There’s no denying that Tuesday was a bad day for Democrats in particular and American democracy at large. But looking beyond the presidential race, there were a number of bright spots across the country, both where Democratic candidates won important elections and where key progressive ballot measures were passed.
These sorts of developments, which often fall under the radar, might seem small compared to the debacle at the top of the ticket. But in fact, they’re more important than ever, since progressives now need to redouble our efforts to build the Democratic Party from the bottom up. We can’t win the bigger races without building up a bench by winning the smaller races first, and in a number of places, we did exactly that.
Let’s review some of the most prominent positives from 2016:
A Democratic Party that looks more like America
In Nevada, Catherine Cortez-Masto will become the first Latina to serve in the Senate, and in Illinois Tammy Duckworth will become the first Thai-American senator. In California, Kamala Harris is the first Indian-American senator and only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is bisexual, is the first openly LGBT person to win a gubernatorial election. And Ilhan Omar was elected as a state representative in Minnesota, the first Somali-American legislator in the country. BuzzFeed has also listed some additional firsts for the new Congress. As America continues to grow more diverse, the Democratic party is following suit, while the GOP stubbornly refuses to embrace the changing country.
Victories Out West
While the Upper Midwest broke our hearts and the new South is still a few years away from coming into its own, western states offered much more cheer for Democrats. In addition to expected victories up and down the Pacific coast, Democrats swept Nevada, taking a Senate seat, two U.S. House seats, and both chambers of the state legislature. Democrats also took back the New Mexico state House and put together a coalition to take control of the Alaska House. These successes actually resulted in a net gain of at least one legislative chamber for Democrats nationally! And Arizona showed itself to be more Democratic than it had been in recent years, particularly with Maricopa County finally dumping the awful Sheriff Joe Arpaio in favor of Democrat Paul Penzone.
HB2’s Just Desserts
Despite losses in the federal races, North Carolina voters evidently couldn’t stomach the terrible stench that the notorious anti-LGBT law known as HB2 had placed over the state. They appear to have turned GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the law and defended it at length, out of office in favor of state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has insisted it be repealed. (The race hasn’t been officially called, but Cooper leads with all precincts reporting). Voters also chose Democrat Josh Stein to replace Cooper as attorney general instead of Republican Buck Newton, who had pushed HB2.
(State) Supreme Court Victories
So many legal matters never make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, making state supreme courts important avenues for safeguarding our rights, and progressives scored big in two states. The North Carolina Supreme Court will have a four-to-three Democratic majority after Judge Michael Morgan defeated a Republican incumbent. Among other things, this could have big implications for North Carolina’s next round of redistricting in 2020. The Montana Supreme Court also retained a Democratic majority thanks to the victory of Dirk Sandefur in an open-seat race. And attempts to vote down the retention of three Kansas Supreme Court justices failed, meaning, remarkably, that Democrats still have a four-to-three majority on the bench in this deep red state.
Criminal Justice Reform
In addition to taking down Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, reform-minded candidates won prosecutorial races in major jurisdictions across the country. The list includes Andrew Warren in Hillsborough County, Florida (home of Tampa); Aramis Ayala in Orange County, Florida (Orlando); Kim Ogg in Harris County, Texas (Houston); Kim Foxx in Cook County, Illinois (Chicago); and Michael Nerheim in Lake County, Illinois (in the Chicago suburbs). Ayala also became the first-ever black state’s attorney in the state of Florida. And initiatives to reduce prison sentences passed in California and Oklahoma.
Success with Ballot Measures
Four states (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington) voted to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, while even conservative South Dakota voted down an attempt to lower the minimum wage for teenagers. California, Massachusetts, and Nevada voted to legalize marijuana, and Maine is likely to join them. Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota voted to legalize medical marijuana, and Montana voted to relax the rules allowing it in the state. California, Nevada, and Washington state all passed new gun safety measures. And Maine voted to implement ranked choice voting, which will hopefully avoid future splits between Democrats and left-leaning independents, like the one that gave us current Maine governor and terrible human being Paul LePage.
Even with all these victories, the amount of work progressives have to do in the upcoming years and decades is daunting. But it’s important to remember that we have a foundation to build on, and that’s exactly where we must focus for the future.
P.S. Please share any uplifting downballot news from your area in comments.