WASHINGTON ― Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and Democratic presidential candidate, took an out-of-state trip this month to speak to volunteers working for a candidate in a special state Senate election.
The appearance of a national political figure at a Feb. 11 rally for a statewide election in Delaware wasn’t surprising. Democratic control of the state Senate hinges on victory for their candidate, Stephanie Hansen. But it was surprising that the Saturday morning rally attracted a massive turnout of volunteers willing to knock on doors encouraging votes for Hansen.
“Usually, if you have a weekend canvass, if you have 20 or 30 volunteers that was always hitting it out of the ballpark,” said Erik Raser-Schramm, Hansen’s campaign manager. That day, 250 showed up.
Hansen’s campaign is benefitting from the outpouring of anger and activism that has erupted since the election of Donald Trump as president. Millions of frustrated Americans filled the streets the day after Trump’s inauguration for the national Women’s March protests. Many participants had never been to a protest or thought of themselves as activists before.
That activism is now beginning to flow into state and local politics. The special Senate election in Delaware on Feb. 25 will be its first test.
“I think it’s encouraging that there are folks who having been concerned about the outcome of the presidential election, being concerned about the direction of our national security and our federal government, are taking that concern and enthusiasm and focusing it on state and local elections,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
The special election is critical for Delaware Democrats. The party controls the state Senate by the tie-breaking vote of Democratic Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall Long, who previously held the state Senate seat that’s up for election. The special election between Democrat Hansen and Republican John Marino will determine which party controls the chamber.
Coons, who has campaigned with Hansen along with other Delaware Democratic political figures, including former Vice President Joe Biden, said he expects the race to be “decided by maybe a few hundred votes.” Every bit of activism and energy will be needed.
The state Senate district stretches from Middletown in the south to Newark in the north, bisected by the C&D Canal. Long an agricultural region, it has seen a rapid increase in development over the past decade, with an influx of new residents from New York and Pennsylvania. Voter registration leans Democratic, but recent elections have been close.
Marino, the Republican, ran for state Senate in 2014 and lost to Long by just 2 percentage points. Long vacated the seat after winning the 2016 election for lieutenant governor.
The close margins in past elections indicate the importance of turnout in this special election. Turnout in local races has been a challenge for Democrats in recent years. That’s why the new generation of volunteers and activists rising from the disappointment of the 2016 is so important for the party, both at the local level and nationally.
Democrats not only lost the White House to Trump in November. They also found themselves out of power in Congress. And they control just 16 of 50 governorships, and 29 of 99 state legislative chambers. The party has fallen to a nearly 100-year low in terms of political power.
Hansen noted in campaign speeches that a “sleeping giant is beginning to awake” due to the shock election of Trump. She spoke at the Newark Women’s March on Jan. 21, with about 1,000 participants. Marchers who wanted to maintain the energy turned to Hansen’s campaign.
“The increase in numbers of the people getting involved has really been extraordinary,” said Lisa Goodman, executive director of Equality Delaware, who spoke at the Newark march. “Many of those people have been energized by wanting to push back policies coming out of Washington.”
Carolyn Fiddler, of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said volunteers working for Hansen would knock on 60,000 doors before the campaign is over.
“Our field operation is off the charts, as is volunteer activity,” Fiddler said. “Organizers and volunteers have already knocked on over 30,000 doors, and they’ve made over 28,000 phone calls.”
There are only 31,000 doors to knock on in the district.
Activism has spilled across Delaware’s boundaries. Sister District, a 15,000-member group born out of the Women’s March, and Flippable, a Democratic group focused on local elections, helped raise $125,000 in small donations for Hansen from around the country. The group Democratic Action hosted a phone-bank day for activists in San Francisco to support Hansen.
Back in Hansen’s district, Sonia Sloan, 88, is hosting a fundraiser for Hansen in the final days before the special election. This longtime Democratic Party activist said she hasn’t seen this much energy and excitement since she chaired the 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy in Delaware.
Whether that energy translates to votes may show whether the Democratic Party has a real chance of a comeback in the Trump era.
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with the latest membership numbers for Sister District and updated fundraising numbers for Sister District and Flippable.
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