Lessons for Dems looking to 2018: Compete everywhere
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Calling the special election outcome a “thunderbolt of resistance,” elementary school reading teacher Christine Pellegrino claimed victory in May in New York’s 9th Assembly District in the State Assembly.

It was a massive 39-point swing.


As the media consultant and pollster navigating the independent campaign for Pellegrino run by New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), one of the nation’s most formidable labor organizations, we found many insiders skeptical an upset was possible.

But bolstered by progressive enthusiasm and Republican disaffection, we helped deliver the largest swing district victory for Democrats under Trump to date.

The dynamics of this race offered some advantages, but many challenges. It was an open-seat special election with low anticipated turnout. Compared to the high-profile congressional special elections in Montana and Georgia, our efforts were under-the-radar. We had sufficient funding to communicate and compete, but faced a conservative opponent with few known vulnerabilities and no real track record to challenge.

The Republicans had picked their own outsider and he was, for the most part, a clean slate. Further, voter attitudes toward Trump were divided. A significant portion of Pellegrino’s vote ultimately came from those who still held somewhat favorable views of the president, including working-class voters from all parties.

So what strategies led to such a resounding turnaround?

  1. Motivating less-likely Democratic voters while persuading independents and soft Republicans (especially women) are not conflicting goals. We did both, aggressively imploring Democrats to send a message in Trump’s backyard, while talking to all voters about issues that transcend partisan politics. Pellegrino’s record of activism as a mother and a public-school teacher aligned her priorities with those of this solidly middle-class, suburban district. We told her story in a way that allowed voters to connect with her life experience and accomplishments.

  1. Connecting with working-class values matters, especially on issues that are local and granular. We must be powerful champions for solutions to the problems that threaten our communities, from opioid addiction to environmental threats to our water and air to corrosive political corruption. These problems cross party lines, harm all taxpayers, and undermine confidence in government. 

  1. Challenging a rigged system can build broad coalitions for progressives. Voters from across the political spectrum see the super-wealthy, big corporations and polluters, and special interests like charter school backers as receiving special favors from politicians and in need of a check. We didn’t hide Christine’s progressive views but rather leaned into them to frame the choice.

  1. Breaking down the silos of messaging. We ensured that what voters saw in mailboxes and in our digital program linked with what we were saying on the doors and on the phones. Too often, these different voter communications tools are seen as separate departments and through completely different lenses. The power of reinforcement matters, especially with turning out infrequent voters.

Our strategies were not revolutionary in and of themselves. But we approached message development and campaign planning with a fresh perspective and most importantly, a belief we could win.

Democrats are at their lowest point nationally in decades — but the 2018 midterms present an opportunity to expand the playing field and get back in the game.

If a thunderbolt of resistance can strike a district like this one, the change America needs can be won.

Matthew Rey is a partner at Red Horse Strategies, a Democratic campaign consulting firm and served as the media consultant for the New York State United Teachers Independent Expenditure campaign for Pellegrino. Ben Tulchin, president of Tulchin Research, and Ben Krompak vice president of Tulchin Research, served as the pollsters for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.

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