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Can Democrats figure out how to win legislative seats again?

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In elections, it’s all about who shows up.

And last year, Democrats didn’t.

The Democrats’ historic loss in Michigan is due pretty much to the fact that too many voters who would typically vote Democratic simply sat out Election 2016. While Republicans, true to form, showed up at the polls.

So what’s a political party to do?

We have seen Democrats and a new leadership team at the national level return to what’s called the 50-state state strategy: competing in places where the odds don’t appear to favor them, but hoping for some lucky breaks that yield unexpected victories.

We’re also seeing more attention being paid to organizing at every level, including legislative races because, in order to be an effective national party, Democrats have to be compete at every level - federal, state, and local.

In many respects, the Obama years were not kind to down-ballot Democrats. President Obama had his own political organization that was devoted to his election and reelection, but that didn’t always help other Dems, particularly in years when he wasn’t at the top of the ballot.

In fact, “during his presidency,” the Brookings Institute notes, “Democrats lost 12 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 13 governorships, 21 state legislative chambers and about 1,000 state legislative seats.”

In November, Democrats in Michigan suffered their first loss in a presidential race in 30 years. And Republicans have run the show in Lansing every year since Governor Rick Snyder’s been in charge.

Blame gerrymandered districts if you’d like, but for the Ds, there’s another ugly truth: Republican voters are simply more committed to showing up than the Dems’ often-fickle party base.

Another truth: the path to power in Lansing runs through northern Michigan. And when you look at state House and Senate seats up north, there are a lot more lawmakers with Rs next to their names than Ds.

“It is going to be critically important to start picking up those seats again whether they’re north of Clare or west of Lansing,” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon tells It’s Just Politics.

Dillon says the party’s seeing a surge of engagement since Donald Trump won Michigan. For Dems: the trick is to keep that group enthusiastic with rallies, house parties, door-knocking and phone banks.

Look for the Ds to try to capitalize on ostensibly non-partisan municipal elections this year as opportunities to build the infrastructure to boost turnout in 2018.

There’s a lot of talk about what ideology the Democratic Party should embrace: establishment versus progressives. A sort of Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders hangover.

But the reality is it’s not the job of a political party to adopt a philosophy. That’s up to the candidates. And what plays well in Ann Arbor won’t necessarily work in Alpena.

Brandon Dillon says that’s a reality across the country and across Michigan. “Certainly having candidates that reflect the district they’re running in is critically important.”

Republicans are focused on the flip side of the same challenge. Can the GOP get the voters who turned out for Donald Trump to remain engaged and go to the polls in 2018. The Democrats need to crack the code to inspire their voters to simply show up.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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