Democrats found a reason to celebrate last weekend when they claimed their first competitive electoral victory since President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
It was just a state Senate election in Delaware, but the race had become a rallying point for disoriented Democrats around the country eager to do anything they could to resist in the Trump era. And it gave the Democratic establishment something to celebrate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware native, came out of retirement to knock on doors and hold fundraisers for Democratic candidate Stephanie Hansen. After Hansen was announced the winner on Feb. 25, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which supports Democrats in local and state races, crowed that the election represented “a triumph of DLCC’s successful deployment of strategy and tactics to successfully harness progressive energy and direct an effective campaign operation.”
Hansen’s campaign manager expressed gratitude for the efforts of the popular former VP and the national Democratic entity responsible for down-ballot races — but he added that a startup grassroots organizing group that hadn’t even existed three months before the victory ultimately did the most to earn it.
“I would go out on a limb,” said campaign manager Erik Raser-Schramm, “and say Flippable was more helpful.”
A 527 nonprofit advocacy group, Flippable’s stated goal is to create a nationwide network of progressive activists dedicated to winning down-ballot races. “State legislative elections are the future of the Democratic Party,” Flippable co-founder and CEO Catherine Vaughan told VICE News. “They determine the future of policy and the future candidates for higher office.”
Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House were generally not great for Democratic politicians not named Barack Obama. And they were particularly bad at the state level, where Democrats now control only 31 of 99 state legislative chambers. Though the party holding the White House historically loses ground elsewhere, no two-term president since World War II has overseen a collapse of nearly 1,000 state legislative seats like Obama did.
He had hopes of partially reversing that trend on his way out of office last year, taking the unprecedented step of campaigning for 150 state legislative candidates in the 2016 election. Democrats, however, still lost seats. And Flippable’s three co-founders say they saw that decline as evidence that the Democratic establishment, including the DLCC, couldn’t be trusted to fix the problem.
“To be honest, there’s not a lot of clarity where the [Democratic National Committee] goes from here, and we see this as an opportunity to allow us to work outside the traditional confines of the party,” co-founder Chris Walsh said.
“Whatever others are doing clearly isn’t working,” added co-founder Joseph Bandera-Duplantier.
Newly elected DNC Chair Tom Perez acknowledged this past weekend that the party’s local efforts had been neglected in recent years and promised to “redefine the role of the DNC so that we are not simply electing the president but we are working to elect from the school board to the Senate.”
Carolyn Fiddler, the DLCC’s head of communications, told VICE News that “the energy surrounding these groups is a really positive thing in a broad sense, but the DLCC is the permanent infrastructure and authority on the state legislatures.” She attributed the historic losses on the state legislative level largely to Republican gerrymandering efforts, which cannot be altered until after the 2020 elections — if Democrats make huge gains on the state level before then.
Bandera-Duplantier, who served as an Android engineer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and several of his other colleagues on the Clinton campaign don’t think there’s any reason to wait that long. They point to Virginia’s 2015 state legislative election, in which Democrats allowed 44 Republicans to run unopposed for the 100-member state legislature (Republicans allowed 27 seats to go uncontested to Dems) as evidence that there are plenty of opportunities to act now. Virginia’s next state legislature elections will occur later this year.
Bandera-Duplantier recruited seven other Clinton campaign engineers last December to create a sophisticated forecasting model for Virginia. There are no publicly available models of the country’s nearly 7,400 state legislative elections like there are for the country’s 535 U.S. congressional races. By building such a model, Flippable thinks it will empower its national network of progressives to donate time and money to the most winnable Virginia state races.
The firm’s engineers are still working on that model, but if you ask Raser-Schramm, they already demonstrated their ability to organize a nationwide progressive network around a winnable state legislative election. He credited Flippable with spurring the tremendous surge in grassroots fundraising and volunteering that he said was unlike anything he had seen in 14 years in Delaware politics. Thanks to Flippable, he said the campaign received donations from people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, totaling $130,000 out of the campaign’s total haul of $475,000.
He said Flippable and its partner Sister District, another new group that focuses on moving volunteers to districts that are competitive, helped bring more than 1,000 volunteers to a campaign that was decided by only about 12,000 votes. Hundreds of those volunteers came from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other states, and he ultimately had to turn away some people hoping to phone-bank because, he said, there were no more Delaware voters left to call.
The Delaware seat had been held by a Democrat, but it was hardly safe; in the 2014 midterm elections, Republican John Marino lost by just 2 points to a Democratic incumbent. But running for the same seat in this week’s special election against a non-incumbent, Marino lost by 18 points. And more people voted last Saturday than in the 2014 midterm election, an all but unheard-of level of turnout for a special election.
The success of new groups like Flippable in channeling rage against Trump into organizing action and dollars could portend a new normal of a very decentralized progressive movement, potentially displacing the Democratic Party establishment, which has yet to carve out its role in the so-called Resistance.
The Women’s March and town hall protests, for example, have been organized almost entirely outside of the existing Democratic Party infrastructure. During the Women’s March, all but one of the candidates for DNC chair were at an exclusive donor retreat instead of with their progressive base at the march.
At the end of January, Fiddler said she hadn’t heard of Flippable, which had only launched the previous month. She knows about it now, she confirmed to VICE News Wednesday, and the DLCC has had multiple discussions with the group to better coordinate their efforts.
“We’re really looking forward to working with them because we don’t want them to reinvent the wheel, and we want to make sure we’re not overlapping,” she said.
Democratic Party officials have scrambled in the past several weeks to arrange meetings with several new grassroots organizations that are now leading the movement against Trump — groups like Flippable, Code Blue Nation, Swing Left, Knock Every Door, and Sister District. While representatives from the Democratic establishment and “The Resistance” said they are cautiously optimistic about finding a way to work together, they may be on a collision course.
“Our mission statements diverge,” Bandera-Duplantier said about Flippable and established Democratic groups. The main difference, he said, is Flippable’s goal to “democratize access to expensive election-data analysis.” In theory, giving their users this information would create a decentralized, nationwide campaign to retake state legislatures; engineers are currently at work building forecasting models for Virginia, New Jersey, and North Carolina state races this year.
However, the group’s aim to democratize information may soon crash into financial reality. Flippable’s entire team of former Clinton campaign staffers has thus far been volunteering their time. Bandera-Duplantier and his team are currently focusing on modeling Virginia so Democrats can take back its legislature, but they hope to expand in 2018 to all 7,400 state legislative seats. All that data won’t come cheap, likely requiring an investment of tens of millions of dollars.
Flippable is actively courting donors, Vaughan confirms. But so is the national Democratic Party; it ended 2016 about $8 million in debt, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Bandera-Duplantier said their model can be broken down into two parts. The static segment will analyze state voter files, campaign finance records, demographics, and socioeconomic metrics to get a better sense of what seats are within Democratic reach. That fixed data will then be paired with more dynamic information that will adjust the model daily, including inputs from Google search terms, Twitter trends, economic indicators, congressional and presidential approval ratings, and fundraising numbers.
“A lot of liberals are down and despondent about the election and the actions already occurring from Trump,” he said. “For me personally, I’m fired up and ready to go.”