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Georgia Hollister Isman: Mess with progressive women at your peril and other lessons from the 2018 election

At the end of a hard fought 2018 election season, we’ve had two tremendously successful election cycles for candidates who will champion the priorities of working families and progressive values in the State House. On September 12th and November 6th, voters chose candidates who articulated a clear, bold progressive agenda and the ability to work hard to deliver it at the grassroots level.

Our goal in the 2018 cycle was to meaningfully support working families champions running for office and help them win tough races. We began by focusing on recruitment at training in the winter and spring. This summer and fall we’ve been turning out our volunteers to hit the streets for our priority candidates — mostly in suburban districts. We’re also mobilizing activists from in and around Providence to gather to call and text into swing Rhode Island districts. Our staff has also been providing expert strategy, messaging, mail, field and GOTV help for campaigns across the state.

Here are some key takeaways for the work and the results:

The State House will be more progressive and more female in 2019

We made big progress toward gender parity and progressive power in the primary. That continued in a big way in the general. Progressive incumbents ran stronger against challenges from Republicans or Independents than some of the more moderate Democrats. This provides yet more evidence that what are often thought of as progressive issue positions — $15 an hour minimum wage, protecting a woman’s right to choose, Medicare for All — are mainstream values in Rhode Island and good politics all around. There were also huge victories by some terrific progressive women — mostly from the southern part of the state — taking seats held by Republicans. And a Working Families Party-endorsed candidate also took an open seat formerly held by a conservative Democrat;; in Senate District 24, Melissa Murray won the seat previously held by Marc Cote. On the whole the legislature nets at least nine new progressives and six new women.

New forms of voters communication are effective, but door-to-door canvassing still matters most

We’ve experimented with texting voters this cycle, both in the primary and the general elections and are learning some valuable things about this relatively new form of direct communication. Nearly everyone read their texts, and a surprising number of people will write back to tell you how they feel about a candidate. A few hours of volunteers texting voters routinely generates dozens of identified supporters. Better news yet, the people who respond to texts tend to be different than the ones we are able to contact through door-to-door and phones. This technology is an exciting addition to grassroots campaigns, but it is no substitute for shoe leather. We saw in the both the primary and general election results that candidates who have put in the time to talk to voters face-to-face at the door simply do better.

Mess with progressive women at your peril — why is that so hard to learn?

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If there is a meta narrative that runs throughout 2018, it is the strength of progressive women candidates and the inability or unwillingness of the establishment to see or acknowledge that strength. Certainly that was a theme in the primary where the Democratic Party and Speaker of the House actively opposed progressive women incumbents (as well as Working Families Party endorsed women running in open seats). The women triumphed. But it seems the establishment hasn’t learned from their failures. Progressive Democratic women running tough campaigns against Republicans accounted for the bulk of the Democratic Party’s pickups, but still didn’t receive the help and attention they deserved. And in some cases, they were actively opposed, as when Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee endorsed the Independent oil and gas lobbyist who unsuccessfully challenged Representative Susan Donovan. This year, progressive women were the best candidates and yet they still met with resistance. The future of the political leadership in Rhode Island, and especially among Democrats, will be female and progressive. The Democratic Party establishment should get on board if they care about engaging and representing Rhode Islanders — as well as winning.

Leadership at the State House has become a salient topic for voters

Voters are paying surprisingly close attention to how the people’s business is carried out in the State House. This was a theme in the primary and it has remained one even in the bigger, less politically clued-in general election electorate. The log jam of legislation, the power of corporate lobbyists, Leadership’s willingness to protect insiders at the expense of others, and toleration of sexual harassment in the State House have all become issues that are as salient as many public policy debates. Voters are demanding to know that their legislators will be independent, accountable to the community, and open in the way they do business. Even though the Speaker won his re-election campaign in western Cranston, the recognition of these issues among constituents will make it politically important for elected representatives, especially those coming out of hard won races, to demand better processes and culture at the State House. When they do so, they will have their communities behind them.

About the Author

Georgia Hollister Isman is the State Director of the Working Families Party.