President Donald Trump’s inauguration a year ago was a triumph for his one-of-a-kind campaign, and a call to action for many Democrats who resolved to become more politically active.
Did it make a difference?
Absolutely. It’s clear the “Trump bump” of progressive enthusiasm had an impact on Democratic fortunes in the Philadelphia region last year, and will continue to affect local politics in 2018.
Whether it’s enough of a movement to capture some Republican congressional seats in the suburbs remains to be seen.
Loud out of the gate
The day after his swearing-in, an estimated 50,000 people came out for a women’s march in Philadelphia protesting the Trump presidency.
It was unclear whether that energy would translate into the stuff that wins elections — volunteers, contributions, and votes.
David Landau, chairman of Delaware County’s Democratic party said he saw a difference right away.
“We have literally thousands of people, including most of our candidates [for county office] who woke up on November 9th and just said, ‘I’m part of the problem that elected Donald Trump, because I haven’t been active, and I need to do something,’” Landau said.
Four months after Trump’s inauguration, progressives in Philadelphia staged a stunning upset, when first-time candidate Rebecca Rhynhart captured the City Controller’s office by upsetting three-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz in the Democratic Party primary.
Progressives also turned out in numbers to vote for District Attorney candidate Larry Krasner, the beneficiary of more than $1.4 million in campaign spending by billionaire George Soros.
A few days after the primary, City Commissioner Al Schmidt compared turnout by age group to results in the primary four years earlier.
“Among the youngest age cohort, or millennial voters, their participation increased by nearly 300 percent, from about 9,000 to around 34,000 voters,” Schmidt said.
While millennial turnout was still only ten percent, it was a surge that made a difference.
But would the Democratic momentum carry another six months into the general election?
It appears it did.
In Delaware County, where Democrats had never won a seat on the county council, they beat Republicans for the two contested seats and three other offices. They also captured some township and borough posts in the county, where Republicans had dominated for decades.
Democrats also had historic wins in Chester and Bucks Counties, making for a blue tide in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Chester County Democratic Chairman Brian McGuiness said there were enthusiastic new candidates, and voters determined to use local elections to send a national message.
“People can say what they want, but Trump was on the ballot, and his policies were on the ballot,” McGuiness said the day after the election. “We wanted to make this a statement election.”
A national impact?
The suburban counties where Democrats got those wins comprise big parts of three Congressional seats held by Republicans that the national Democratic party hopes to capture this year: the 8th District, held by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, the 6th, held by Rep. Ryan Costello, and the 7th congressional seat, which Rep. Pat Meehan took from the Democrats in 2010.
Landau, the chair of Delco Democrats, said the emergence of new candidates and gains in county and local offices will matter in the races to come.
“This election is a pathway to 2018,” Landau said. “It allows us to set up the infrastructure, show our success, and creates both the perception and the reality that we can take back the 7th Congressional District, and pick up a few more state house seats and state senate seats.”
Are Republicans worried?
GOP media strategist John Brabender said he’s concerned about the Democratic surge in the counties, but it’s way too early to write off Republicans in those three congressional seats.
Brabender said Meehan, Costello, and Fitzpatrick have plenty of local support, and he noted that in 2016, they got more votes than the president in their districts.
“Despite Donald Trump either barely winning their districts or not winning their district, they won by double digits last time,” Brabender said.
Local races in 2018
Besides congressional races, there’s a crop of first-time Democratic candidates seeking local offices, such as party committee posts and seats in the state legislature.
North Philadelphia activist Malcolm Kenyatta is running for State Representative. He said those who predicted the anti-Trump wave would peter out are in for a surprise in 2018.
“I remember people saying to me, ‘Well, this engagement won’t last.’ I remember people interviewing me about ‘engagement fatigue’,” Kenyatta said. “Not only do I not see it slowing down, but I see it picking up.”
Many of those progressive candidates for local seats will run not against Republicans, but against incumbent Democrats.
It’s not yet clear how many will actually file to run. The deadline is March 6.