Isn’t WA a “safe” blue state? No. Not at all. WA is “blue” because King County, and Seattle specifically, are blue, and are where the population is concentrated. But...our state Senate went red — it was close to evenly split, and then we had several Democrats go rogue and caucus with Republicans. Our state House is nearly evenly split. We have a Republican State Treasurer, and a Republican Secretary of State (who oversees elections). Said Republican Secretary of State has been doing some iffy things, and had a credible Democratic challenger...but still won re-election. We have a Republican State Treasurer because the Democratic party couldn’t narrow our own side’s field down before the jungle primary, so our vote was split between three Democrats, versus the Republicans' two way split. The two Republicans advanced to the general. Then we couldn't organize and promote a common write-in strategy.
How could that have happened? There are problems with the party in “deep blue” Washington State that are illustrative of more general problems in the Democratic Party. This is about what’s wrong and what local Democrats are doing about it.
Let me illustrate the issues with several things that I encountered or observed directly, and one from candidate interviews by a local alternative newspaper. (I am deliberately omitting most issues from the presidential campaign, to avoid contention. Don’t hit me...)
o I did IT for one of our candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction during the primary. All the main candidates for the position were Democrats. But, it is a statewide, non-partisan position. My candidate was the only candidate who even talked to Republican groups. My candidate was the only one who went to the red parts of Washington. When she spoke to a Republican club in eastern Washington, her approach was: I know we will disagree on a lot, but let me explain some things I think we can agree on. She described her work getting federal grant funding for school nursing programs, and how getting grants could help alleviate our budget problems. She pointed out the benefit of funding education (versus losing money because we’re being fined because we don’t fund schools). She showed the fiscal inefficiency of charters. That is, she identified areas of concern for fiscal conservatives, and showed that Democratic ideas could address those.
o At a training session for using NGP VAN, one of the IT leads for the state party was present. We got to talking after the session — I’m a software engineer, and wanted to volunteer my services. I mentioned that we had used NationBuilder for my candidate’s website, and Anedot for donation processing. The party IT person seemed startled, and asked, why not use NGP and ActBlue? I was more than a bit surprised by that in turn...was he unfamiliar with that office? I explained it was non-partisan and statewide. When that didn't produce an "aha!", I explained further that people who were not Democrats would likely not want to give up their information to the Democratic Party, nor get added to Democratic mailing lists, nor use a Democratic-specific donation processor. He said — and this is the critical point from this interaction — but why bother with Republicans at all? Just talk to Democrats!
o The Stranger interviewed candidates in the general for State Treasurer. The Stranger is a very very left wing publication. They invited the two Republicans on the ballot, and the Democrat for whom there was an unofficial write-in effort. All three accepted. Note there was very little chance the write-in candidate would succeed, so this was a guaranteed Republican win. The two Republicans were well aware of The Stranger’s stance, familiar with The Stranger’s endorsement process, eager to talk to The Stranger’s editorial board, and wanted the endorsement. The contrast was stark. Republican candidates were doing outreach to Democrats, in a race where a Republican was going to win, regardless of any endorsement by a left-wing publication.
o There were Republicans running in many Seattle-area races, where there was little to no chance they would win.
o (Sorry, I have to mention the presidential primary here.) During the early parts of the year, I wondered why we were not doing voter registration at big public events, like we’d done in the past. I was told by local party officials that we would start doing that after the primary was over. That seemed quite odd at the time — didn’t we need as many people on board as we could get? There were lots of critical state and local races and measures coming up, and we were surely going to have a fight to retain the presidency. This was the best time to get the high school seniors who'd be of voting age soon, and college students for whom this would be their first presidential election. I knew, from participation in social good technology groups and open government groups, that there were many progressive young folks eager to get involved. Their help and votes would be important in reclaiming state offices held by Republicans, and passing progressive measures. The party did not begin voter registration until after the presidential primary was over.
o Local party membership is declining. Once upon a time, our local legislative district meetings drew maybe 100 people. That's not a lot, but it's better than now. Even during the presidential primary and the general, we might get only 30 attendees at meetings. We have fewer and fewer actual members in our district organization over time, and hence less funds. And we have many unfilled PCO positions. The presidential caucus was very well attended...but we didn't try to convert that to membership.
o When we did do GOTV, we went only to confirmed Democrats, which was a small subset of households even in deep blue Seattle. Our promotional flyer only had a list of endorsed candidates, candidate ads, and an encouraging message. What it didn’t have was our platform, or why we believe as we do.
o At one point, I had a need to find contact information for all of our legislative district party organizations. The WA party website has a page for that information, but... There were districts had no contact information at all. Others had no website, or had vacant offices. Most contact info for officers seemed to be personal email addresses and phone numbers. Without a contact log for the local organization, the record of contacts may get lost.
Those are merely illustrative anecdotes. Others have related similar experiences, but also have additional concerns, especially regarding their attempts to alert the state party to problems or get concerns addressed.
What issues can we identify?
o We ignored the red parts of the state, and relied on only the blue parts. Among other things, this is harming the goal of regaining control of the state legislature. More generally, we are failing in getting the Democratic message out to red areas -- we have ceded them to the Republicans. Why are we surprised that rural voters vote Republican? It's the only message they hear.
o We concentrated on the presidential race, and allowed desire for a specific outcome of the presidential primary to negatively affect state and local races, and to stall growth of the party.
o Concerns identified by local party volunteers and activists typically do not get a response from higher-level party officials, and there is no apparent effect on state party behavior.
o We've retreated back into our safe areas. Republicans have a policy of trying to run someone in every race, all the way down to dogcatcher. They do this for several reasons: This is how they train their new candidates -- establish their farm team. Candidates learn to campaign, start getting name recognition, assemble volunteers and donors. Their presence in the race gives them an opening to have their message heard. And...they might win some. If Democrats glitch and fail to run a credible candidate, or provide no support, the longshot Republican might get in. Let's steal this page from their playbook.
o Our message is faltering. We’re relying on just saying “vote Democratic”. That only speaks to long-time Democrats, who remember what that used to mean. Now, we need to show everyone what that means — we need to embody and promote a strong progressive agenda.
Goals arise from the issues...
o We need the local equivalent of the 50-state strategy. Encourage and support Democratic candidates across the state. Run for critical local offices, especially influential entry-level offices like school board.
o Don't just preach to the choir. Don't abandon red parts of the state — if we do, they'll stay red. Look at what other states, especially states going purple, are doing. Make flipping the red parts of the state a goal.
o Get new people in, especially young people. It's their future that's on the line. They are motivated and informed -- they are paying close attention to current events.
o Re-examine our outreach methods -- go out and get suggestions from people who aren't yet members.
o Be responsive to concerns and open to suggestions. Pay attention to what the folks on the ground, in direct contact with voters, are saying.
o Believe in the strength of our own progressive message. Push it out for everyone to see. Back up our platform with arguments for it.
o Do our part to get these ideas into the DNC, by sending progressive state representatives.
What are we doing about it?
The reform effort began back in the summer. In Washington State, that’s when the state party biennial reorganization process kicks off, with the election of precinct committee officers (PCOs) in our August primary. PCOs do the low-level grunt work like voter registration and GOTV. They also vote on county-level and legislative district-level party officers, including representatives to the state party. Those representatives then vote on our state’s representatives to the DNC.
So, to reform our state party, and to assist reform of the DNC, we needed to start by getting reform-minded PCOs elected. Progressives signed up to run for PCO. Most were unopposed, so this got a fair number of empty PCO slots filled. I was one of this new crop of PCOs. This also gave us considerably more hands to do GOTV during the general.
The first round of reorganization votes will be in early December, where we vote on county leadership. Not long after, we'll vote on positions in our legislative district organizations.
Progressive candidates for county and district positions have begun posting vision statements, and discussion is starting on the state of the party and what needs to be done after the reorganization. I'll be sharing this diary with them.
(Note: This effort started before the presidential election, and the goals above predate the election. Most of us will be involved in other efforts besides the longer-term reform of the Washington State Democrats. This past week, many legislative district organizations had discussions about, or presentations on, what happened in the election. Feedback has been mixed. Larger than usual attendance in places. Reports mention everything from actual soul-searching and plans for activism, through cathartic venting, and on to avoidance, blame the "rednecks",... In any case, no matter what more immediate response we need to make to the election result, we'll still continue the effort to revive our state party.)