018: New candidates, more ambition

New candidates. Revamped ads. Fresh electoral strategies.

Democratic leaders say this week’s surprise victories, headlined by gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam’s attention-grabbing nine-point win in Virginia, are making them reconsider the 2018 midterm elections, convinced the party should grow more ambitious amid what they now see as a broad and deep backlash to President Donald Trump.

Not only are party strategists planning to replicate this year’s winning strategies; they’re dead-set on making sure the party continues to find and recruit new candidates in races once viewed as too Republican — confident that Tuesday’s results prove Democrats can win almost anywhere.

“Last night showed we really need to step back and rethink what 2018 is going to look like,” said Greg Speed, president of America Votes, a progressive advocacy group focused in part on state elections. “If there’s one takeaway from 2017, it’s that you got to run to win. And when we field good candidates, anything’s possible.”

Democrats won big Tuesday, at every electoral level and in nearly every part of the country. The party claimed victories in two state House races in Georgia, a pair of unprecedented victories in local suburban Philadelphia districts, and a key state Senate seat in Washington State.

And in Virginia, Democrats won not only the governor’s race but gained at least 15 seats in the House of Delegates (four races remain undecided and headed for a possible recount), potentially winning a majority.

Democrats hadn’t gained that many seats in the chamber in more than a hundred years. And the breadth of victories shocked even plugged-in operatives, who a day earlier had hoped for half as many wins.

To them, that kind of success proves Democrats are in for a big year in 2018. And it means the party needs to prepare in earnest to run credible candidates in every conceivable race, no matter how Republican the electorate.

“Let me be clear: This is not just one night,” Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters Wednesday. “It is a trend. These victories represent movement to the Democratic Party across the country.”

Democrats had already assembled one of their largest-ever recruiting classes thanks to a liberal base enraged by Trump. (EMILY’s List, which supports female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, says it has been contacted by more than 20,000 women about running for office.)

But they had reason to feel good by Wednesday that more candidates were stepping forward: Run for Something, a new progressive group that encourages and supports Democratic candidates, had about 10 times as many candidate sign-ups Wednesday as it does on a normal day, according to Amanda Litman, co-founder of the group. (The group normally has 10 candidates sign up per day.)

“Last night taught us: We have to contest every election, in every district,” she said.

Democrats must gain 24 seats to win a majority in the House next year, a task made more difficult because even many of the districts Democrats consider their top targets have Republican-leaning constituencies. The party faces similar hurdles in many state legislative chambers, where before Tuesday, Democrats had been skeptical they could win enough seats for majorities.

Aiding those efforts now, however, might be a new wrinkle in a Trump-related strategy.

Joshua Ulibarri, the pollster for Democratic House of Delegate candidates in Virginia, said their success was vindication of a strategy that focused not on Trump’s personality — as many Democrats do — but his agenda. In the pollster’s telling, Democrats last year failed to gain much traction linking GOP lawmakers to Trump because voters saw the then-presidential candidate as fundamentally different than most Republicans.

But those attacks focused on Trump’s often incendiary rhetoric. Ulibarri said now that he’s in office with a record to exploit, his Democratic candidates avoided Trump’s personality altogether.

“That’s one of our big lessons here is how to get voters to vote against Trump,” Ulibarri said. “It’s not based on personality and image.”

“What we have to do is define the agenda,” he added. “Trump and this Republican agree on health care, on fracking, on minimum wage, on pay equity. We have to tie the Republicans to the Trump agenda, and then they will hold the Republican accountable.”

Of course, for a Democratic Party still rife with infighting between its liberal and establishment factions, there were different interpretations of why Northam and other Democrats in Virginia won on Tuesday. A week before the election, the Latino Victory Project ran a controversial ad depicting a Confederate flag-adorned pickup truck chasing after small children of color.

At the time, the ad was seen as hurtful to Northam’s chances. And indeed, Ulibarri said it needlessly contributed to a tough final week for Democrats in the state, letting Republicans seize on an issue that energized their base.

The ad’s creator, however, said the strong message worked — and should be replicated elsewhere in 2018 if Democrats want to engage with minority communities who are skeptical the party will stand up for them.

“If you’re in a fistfight, you don’t swing softly; you swing to knock them out,” said Colin Rogero, a Democratic operative who created the ad. “Democrats should be prepared to hit as hard as they’re being hit. Traditionally we have not been.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty