Looking Back and Moving Forward: What's Next for the 50-State Strategy
The editors of TLC graciously extended an invitation to the DNC Internet team join this community as a guest posters to further engage the netroots in a conversation about the Democratic Party. This is my first post for TLC. As Online Outreach Coordinator for the Democratic Party, and as someone who considers herself a full-fledged member of the netroots, I look forward to hearing your feedback and ideas. Today, I wanted to explore the 50-State Strategy. It has clearly been the most talked about initiative of the Party under Chairman Dean, and I wanted to take some time to look back a bit at where we have been, and talk about where we are going. - Tracy Russo.
Howard Dean was elected to lead the Democratic National Committee on his promise of revitalizing the Democratic Party in all 50 states. It’s a promise he has kept by implementing a “50-State Strategy”. The 50-State Strategy is a long-term commitment to rebuild our Party, a promise to develop an active, effective group of Democrats organized in every single precinct in the country.
To start, we had to see where we were. Last year, Governor Dean toured the country and talked to local democratic activists, community leaders and state party officials to see where our strengths were and where we needed to improve. Every state was different - some had thriving state parties and a tightly knit community of local county organizations, others had become so marginalized that they were unable to effectively communicate with the electorate.
In partnership with local Democratic leaders, Dean and his team drew up a plan to provide staff and funding for each state based on their needs. In some states this meant that the state party was able to fund field organizers to go out and organize at the local level, in others it meant hiring a communications director or a researcher. Each state was different. Recognizing that there was no one-size-fits-all solution, and knowing that in order for this to work the state parties had to be full partners in the process, Howard Dean worked to make sure that the DNC was providing the states, not only with the staffers and resources they needed, but that they wanted, and could actually use. Then, everyone got to work.
Now it's a year later, and a question that I get asked a lot is "Did the 50-State Strategy work?" The answer is yes, but that's really not the question to ask. Governor Dean's vision wasn't designed to be a single cycle solution; it was designed to revitalize an out-dated system that depended on a small number of "battleground" states to win the presidential election, leaving too many of the non-targeted states to fend for themselves. The question we should be asking is, "What did we accomplish this year and what is the next step?"
Some notable accomplishments - we recruited, hired and trained over 180 staffers to work to elect Democrats all across the country. We invested millions of dollars in a national voter file that state Democratic parties successfully used to target and turnout voters in ’06 and will continue to use as we move forward and expand and improve the system. We also made sure we invested time and resources to train state parties on how to maximize that data.
On the ground we funded and executed a 50-state voter protection operation to make sure every vote was counted on Election Day, including a toll-free national voter assistance hotline that, for the first time, was available in all 50 states. We also worked to merge old-fashioned grassroots activism with the new online political community and we turned out more grassroots supporters to organize their local precincts than any other midterm election by utilizing a series of national organizing events over the course of a year. These are just a few broad examples of the difference a year has made in the way our Party operates.
Specifically, we can look to states like Oregon, where DNC-funded field organizers were tasked with running the field program for Governor Ted Kulongoski’s re-election campaign. The plan was to aggressively target drop-off voters – 90,672 of whom had voted in 2004 but not in 2002. Using a 36-County Strategy, organizers in Oregon recruited 2,483 volunteers and organized 64% of the precincts in the state. On Election Day 57,177 of those targeted voters turned out to vote. Governor Kulongoski won re-election by 110,038 votes. Additionally, Oregon Democrats won back 4 Republican-held state house seats and took control of the State Legislature for the first time in 16 years.
In fact, the numbers of successes up and down the ballot in places Democrats weren't supposed to win are the best examples of why we must fight everywhere. Last night’s sweet victory in the Texas’ 23rd District, where the efforts of a revitalized state party, combined with support from the DNC and DCCC, plus the help of our allies from organized labor and the netroots, turned a huge swath of South Texas blue – something most everyone considered impossible just a short time ago.
Tim Walz, of Minnesota, is another great example of a why we fight everywhere. A "Fighting Democrat" who served his country in the Army National Guard for 24 years, (including serving on active duty during Operation Enduring Freedom), and his community as a high school teacher, Walz built a truly grassroots campaign. Tim recently described how the 50-State Strategy affected his campaign:
“When I'm asked about this race, and I'm asked when the national help came in, people start talking about ‘When were you targeted?’ and ‘When were you on the list and all that”, I say they were in before I even started. I started running in February of 2005. The decision was made to put a staffer on the ground in Southern Minnesota, Sarah Duval, that early. In Minnesota there are very strong county/state units in the DFL. One of the problems is, in an area like mine, it's a very large geographic area – 300 miles. And no matter how much you try and coordinate on this, it’s very difficult - especially in off-year elections.
By putting Sarah on the ground the coordination between the federal, the statewide and the local races was incredibly simplified. It became much more vertically integrated. Many times the traditional battles that you get, the turf battles over volunteers, are not peoples’ egos - they have more to do with a lack of coordination. So Sarah was on the ground. She was living, breathing, becoming Minnesotan. She’d show up, not only coordinating these things, but she'd show up at parades with her dog and it would have a bandanna on it that said “Walz and Klobuchar” She was there. That presence did more. It did the physical side of things, but it also did and the psychological things. [It said] we’re here to be a player. This year-round presence - I can't tell you how important it is. ..
…We picked up 9 seats in the state house and the legislature and our Senate candidate won in this district. And that’s because we had a tightly organized campaign that was being directed and being pulled together by our coordinator on the ground, Sarah Duval.”
Organizers like Sarah did this kind of work all across the country. In addition to winning Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats also won 6 governors seats (and now hold a majority of governorships for the first time since 1994), and gained control of 10 state legislative chambers by picking up around 330 seats (numbers are still not final in some places). Crucial down-ballot victories are not only important because they control redistricting and other critical decisions, but they also are building a "bench team" for future elections.
Nancy Boyda, our new Democratic Congresswoman from Kansas, recently said something that perfectly illustrated why the strategy is important. She told Governor Dean,
“Chairman Dean you got something just a little backwards. You said when Nancy Boyda decided to run this was in place. And I would say, that Nancy Boyda decided to run again because it was in place.”
A national party that fights everywhere, and believes winning is possible everywhere, is critical for recruiting top-tier candidates to run in places long-considered to be "out of bounds" for Democrats. The 50-State Strategy is based on the idea that if you show up, work hard and respect people enough to ask for their vote, there is no such thing as "out of bounds". And this election showed us it works.
Now we’ve come to the point where we will evaluate our progress and transition to the second phase of the 50-State Strategy. We’ll see what worked well and what we’d like to do differently the next time around, so that when a Democratic nominee is chosen to run for any elected office, from President on down to Sheriff, a network of activists and a strong state party base of support will be there, ready, waiting and willing to get to work to win.
Unlike so many years before, on November 8th, when those 180+ DNC-funded state party staffers woke-up it was with the knowledge that there was still work to be done. Of course we took some time to celebrate our victories and recuperate from the final campaign stretch, but we woke up thinking, “What’s next?!?” and got back to work.