In 2013, a young Texas state senator by the name of Wendy Davis made headlines when she filibustered a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This filibuster lasted an astounding 11 hours, and the move “went viral, giving her the celebrity and momentum to attract Democratic donors from coast to coast” (Austin American-Statesman, “Where Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott draw their fundraising support,” 10.25.2014)—emphasis on coast to coast. After her filibuster made headlines, Davis decided to run for governor of Texas.
Davis was seen by national Democrats as the perfect candidate to finally capture a statewide office in Texas from Republicans. There was reason to be optimistic. In addition to increased support from minority and urban populations, Davis had a rags-to-riches story that might really appeal to working-class folks. Well, hers was more of a trailer-park-to-Harvard story, but you get the picture. Democrats were given every reason to be optimistic about her chances.
As the campaign went on, however, this optimism disappeared. Stories about Davis raising huge sums of money at fundraisers and from donors outside of Texas, especially in more liberal states like New York and California, were a staple of the election. Davis reportedly collected “nearly $1.6 million from donors in California, about $1.1 million from New York and nearly $1 million from Massachusetts” compared to her opponent, Greg Abbott, to whom “donors in those states gave a total of about $345,000” (Austin American-Statesman, “Where Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott draw their fundraising support,” 10.25.2014). In the end, nearly a quarter of her funds came from out of state, while Abbott got only less than a tenth of his funds from out of state.
This bad fundraising image was coupled with even worse policy messaging. Davis’s key issue, the crux of her rise to prominence in the first place, was abortion. Abortion is a controversial topic anywhere in America, but especially in Texas, where a 2013 poll showed that 59 percent of residents believed abortion should be restricted to some degree, while just “36 percent said that a woman should always be able to get an abortion as a matter of personal choice” (Texas Tribune, “Tex- ans Split on Permissibility of Abortions in State,” 06.30.2013). She also took liberal stances on other social issues such as gun control, a stance which is even more unpopular in Texas than abortions. All of this might have been fine if she hadn’t made these divisive social issues—important though they are—central to her campaign message.
So, on Nov. 4, 2014, the once-great Democratic hope for Texas was defeated in a landslide with a worse electoral margin of defeat than the obscure Democrat who ran four years earlier. Davis’s run for governor should be looked upon as a failed southern experiment by the Democrats. Yet, it only took just over two years for Democrats to forget this failure and make the same mistakes all over again.
By all measures, Jon Ossoff should’ve won in Georgia. He was a relatively moderate Democrat from the area, a protégé of civil rights icon John Lewis and an intelligent, well-spoken campaigner in a well-educated district in a purplish-red state trending blue. This is not to mention that the special election took place just after the 2016 general election, an eye-opener for many complacent and sedentary progressives. Additionally, “the scale of the Ossoff campaign was staggering, with dozens of staffers, a sophisticated voter-turnout operation, and six field offices” (The Atlantic, “Why Ossoff Lost,” 06.21.17).
Yet, Ossoff made many of the same mistakes that Davis did. While both candidates received massive donations from outside groups, how that money was spent and raised was important. While most of the outside support for Karen Handel, the Republican contender, came in the form of attack ads taking shots at Ossoff as a liberal and tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Ossoff used his money on ads that perpetuated that message more than shut it down. The message that brought Ossoff to national prominence in the first place was a promise to “make Trump furious.”
In the end, Georgia’s 6th was made to be a symbol of the country at large, and a referendum on Trump. Whereas Handel resisted that and avoided tying herself to Trump for the most part, Ossoff embraced an anti-Trump message, albeit in subtle calls for civility and kindness to be restored in Washington, and made himself a proxy for national Democrats and their Trump woes. In the end, he lost to Handel by close to the same margin as that by which Hillary Clinton lost the district to Donald Trump. The local race hinged on the sentiment of the locals towards national parties, and popular sentiment towards the Democratic Party in suburban Georgia is still highly unfavorable.
The lesson to be learned from these cases is straightforward: If Democrats want to win in hostile territory like the deep South, they need to take a step back and allow their candidates to be local.
On the same night that Ossoff was busy losing to Handel, Democrat Archie Parnell was losing by roughly the same four-percent margin to Republican Ralph Norman in the South Carolina 5th District special election. This race received basically no attention from the media, nor any from national Democrats. Parnell didn’t get a cent from the party. Most analyses considered Norman a safe bet in a District twice as red as Georgia’s 6th. So, despite Parnell being much less funded and favored than Ossoff, he pulled off the same margin in a much more conservative district.
Parnell, like Ossoff, was a fine candidate. He ran a playful ad mimicking Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” and stuck to a localized, largely economic message of bringing jobs to the district and on himself as a mild-mannered and humble tax attorney. Most importantly, “Parnell never got blitzed by a multi-million dollar attack campaign. He was not yoked to Nancy Pelosi. He was not accused of being in league with Kathy Griffin and the congressional shooter” (Politico, “How Archie Parnell Ran the Best Democratic Campaign of 2017,” 06.21.2017). In short, Parnell ran a localized campaign in what was ultimately a local race.
Wendy Davis, Jon Ossoff and Archie Parnell have many things in common. They are all smart, well-educated and likeable people with no major scandals who all could have won races in bluer areas. Only Parnell, however, demonstrated a truly strong campaign that defied the odds and nearly overcame a seemingly insurmountable partisan disadvantage. This is because he managed to rely on his strengths as a candidate, not the whims of national political trends. Voters in South Carolina weren’t voting for a Democrat, they were voting for Archie Parnell. The same cannot be said for Ossoff and Davis.
It is probably perplexing that I haven’t even mentioned the namesake of this column, Doug Jones, until now. However, there is a good reason for that; this article is not an appeal for people to give to and support Doug Jones. For those of you who do not know, Doug Jones is the Democratic nominee for Senate in Alabama and I personally support him. However, unlike the Daily Beast or Shareblue, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea for an army of progressive activists in the Northeast and West Coast to mobilize money and manpower for candidates in rural states hundreds of miles away.
Rather, this column is an appeal for a strategy; that by decreasing the scope of elections in deep red states from national to statewide and local, we increase the chances of Democrats there. By not relying on out-of-state support, Jones will be free to tailor his message to the people of Alabama. Like Parnell, Jones greatly benefits from a race based on character rather than national sentiment. Jones, an articulate and composed former U.S. attorney and civil rights lawyer best known for prosecuting white supremacist murder cases, stacks up well against his opponent Roy Moore, an evangelical fundamentalist and former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was twice removed from his post for violating the U.S. Constitution. Moore spouts conspiratorial nonsense both on and off the campaign trail and even brandished a gun at one of his rallies to underscore his support of the Second Amendment.
With Jones trailing Moore in the mid-single digits—an impressive feat for a Democrat in deep red Alabama right off the bat—there is some possibility that he could pull of an upset. The best way to help Jones win and provide a pivotal Democratic vote in the Senate is for outsiders and the Democratic Party to avoid creating a huge national movement on his behalf. While that strategy may seem counterintuitive, the numbers support it. In the end, Jones is running to be a Senator of Alabama, not the Democratic Party. We should all remember that come 2018.