“Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know”

The woods may belong to poet Robert Frost, but the crux is that Democrats have been lost in them since 2010. Basically, Democrats won only the White House in the elections between 2010 and 2016. They were satisfied with the big wins in 2008 and singular top-spot win in 2012,  that thinking led the party into the woods. For progressives, the tide may be turning if they choose to listen.

Republicans have historically been the party of states’ rights and gerrymandering congressional districts to rule the House of Representatives. They used to count governors to county clerks as if they were gold nuggets. Democrats, on the other hand, have run their party on big ticket items. They liked to tout national programs from FDR’s New Deal–Social Security, TVA, WPA; through the New Frontier of JFK–going to the moon, the Peace Corps; and LBJ’s Great Society–Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid.

Looking back on 2017, we may be seeing a juxtaposition in the making. Today, Republicans have an ego driven, “I, Me, Mine” president, if I may quote another poet, George Harrison. Mr. Trump claims: “Only I can fix this.” “He lost because he didn’t embrace me.” “The power is all mine!” And, 80% of Republicans who voted for Mr. Trump are sticking with him a year later. Republicans are losing members of Congress who simply won’t run, and the only response is that they didn’t support the president anyway. Those down ballot slots are not as golden as they once were.

The recent off-off-year election rendered Democratic victories all across Virginia, turning it from purple to blue, at least for the next two years; won back a governor’s seat in New Jersey; voted in Medicaid expansion over the vetoes of Maine’s far-right thinking Governor–a loud statement about the people’s preference to keep and nurture Obamacare as the source of health insurance; the Washington state legislature turned to a Democratic majority, joining all of its West Coast sisters; and, although still overwhelmingly Republican, the Georgia legislature lost its supermajority making passing constitutional amendments unilaterally impossible.

States have always been test labs for larger programs and strategies. Gov. Mitt Romney’s healthcare legislation in Massachusetts was the prototype turned to when the Public Option became a loser in 2010’s battle over Obamacare; New Jersey’s strict gun buying laws are being touted as a model that could modify the Second Amendment without challenging its relevancy; and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s severe program cuts and tax benefits for the wealthy that promised trickle-down state financial growth and  failed miserably driving the state into a dysfunctional mass, can all, pro or con, be examples informing national decisions.

If Democrats look at Virginia’s successful foray into being a statewide party interested in every race, like Republicans have done for years, they may finally be heading out of the woods. There are 100 Virginia state legislature seats. Typically, Democrats would field a challenger in little more than half the districts, conceding defeat in all the others. This year the Dems put 88 names on the ballot and won 49 (six are still contested), increasing their seats by 15. Every candidate didn’t win, but by winning one of the contested six, Virginia’s new Democratic Governor can count on his Democratic Lt. Governor to break any tied votes and move forward progressive Virginia bills.

The public movement that made Maine the first state to vote the Obamacare provision of Medicaid expansion into law, over the governor’s five vetoes, is a loud-and-clear message to Democrats that there are ways out of those woods in which they’ve been so dreadfully lost.

Democrats have been looking for high quality candidates to show up mysteriously and sweep voters off our feet. That worked once ten years ago, but lightning doesn’t often strike twice in the same spot. Democrats need to understand that it takes nurturing, growth and support to become a national candidate, and those candidates come from somebody’s neighborhood.

The better news for Democrats here is the type of candidates who won elections last week. In Virginia alone there were two Latinas, the first ever in the legislature; a transgender woman, also a first. 11 of the 15 flipped seats are going to women, and there is a chance for a couple more in the contested six remaining races. Several of those women were inspired to seek office because of the massive and successful Women’s March last January 21. New Jersey and Virginia elected black lieutenant governors. A Liberian refugee won the mayor’s chair in Helena, Montana, a Sikh man is now Hoboken, New Jersey’s mayor, and a Hispanic woman won in Topeka, Kansas. In the “Karma is a Bitter Pill” category, Virginian transgender Danica Roem beat a 26-year incumbent who sponsored Virginia’s bathroom limitation bill dismissing transgender citizens; and Chris Hurst, whose fiancée was murdered by a man with a gun, beat his NRA supported incumbent as well. Democrats all. That’s the way to enlarge a political tent.

While Republicans are basking in the glow of their lightning bolt president, hoping he can fulfill their every wish and dream with his incomplete sentences and excessive social media posts, Democrats have a chance to win elections the old-fashioned way. But, take note, there are “miles to go before I (they) sleep.”

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