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Thousands of Would-Be Democratic Candidates Flood States in Trump Backlash

Democrats typically have trouble recruiting for statehouse races. Now they're having trouble keeping up with people who want to run.
The Ohio Statehouse. Chris Russell / The Columbus Dispatch via AP, file

Democrats typically have trouble recruiting candidates for Statehouse races, but now they're having trouble keeping up with all the people who want to run.

Candidates are already coming out of the woodwork across the country, thanks to a backlash against President Donald Trump and a newfound recognition on the left of the importance of state legislatures to counter GOP control in Washington, D.C.

The surge of potential candidates has been so unusual that, for the first time, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee felt the need to coordinate its recruiting efforts with all the groups that work to find candidates.

On Tuesday afternoon, representatives from about 20 organizations, including labor unions and influential outside groups like Emily's List, gathered at the DLCC's headquarters in downtown Washington for the first "Combine" — a reference to the NFL event where teams check out potential recruits.

Democratic officials have had to add extra candidate training sessions to keep up with demand and increase enrollment in existing ones. One major training group, Emerge America, reports an 87% surge in candidate applications over last year.

The women's group Emily's List says nearly 10,000 women have expressed interest in running for office since November, including for state legislative seats. Meanwhile, Run for Something, which is focused on recruiting millennials, says its heard the same from almost 8,000 young people.

The enthusiasm turned last month's special election to decide control of the Delaware State Senate into a national battle for Democrats. One thousand people signed up to volunteer while millions of dollars poured in from online donors. Democrat Stephanie Hansen, who ended up winning the race, thought she was being prank called when former Vice President Joe Biden rang to offer his support.

"Everything has changed," Jessica Post, the DLCC executive director, said in an interview in her office.

Things have been rough for Democrats at the state level. Republicans control more than two-thirds of partisan state legislative chambers — 67 of the 98 total — after picking up 27 chambers since 2008.

With 7,383 state legislative districts nationwide, there was lots of talk at the organizing meeting Tuesday of spreadsheets and databases.

Around the room, participants discussed how unusual it is for candidates to be coming to them, rather than the other way around.

"Literally, the day after the election, we saw a huge increase in the number of women who wanted to run for political office, and we've been extremely busy since then," said A'shanti Gholar, the political director of Emerge America.

Post is used to having to sell grassroots activists on why they should even care about state legislative races. But last week, she found herself being asked for selfies after a speech to local Democrats in St. Louis.

"It used to be an effort to persuade people to put their name on the ballot," Post said. "Now, the candidates are calling us up and they're saying I want to run. Point me in the right direction...They're looking at Trump and saying I want to do something."

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Clearly, Democrats have rediscovered the importance of Statehouses this year, after losing over 900 state legislative seats under President Barack Obama.

Obama has thrown his weight behind an effort, lead by former Attorney General Eric Holder, to win them back ahead of redistricting in 2020, when lawmakers will redraw congressional maps.

And the Democracy Alliance, a group of major liberal donors meeting later this week, has decided to make state campaigns a top priority.

When Amanda Litman, a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide, launched Run for Something on Inauguration Day, she was planning to spend a lot of her time hunting for potential candidates.

"We thought we would have to struggle to find 100 people who would want to run," she said in an interview.

More than 1,000 people signed up in the first week.

"Barack Obama inspired a generation of people to get into public service out of hope. Trump could inspire a generation of people out of fear. And that's horrible, but can also be valuable," Litman said, calling it a "Trump bump."

Of course, many of the people expressing interest in a run now will not follow through with it. Campaigning is much more difficult than attending a training session. And there's no guarantee that more candidates means more victories.

And Ellie Hockenbury, the spokesperson for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, said the GOP has already found strong candidates this year's races, though they're just getting started on next year's midterms.

"We are still in the early stages of identifying and recruiting state-level candidates for the cycle, as filing deadlines are still a ways away," she said in an email. “The level of GOP success in the states over the past eight years leaves us optimistic that it will be another good cycle for recruiting and supporting impressive candidates across the country."

The first test will be in Virginia, which is one of only two states to hold major elections this year (the other is New Jersey, where Democratic control is not much in danger).