Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy
© Getty

The concession speech in Mississippi’s run-off election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy Espy files to run for Senate in 2020, setting up possible rematch with Hyde-Smith MORE officially marked the end an abnormally long midterm election season marked by recounts, runoffs, concessions that were revoked, court battles and more recounts.

The Democrat seizure of House control became the secondary story, while the headline was a few races that were almost won. Relatively obscure politicians Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, became household names as Democrats hoped against hope that anti-Trump fervor, population shifts and energized voter bases would finally flip seats from red to blue in Texas, Florida, Georgia, and even Mississippi.

ADVERTISEMENT

In Georgia, Abrams came within 1.5 percent of being the first African American woman to be elected governor of any state. In Florida it was a down to the wire doubleheader; In the Senate race, after a two-week recount, Gov. Rick Scott declared victory over Democrat Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonMcCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate Bill Nelson uses farewell address to remind colleagues ‘no one person is above the law’ Coal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee MORE by the slim margin of 10,000 votes and in the governor's race, Gillum was defeated by his Republican opponent by less than a half percent. And in Texas, 2.6 percent kept O'Rouke from being the first Democrat to unseat a Republican Senate incumbent as he fell to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Biden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report MORE.

Pundits have talked about shifting demographics around the country and particularly in the South as the reason that both parties are in the fight of their lives for their futures. Saying that a younger, browner, more global electorate will greatly change how politics is played and that Democrats have an opportunity to capitalize off of these shifts and have a chance to win in places where the party has traditionally been dormant, because "demographics are destiny.” For instance, Texas is the fastest growing state in the union and is pulling transplants from places like California and Illinois at remarkable rates. Metropolitan Texas will nearly double in size in the next 30 years. In Georgia, the population of nonwhites is 40 percent and continues to grow. Atlanta's vast web of suburbs, in particular, is growing and becoming diversified in a way that all but ensures an inevitable about-face from Red to Blue but leaving this to happenstance is a mistake for the National Democratic Party.

In 2005, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee and embarked on a movement to create infrastructure, influence, and engagement in every state in America. He called it, the "50 State Strategy." Dean believed that Democrats should have an operation in places that it usually ignored in order to secure the future. This plan was met with consternation by many of the DNC's top brass and slowly disappeared. Failure to embrace Dean’s vision is one of the biggest mistakes the party has made in recent history. 

Politics and campaigns are about the future. The party that can't be bold, creative and challenge obsolete models today, is the party that can't exist tomorrow. Trends do matter and they can forecast what we should expect, but the American electorate is as unpredictable as an earthquake, ask Thomas Dewey, listen to those who voted for President Obama in 2012 and President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE in 2016, and talk to the constituents in New York's 14th District who ousted the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus for a first time candidate.

Dean had it right. A stronger party with a stronger presence in more states creates the opportunity for better candidates who can win races in places that according to common sentiment, they should not be able to. During his DNC tenure, Dean’s detractors argued that you should only "spend where you can win" and any efforts to flip states and districts that have traditionally voted Republican was foolhardy at best. There was no attention paid to the South, especially in those states that became nail bitters this year. The party assumed, to paraphrase Lynyrd Skynyrd “a southern man don't need us around anyhow,” but with a little more intentional strategic focus in years past, this year's election may have turned out different.

In my former life as a college football defensive lineman, one of the most shouted commands from my coaches was: “run to the ball!” When you run to the ball in football, good things happen; mainly turnovers. The Democratic Party has to run to the ball. The party must adopt something similar to the 50 state strategy. What became evident in this year’s election is that the country is ready for a shift, but it has to be worked for and the work has to begin now. It would be a misstep to wait for the demographics to completely shift to formulate a plan. When the birds begin to sing, it is already morning. 

Kam Buckner is an attorney, former U.S. Senate staffer and a lecturer in public policy studies at the University of Chicago.