Last November, Connecticut Democrat Greg Cava ran for a state Senate seat, garnering just 32 percent of ballots and losing by more votes — 17,000 — than he received. On Tuesday, he had the opportunity to run for the seat again in a special election. Once again, he lost.
And yet Cava’s campaign headquarters, located on the second floor of a dingy photo studio in Watertown, Connecticut, may very well be ground zero for the future of the Democratic Party.
“I see our loss as a beacon of hope,” Cava’s campaign manager, Aaron Schrag, said the morning after the polls closed. “People from all sides of the political aisle worked together on this campaign because they saw value in coming together for a common cause.”
Tuesday’s special election in Connecticut’s deeply red 32nd district — a Democrat has not held the state Senate seat for well over a century — took place after the Republican who originally beat Cava vacated the seat to take a different position. And though Cava lost again, early results show it was by only 1,800 votes. If he had won, it would have given Democrats control of the Connecticut Senate.
Still, many Democratic operatives and activists who were closely watching this race say they consider it to be the first sign that the anti-Trump movement will have a tangible effect on future elections in key districts that went for Trump.
“As far as wins go, this one should have Republicans shaking in their boots,” said Carolyn Fiddler, the national communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which supports Democrats in local and state elections. “This level of Democratic overperformance in a district Republicans won two-to-one just last fall will be the death of them this cycle in seats that are even remotely competitive.”
Tom Perez, the newly elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that the results of the Connecticut election show that “even Republicans running in GOP strongholds aren’t safe from the shadow of Trump.”
Democrats have been earning more than just moral victories in special state elections held since November, winning races in the Iowa House and Senate, Virginia House and Senate, and Delaware Senate. In Delaware, the win allowed Democrats to keep control of the legislature. In Virginia, a Democratic win in the House prevented Republicans from having a supermajority with which they could have overridden the Democratic governor’s vetoes.
This is thanks in part to renewed focus by Democrats on the importance of state and local elections. Cava’s race in particular received all but unprecedented attention. Last week, nearly 40 people took part in a phone banking session for him — in Brentwood, California, an upscale area of Los Angeles. On Sunday, Cava’s campaign headquarters was filled with volunteers who had driven from New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to phone bank and knock on doors. And last Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy campaigned for Cava in the district.
What’s behind the surge of energy? The same thing that’s been prompting liberals all over the U.S. to pour into town halls, show up for protests, and flood their representatives with calls: Election Day 2016.
“It’s a different country than it was before Nov. 8,” Cava said. “We have an energy that has happened since then because people have decided that they weren’t happy with the result.”
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Cava’s race became an outlet for Democrats desperate to channel their anger into an election — no matter how small.
“Folks don’t want to wait until 2018 to push back against Trump,” Fiddler said. “They are realizing that the most immediate way to make an impact is the state legislative level.”
After Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November, many on the left realized they needed to start paying attention to smaller races in order to take back power from Republicans. There has been a particular focus on winning U.S. Senate and House seats, with an eye toward the 2018 midterm elections. But if Democrats are serious about gaining back power over the next four years, they’ll need to do more than hold onto national seats in the bright blue pockets of country. They’ll need to take on state races in solidly Republican districts that went for Trump, like Connecticut’s 32nd — and Aaron Schrag, Cava’s campaign manager, said Cava’s race is the “blueprint” for how Democrats are going to do this.
“We showed [Republicans] that we’re going to take them on in these districts, that we’re going to fight them to the end,” he said. “They’re no longer going to be able to walk into elected positions, they’re going to have to work for it.”
Democrats are starting off deep in the hole. The November elections ensured Republicans had control not only of the White House and U.S. Congress, but of statehouses around the country. Republicans now maintain control in both legislative chambers in 32 states; in 17 of those, the GOP has a veto-proof majority.
Republicans also control 33 governorships — though in the next two years, a total of 38 governorships (27 of them currenly held by Republicans) will be up for grabs.
State races in the next several years have additional importance because whichever party wins will be in charge of redrawing legislative maps in 2020. These maps are key for determining which party is in control of state, local, and federal seats for the next 10 years; after a wave of Tea Party Republicans were swept into office in 2009 and 2010, Republicans gerrymandered districts, all but ensuring their control of the U.S. House of Representatives and many state houses for the next 10 years.
“Democrats are going to crawl across broken glass on their knees to go vote in 2018, if the conditions exist as they do today,” Jay Inslee, the chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors Association, told the Washington Post on Monday.
Cava’s campaign demonstrated that many Democrats aren’t waiting for 2018. The question is, how long will that fervor last?
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In the last eight years, Democrats “took our eye off the ball,” Cava said. “We didn’t do party-building. We didn’t pay attention to local races.”
The Left is increasingly finding new ways to organize itself in the age of Trump — ways that lie outside the control of traditional party structures that are dominated by the Democratic National Committee. Candidates like Cava have shown that they can fundraise and organize a national campaign without large party support.
“There’s an enormous amount of energy out there, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like it needs a party structure to help it,” he said.
There has been an explosion of startups following the 2016 election that have managed to raise millions of dollars and galvanize hoards of volunteers. Groups like Indivisible, Code Blue Nation, and Flippable all sprung up after the election with the same purpose: to channel the energy and anger of progressives and ultimately get more Democrats into office.
MJ Loheed, a television producer in Los Angeles, started Code Blue Nation the day after the election as a small, private Facebook group for Democrats who wanted to do something. Like many of Code Blue Nation’s members, he had never before been actively involved in politics. The group now has 23,454 members working to bring national attention and money to key local races around the country, including Cava’s campaign in Connecticut. Code Blue organized phone banks for Cava in California, helped raise money for his campaign, and ultimately brought national attention to a race that few people had paid attention to four months before.
WATCH: The story of Code Blue Nation from VICE News Tonight on HBO
It remains to be seen whether it’s all sustainable. The tea party movement managed to maintain its momentum for the first half of Obama’s first term, which ended up changing the landscape of U.S. politics. While liberals have come out in force since Trump’s election, the fact is that Trump has been president for a matter of weeks.
Liberals insist, however, that they’re in it for the long haul.
“We showed [Republicans] that we’re going to take them on in these districts, that we’re going to fight them to the end,” Schrag said. “They’re no longer going to be able to walk into elected positions; they’re going to have to work for it.”