By FRANK G. RUNYEON, Nov. 28, 2018
Democratic leaders’ scheme to “cut the head off the IDC snake” was not forged in a dark alleyway or an Italian restaurant, but over egg whites.
It was May 2017 when Democratic powerbroker Sen. Michael Gianaris secretly arranged to meet a new recruit, a young lawyer in the governor’s office named Alessandra Biaggi. Outside both their native boroughs, they met early one Friday morning at an Upper West Side cafe. Gianaris was there to see if Biaggi was the one who could depose his rival, fellow Democrat Jeff Klein, who had allied with the Republicans for years. The clandestine breakfast was only one part of an ambitious strategy to oust Republican-aligned Democrats and wipe out GOP incumbents to wrest control of state legislature.
And despite all historical precedent to the contrary, the plan worked.
New York Democrats achieved a remarkable margin of victory in the New York state senate, locking in 39 of 63 seats. That has left them firmly in control of the legislative and executive branches of New York government with the power to pass progressive laws long-stalled by state senate Republicans and their allies.
The results were not simply the result of a “blue wave,” party leaders say. If State Senate Democrats had won by similar margins as Democrats running for statewide or federal offices, one could chalk that up to that a wave election, but that’s not what happened. In several cases, New York voters overwhelmingly chose a Democratic state senate candidate, while rejecting Gov. Andrew Cuomo or a Democratic congressional candidate.
In the Hudson Valley, voters chose a Republican for governor but also Democrats James Skoufis and Jen Metzger, who outperformed Cuomo by six and seven percentage points, respectively. On Long Island, both Monica Martinez and John Brooks outperformed congressional challenger Liuba Grechen Shirley by three points a piece.
Senate Democrats credit their victories to a carefully-crafted playbook, a secret anti-IDC recruitment drive, and alliances with ascendant grassroots groups; all of which boosted their ballot tallies on Election Day.
After decades of near-complete Republican control of the State Senate, Democrats now hold the largest share of seats in the state’s upper house since 1912—a time when a 30-year-oldFranklin Delano Roosevelt sat in the State Senate, the latest tech was Ford’s Model T automobile, the political outrage of the past year was the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire, and women had no right to vote.
The new 39-to-24 majority marks a pivotal political shift. But while voters clearly expressed a broad preference for Democrats, State Senate Democrats ran up the score and outflanked their rivals in surprising ways—plotting to depose fellow Democrats and targeting popular Republicans previously thought safe.
If they were once shy about their methods, that time is over.
“We totally wiped the floor with the Republicans all over the state,” said state Senator Michael Gianaris, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee who quarterbacked his party’s election strategy.
In a series of interviews, state Senate strategists shared once-secret party research documents with Gothamist, attributing their wins to incisive data analysis and shrewd campaign strategy that was matched with a robust ground game thanks in large part to energetic candidates and thousands of Democratic volunteers who drove voters to the polls.
Still, there’s an uneasy familiarity to this victory—Democrats have bungled a majority before. In 2008, state senate Democrats won a slim 32-30 majority in the state senate that quickly slipped away during an embarrassing leadership crisis, marked by infighting. Forty years earlier, in 1964, another Democratic majority was also quickly undone by factionalism.
This year will be different, Gianaris said. He has played the long game, laying the groundwork since he arrived in the State Senate.
“It’s safe to say, in 2010 things were at a low point,” Gianaris said. Republicans had flipped several seats after the crisis of 2009 and retaken the chamber. On Jeff Klein’s watch, the party had not only lost seats but accumulated $3 million in debt. Klein, an ambitious Democratic senator from the Bronx who had directed party strategy, was stripped of his title and resigned his leadership position, but blamed other party leaders for the election losses. Within months, Klein formed a group of breakaway Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference, that would ally with the Republican majority for the next seven years.
Gianaris inherited Klein’s post, the party’s debt, and minority party status.
“The Democrats had just lost the majority. The IDC was just established. Things were somewhat of a mess,” Gianaris said. For years, the Republican-IDC coalition, joined by Democratic Party heretic Simcha Felder, locked Democrats out of power, despite a numerical majority of registered Democrats.
But in 2016, Donald Trump’s election shocked the political system, changing the state’s political topography. A grassroots anti-Trump resistance movement injected first-time activists into local politics, and Democratic party leaders began to believe that the 2018 elections could be a good year if they could harness and direct that energy.
But first, Gianaris had to take care of some unfinished business within his own ranks. He began secretly recruiting candidates to knock out the IDC rebels who had deprived the mainline Democrats of power for years.
When Gianaris first recruited Biaggi, she knew that Senate Democrats were fed up with the IDC leader but also that Democrats rarely attacked their own.
“Traditionally, Democrats don’t primary other Democrats. It’s not a thing that happens,” Biaggi said. "There’s this code of silence that they all take with each other that it doesn’t matter if you’re a bad apple, we’re still going to get behind you.”
But Gianaris was throwing that rule book out the window. “We were trying to convince her” to challenge Klein, he said of Biaggi. “She was definitely interested but had not made a final decision.”
To encourage her, Gianaris passed her research and analysis that amounted to a political playbook, as reported last year. That playbook laid out a battle plan showing where and how Klein could be beaten—if she could win big in Riverdale and rally young voters, a female candidate could win. Klein was “formidable, but vulnerable.”
Gianaris said he also recruited others to depose IDC members, including Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, Robert Jackson, and John Liu—all of whom ultimately succeeded in their mission to oust IDC members.
“We were engaged in a very vigorous effort to recruit and help these people along, up until the governor got involved and made the deal that required us all to stand down,” Gianaris said.
Cuomo’s unity deal with the IDC dissolved the GOP-allied faction under the promise that the Democratic Party would not support primary challenges against IDC members. Communication between Albany Democrats and the chosen challengers went dark.
But Gianaris already had his candidates in the field, acting on intelligence he provided. “By that point it was so late in the game that candidates were off on their own,” Gianaris said. “In other words, we got them off the ground and it was too late to stop them!” he said with a laugh. “Not that we tried.”
By all accounts, the candidates did the heavy lifting after that. Working late nights, knocking thousands of doors, and wearing out several pairs of shoes, Biaggi credits that legwork to her victory over Klein. “It’s remarkable that we were able to pull this off considering the incredibly small amount of support that we had from the beginning,” Biaggi said. “I am a hustler and I out-hustled him.”
Funding dollars also started rolling in early, with discussion of a “blue wave” in 2017 after Democrats flipped both the Westchester and Nassau County executive seats and five Republican senators retired. That had a multiplier effect, Gianaris said. “The donor class took a look and realized that this is really happening for us,” Gianaris said. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee alone was able to spend about $5.5 million. “There was a real vigorous and well-funded campaign effort around the state the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
The committee ended up funding nine races around the state, when typically it would only fund three or four. They spread the money out, giving just enough to allow candidates to eke out a win and allowing grassroots enthusiasm to carry other candidates. “We funded what we knew we had to fund,” Gianaris said.
That money was spent particularly well online.
“Digital played a huge role in our campaign,” a Senate Democratic strategist told Gothamist. Online political ads on Facebook and elsewhere were more nimble and targeted, he said. “We spent more on digital that we ever had in the past. It was essential.”
As Democrats geared up for the general election, in addition to money and grassroots allies, they were armed with a set of insights gleaned from their analysts, previously unpublished internal research shows. Senate strategists examining election data spotted three critical trends that would form the backbone of their strategy and show them which battles to fight.
A chart from State Senate Democrats' internal research analysis preceding the midterm elections.
“We had noticed in 2016 as Trump was being elected that there had been this realignment,” the strategist explained. “College-educated voters jumping over to Democrats. And voters without college education, even if they were registered Democrats or had voted Democrat in the past, moving over to the Republican side and voting for Trump. So when we were looking at our opportunities in 2018, we were looking at the suburbs and places that had higher levels of education, that were more diverse.”
Senator-elect Anna Kaplan’s newly-won district just east of Queens is a case in point—“where she just beat Elaine Phillips is both super educated and very diverse.”
“So we first looked at districts that seemed to be demographically advantageous to us,” the strategist said. “Then, we also started seeing throughout the last two years a decrease in ticket splitters.” In other words, Democrats and Republicans would more reliably vote for their party.
This put districts where Democrats had a numerical enrollment advantage in the crosshairs, even if Republicans had won Democrats’ votes in the past. State Senator Marty Golden was at the top of that hit list. His district showed a 28 percentage point enrollment advantage for liberals.
“He had gotten Democratic votes for such a long time that people assumed that it was a forgone conclusion,” the strategist said, but Andrew Gounardes's victory would prove otherwise.
The third insight was that so-called “Obama-Trump” districts, where both those presidents prevailed, a superior or unique candidate, like James Skoufis or Jen Metzger, could pull off a win.
In several races, candidates’ focus was often far from national or even statewide politics.
In Long Island, Democrats hammered Republican candidates on corruption in local machine politics. Jim Gaughran, in particular, drilled down on water.
“It’s not a sexy issue, but people there care about their water rates,” the strategist said.
As much as the midterm election has been cast as an anti-Trump uprising, for individual state senate candidates, it was not a central focus. When it was convenient, they might call out the president, but often it was not. For several candidates, they needed Trump loyalists to vote for them.
“I carried some very Republican election districts,” Gaughran said, noting that those were important votes for him to win. “You also had to get people who supported Donald Trump to vote for you. We did.”
On a typical day, the theatre director Oliver Butler sends three thousand texts urging political action.
By Anna Russell November 12, 2018
Shortly before the midterms, the theatre director Oliver Butler met with other anxious, liberal-leaning New Yorkers at the café outside the Signature Theatre, on Forty-second street, for a master class in textavism. He had just attended a preview of his show “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” by the playwright Will Eno, and was jotting notes on a legal pad, with a laptop and a smartphone at his elbow. He wore a blue maga-style cap, which he and Eno had designed, and which bore the word “facts.” Part of the proceeds benefits the Committee to Protect Journalists, he said, adding, “In the right area people will be, like, ‘He won, get over it!’ ”
In the past year, text activism, or textavism, has consumed nearly all of Butler’s limited spare time (in addition to “Pain,” another show he directed, Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” was playing downtown). It often involves sending text messages to voters in swing states. “We try to apply pressure where we can do the most good,” Butler said. Recently, in the course of twenty-four hours, texters from MoveOn, where Butler volunteers, sent more than two million messages urging registered Democrats to vote in November. Textavists from the groups Open Progress, Indivisible, and the Working Families Party have messaged people on issues like the Affordable Care Act, Doug Jones, and net neutrality. On a good day, Butler will send nearly three thousand texts; on an exceptional day, he will send ten thousand.
Not everyone is happy to hear from him. “The blue wave has brought nothing but destruction and fragmentation to this great country,” a woman named Darla wrote recently, in response to Butler’s get-out-the-vote text. “We are opting you out of texts immediately,” he wrote back. “Have a nice day.”
Butler’s activism began in earnest after the 2016 elections, when he started a campaign to get people to call their representatives twice a day. But he wasn’t sure anyone was listening; the line was often busy, or he’d leave a message and get no response. Enter textavism, which he has been teaching at Tupperware-style parties around the city. “I’ve been trying to figure out what creates apathy,” he said. “Part of the problem comes when we put energy into the world and get no response back. What I loved about this”—he held up his phone—“was that the actual structure of it involved a feedback loop.”
Butler was joined by Caroline McGraw, a playwright and aspiring textavist, who was wearing a sweatshirt bearing an illustration of a uterus, and Tania Kirkman, a volunteer administrator on MoveOn’s text team. Participants text through a Web-based app that keeps voters’ phone numbers private. Their messages are pre-written. On his laptop, Butler pulled up a sample text: “With less than 3 weeks until Election Day, we’re kicking off a campaign to build the Blue Wave!” he read. “Will you pledge to vote blue on Nov 6? Reply YES & we’ll share periodic texts from MoveOn.”
“So you can imagine the kind of responses you might get,” he said. “If it’s a yes, great. They’ll get an automatic text and are signed up.” Other common responses: no (“Thanks for responding!”); I will vote, but please do not text me (“We get that a lot”); How’d you get my number? (voter databases). “If anyone says ‘Trump,’ ‘maga,’ anything like that, it’s ‘opt out,’ ” Butler explained. “That’s most of your work,” he said. “Opt out, opt out, opt out.”
“Prepare to be cursed at a lot,” Kirkman told McGraw. She read a recent response: “Absolutely not, fuck you guys.” She added, “So that’s going to be an opt out.”
McGraw turned to her laptop and began sending texts. “I like seeing people’s names,” she said. “Oh, I just texted another Caroline! I hope she texts me back and is not, like, ‘Go to hell, bitch.’ ”
They worked on messages for a few minutes. “Oh, I got a reply!” McGraw said. It was from a woman named Veronica. “stop,” McGraw read. Her face fell. “O.K. Oh, Veronica, girl.” Opt out.
Volunteers are allowed to edit some scripts, but it’s not recommended. “We have the Fox News rule, which is, we would never respond to anyone in a way that Fox News would put on to say, ‘Look how the left is texting people,’ ” Kirkman said. Butler added that he’ll sometimes throw in an extra “Thank you.”
McGraw peered at Butler’s messages. “There’s a new one!” she said. She read it out: “ ‘Ollie, you can count me in. Count on me. Shae Shae.’ ” ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the November 12, 2018, issue, with the headline “Civil.”
November 19, 2018 by Joel Rose
By John Wagner November 16, 2018
Democratic challenger Katie Porter has prevailed over Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) in a Southern California congressional district, adding to Republican losses in the nation’s most populous state.
Porter, a law professor and consumer advocate, was declared the narrow winner by the Associated Press on Thursday night in an upscale Orange County district that has been represented by a Republican since 1983.
“I can’t wait to get to work for Orange County and to stand with you 100% of the time!” Porter said in a tweet posted Thursday night that included a video of her standing in front of the U.S. Capitol.
The GOP could face another loss in an area once known as California’s Reagan County. A tally released Thursday night showed Democrat Gil Cisneros taking a narrow lead in the 39th Congressional District over Republican Young Kim in a race to replace the retiring Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.).
Walters’s loss in the 45th Congressional District was the fifth seat in California that has slipped away from Republicans since last week’s midterm elections.
Nationally, Democrats have gained 36 seats on Republicans, with six races yet to be called.
Porter, a protege of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), ran on a liberal platform that included advocacy of a single-payer health-care system, a ban on assault weapons and the overturning of the Republican tax cut.
In a tweet Thursday night, Warren wrote: “I’m proud of all of our incredible incoming Democratic House members, but I’m ESPECIALLY proud of our newest: my former student & research partner @katieporteroc! WOO-HOO!”
Walters was easily reelected in the district just two years ago, winning nearly 59 percent of the vote.
By Tim Craig November 7, 2018
After years of trying, Democrats expanded their influence in state capitols on Tuesday, flipping more than 300 state legislative seats while also claiming a majority of the nation’s attorney general offices.
The Democratic gains mark a significant turnaround for a party that had been losing clout in state legislatures for nearly a decade, allowing Republicans in many states to loosen restrictions on firearms, push through new voter-identification laws and weaken environmental regulations. Democrats had also ceded enormous power to Republicans to redraw congressional boundaries.
The victories — buoyed by an apparent net Democratic pickup of seven governorships — will also help fortify the party’s efforts to use states as a firewall against President Trump, including through coordinated lawsuits against the administration.
Although some returns are preliminary, Democrats appear to have won new attorney general offices in Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. If confirmed, Democrats will occupy 27 of the nation’s 51 attorney general offices next year.
“We now have four more AGs in the room . . . who will be ready to hold this administration in check,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum, the chairwoman of the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have an attorney general, although the functions and responsibilities of each office can vary greatly.
Over the past two years, the Democratic attorneys general have stepped up their efforts to coordinate, including weekly conference calls to discuss legal challenges against Trump. Over the past 18 months, Democratic attorneys general have filed dozens of lawsuits against Trump, including several aimed at preventing him from modifying the Affordable Care Act.
Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday that the election results reaffirm Democrats’ strategy of pushing their agenda through the courts.
“There is going to be gridlock in Washington that is going to rule the day,” Shapiro said, referring to expected partisan fights next year between the White House and a divided Congress.
“But what is clear is that the attorneys general will actually be working to get things done. . . protecting people, individual rights and being the only effective check on the federal government.”
In all, 30 states and the District held races for attorney general on Tuesday. Zack Roday, communicators director for the Republican Attorneys General Association, said in an interview that Tuesday’s election amounted to “a natural” leveling of what had been years of GOP dominance in attorney general races.
“This is a reflection of the environment and to the fact these states had been under Republican control for a long time, and these races . . . ebb and flow,” Roday said, noting that Republicans still won fiercely contested attorney general races in Florida, Ohio, Georgia, South Dakota and South Carolina.
For Democrats, however, the wins represented the party’s broader effort to rebound after it was pummeled in local and state races when President Barack Obama was in office.
In 2010, during Obama’s first midterm elections, Republicans won control of 21 additional state legislative chambers after more than 700 new GOP legislators were elected.
Before Tuesday’s election, Republicans held the majority in two-thirds of state legislative chambers. Republicans also held 33 of the nation’s 50 governorships, just one below their all-time high of 34.
Now, after new state leaders are sworn in next month or in January, Republicans will have a 27-23 advantage over Democrats in governorships, if results hold.
Democrats also will have made up ground in state legislatures.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) said the party won at least 323 GOP-held legislative seats on Tuesday. Republicans counter that they won nearly 100 seats held by Democrats.
Still, the DLCC is confident that Democrats have won new majorities in the Colorado Senate, the New York Senate, the Maine Senate, the Minnesota House, and both the Senate and the House in New Hampshire.
In New York, Democrats won eight state Senate seats, ending about a decade of GOP control while giving their party complete control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.
State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who will probably become the new Senate leader, said even she was surprised by the extent of her party’s wins on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, which she credited to unusually high turnout.
“I think people realized after the 2016 elections that four years between presidential elections is a long time, but state legislatures matter,” Stewart-Cousins said.
She expects many Democratic priorities will now swiftly move through the legislative process.
“Whether it’s gun laws, or criminal justice reform, or reproductive rights issues, to acknowledging climate change, there are many things that have not been able to move because of my Republican colleagues,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We are expecting we will be able to restore trust in government for New Yorkers as well as being a progressive beacon.”
Former Florida attorney general Bill McCollum, the chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said GOP losses in state races are still relatively limited considering the number of seats the party was defending.
McCollum noted that high-profile Democrats, including Obama and former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., have made it a priority to focus on legislative and statewide offices. Holder’s group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, raised more than $18 million to try to influence state elections.
“We kept both the Wisconsin House and Senate, the Michigan House and Senate, and the Senate in Pennsylvania, and those were three very big priorities for them,” McCollum said.
Even so, McCollum acknowledges that Democrats will probably be even more aggressive in targeting local and statewide GOP-held offices in 2020.
“They have finally figured out they have to pay attention,” said McCollum. “Are we concerned? Of course we are concerned — the sheer amount of money concerns us — but last night’s showing shows money is not everything.”