DLCC Executive Director Michael Sargeant on the Challenges and Opportunities for Democrats at the State Level

Executive Director Michael Sargeant discusses Democratic legislative prospects in 2010.

Executive Director Michael Sargeant discusses Democratic legislative prospects in 2010.

C&E: There is universal talk of a Republican edge this year. Director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia, Larry Sabato, predicts 300 to 500 legislative seats will be lost to the GOP around the nation. Is this analysis premature?

Sargeant: Absolutely. I’m looking at data in battleground states every day. The strength of the campaigns in battleground states is pretty impressive. I think our Democratic majorities will remain largely intact [after November].

C&E: What is the overall electoral strategy in the states to prevent major losses and even to make some gains?

Sargeant: The DLCC has been working on these issues for many years. We work very closely to put together the best campaigns possible. We have built a large infrastructure over time. We got to 60 [Democratic] majorities to 36 [Republican majorities], that didn’t happen overnight. Our candidates talk about issues that pertain to their districts. Their campaigns are about what happens in their communities, and not about divisive national issues. Our campaigns weather good or bad national elections, and we try to do this all the time. That’s why we are able to hold majorities in so many “red states.” This is part of our strategy all the time and it is not foreign to us now.

C&E: That strategy stretches back to 1994 when the DLCC was founded, correct?

Sargeant: The DLCC was conceived in aftermath of the 1994 elections. Previously, a bunch of different organizations [oversaw elections] administered though the Democratic National Committee. The DLCC was—and is—still the only national Democratic Party association that is responsible for local elections for the Democratic Party.

C&E: Redistricting plans, if the GOP gains in many state houses. If the landslide scenario does occur, what is the strategy to limit those redistricting plans so as not to box out Democrats?

Sargeant: We’ve got very good relationships with those legislative leaders experienced in a variety of subjects, including redistricting. We are preparing for a variety of different scenarios, but we’re confident that most majorities will be intact after this election cycle.

C&E: When the top of the ticket leans Republican, how do you manage down ballot races? Do you focus primarily on the individual candidates and local issues alone, or are there universal themes you can apply to those races to make them more manageable?

Sargeant: We work on state legislative races all the time, and we work closely with individual campaigns and leaders to run the best race possible; personalizing campaigns, localizing them. Talk to concerns of those districts, not necessarily things that don’t concern them, like larger political conversations. The DLCC works on localizing and personalizing these campaigns. State legislatures are the true firewall for the Democratic Party. The [Democratic] gains in the state legislatures preceded the Democratic “waves” of 2006 and 2008, and we had successes prior to those as well. Our leaders are going to hold strong in this cycle as well.

C&E: Let’s examine some of the sates that are tossups or may represent opportunities for Democratic gains. Starting with Alabama: (Senate: 20/15 Democratic, House: 60/45 Democratic)

Sargeant: In Alabama, we have held majorities for as long anyone can remember. It’s a tough fight in both chambers right now, but I’m confident they are doing a good job at defending those

C&E: Alaska: (Senate: 10/10 Split, House: 18/22 Republican)

Sargeant: Alaska is an interesting state. The trends up there are always mixed for both parties. Often, it seems to me that we are going to have voters vote for personalities rather than party labels. We are happy to have a tie up there. It is always interesting up in Alaska.

C&E: New York: (Senate: 32/30 Democratic, House: 102/42 Democratic)

Sargeant: I think we have a great opportunity to expand the majority in the New York state Senate – it’s one of the majorities that is poised to grow. Look at the seats that are in play, they are increasingly Democratic. With the demographic changes in party registration, I think Democrats are poised to make significant gains in state Senate.


C&E: Iowa: (Senate: 32/18 Democratic, House: 56/44 Democratic)

Sargeant: I think state legislators have run great campaigns in Iowa. In a difficult political environment, our candidates in the state House and Senate ran some of the best campaigns in the country. We’re confident that both chambers will come back into the majority.

C&E: As an aside, you must be happy with some of the polls that came out over the weekend showing that the competitive races for Democratic incumbents in Iowa are no longer so competitive.

Sargeant: I think we have seen the worst past. Republicans may have peaked early.

C&E: Montana: (Senate: 23/27 Republican, House: 50/50 Split)

Sargeant: That is a state where the chambers have flipped back and forth for most of the decade. Both chambers represent a relatively small state, population wise. Our candidates are strong at knocking on doors, and the state is small enough so that most of the population has a good opportunity to know their legislators, which is something that is very helpful this year.

C&E: Colorado: (Senate: 21/14 Democratic, House: 37/27 Democratic)

Sargeant: That’s a tough state politically; we’re in a good position to hold on to both sets of majorities. The DLCC had a great wave of pickups in the 2003 and 2004 cycles, and Colorado was at forefront of that. I think we run better campaigns than Republicans do, and I am confident that we will come back to majority [after November 2nd].

C&E: Texas: (Senate: 12/19 Republican, House: 73/77 Republican)

Sargeant: [Texas] may be our best pickup opportunity in the country. We are down 73 to 77 in the House, but Democrats are poised to make serious gains in Texas. We made significant gains in the last two cycles [in Texas], and there have been some strong changes among the electorate – with the increase in Hispanic and Latino voters. Republicans are responsible for a lot of the problems in Texas, they are the party of incumbency for many years, and voters understand that.

C&E: Nevada: (Senate: 12/9 Democratic, House: 28/14 Democratic)

Sargeant: We’re in a good position to be able to hold our majorities and possibly be able to create a super majority in both chambers. We currently have a veto-proof majority in the House and we need 2 in the Senate to make that happen there as well. It is a definite possibility.

C&E: Pennsylvania: (Senate: 30/20 Republican, House: 103/97 Democratic)

Sargeant: Democrats are in a good position to hold their majority in the Pennsylvania House. They have run a very strong program, one of the strongest Democrats have in the country. The House will be able to come back into the majority.

C&E: Ohio: (Senate: 21/12 Republican, 53/46 Democratic)

Sargeant: The Ohio House is a top defend for us; I think this is a state where the Democratic Speaker [Armond Budish (D-Beachwood)] is doing a great job at putting together a topnotch political operation. We are confident that he will be returned as Speaker.

C&E: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to leave our readers with?

Sargeant: State legislatures are the firewall for the Democratic Party. We have built a strong amount of majorities over the last 6 years, and we are poised to hold onto those majorities. Whatever happens throughout the rest of the ticket, if Democrats hold state legislatures the health of the party will be strong.

Michael Sargeant is the Executive Director of the DLCC and has served in that position since 2007. Michael Sargeant joined the DLCC in 2001 as a political director. He became the National Political Director in 2004. That cycle, the DLCC was instrumental in moving 10 chambers towards Democratic control. These gains included traditional “red” states such as Montana, Colorado, and North Carolina. Michael managed all political operations, as well as focusing on 17 states and 8 targeted chambers for the 2006 cycle, when Democrats pushed another 10 chambers towards Democratic control. Michael has years of campaign experience. Before joining the DLCC, Michael was the Tennessee House caucus director. He has also managed campaigns at many different levels, from mayoral to state legislature to congressional races in the states of New Jersey, Michigan, Missouri, and California.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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