Growing up as the son of a single mother and unable to afford college, Brandon Taitt spent the last decade using the only currency he had to help elect Democrats in Minnesota — his time.
He volunteered on local and presidential campaigns, but when other activists urged him to run for office, Taitt always had a reason not to do it: He had a new job, or he was a new husband, and then he became a father. “I’d come up with a million reasons about why I couldn’t or wouldn’t or anything else I could think of,” he said. “And then November 8 happened.”
Taitt was devastated by the election of Donald Trump and other GOP candidates down the ballot, results that not only put a Republican in the White House, but shifted control of the Minnesota Legislature.
In the months that followed, he watched the election turn into the inauguration of President Trump and the controversies that have dogged the administration. He thought about running for office again, and this time, he didn’t have any excuses. “It was time to put my time and money where my mouth was,” he said.
So Taitt, now a 30-year-old IT employee, recently filed to run for a Minnesota House seat in Blaine. As a Democratic candidate, he has plenty of company these days; he’s one of dozens of DFLers leaping into politics after the 2016 election, including five who’ve announced they’re running for governor (with plenty more considering); two DFL candidates for attorney general (even though incumbent Democrat Lori Swanson hasn’t announced her plans yet); and multiple Democrats interested in most of the state’s competitive congressional and legislative seats.
“What I’m seeing now is off the charts,” said DFL Rep. Melissa Hortman, the House minority leader who is leading the effort to pick up the 11 Minnesota House seats needed to reclaim the majority from Republicans in that body. “I think we’re going to have a large number of well-qualified candidates in a number of competitive seats, meaning we might have some serious endorsement challenges.”
But if there’s a lot of excitement, there’s also a lot at stake for Democrats in Minnesota. The Senate is now in Republican control for the next four years and House Republicans have a 20-seat advantage, their largest majority in more than a decade. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is leaving office in 2018, and if Democrats don’t hold the governor’s office and make gains in the state House, they risk complete Republican control of government for the first time in decades.
All of which raises some big questions for DFLers: Can they sustain the current level of excitement for next 16 months and, even more important, can they translate it into results on election day?
Inevitability and complacency
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin is one of the people trying to keep momentum building among activists — especially after the last election.
Last fall, Democrats across the nation were expecting voters to elect the nation’s first woman president, Hillary Clinton, who would bring along Democrats all the way down the ballot. But the wave never came. Instead, Trump won the presidency and Republicans took complete control of the state Legislature.
Martin’s biggest concern is that the excitement among Democrats these days could lead to overconfidence in 2018. “That sense of inevitability led to complacency, which led to our defeat in 2016,” Martin said. “We need to not get too in front of this election and do the hard work that we need to do. We can never assume that we are ahead.”
So the DFL Party is already staffing up. Martin recently hired two new communications staffers and a political and organizing director, Alyse Maye Quade (the wife of Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley), to help bring groups like the Minnesota chapters of Indivisible — a Trump resistance group — as well as Our Revolution and Swing Left, together with older factions of the party, like labor and environmental activists.
“We want to make sure we are tapping into that energy and partner with those groups and helping to amplify their voices,” Martin said. “How do we marry up this new energy with this old energy and channel it to win elections?”
More women wanting to run
One group of people getting more involved than ever: women.
Since the Women’s March in January, Lauren Beecham, executive director of progressive political organization Women Winning, said they’ve added 2,000 members. More than 1,000 women have approached the organization about wanting to run for office.
“The energy to run for office and get involved in the political process from women is stronger than we’ve ever seen,” Beecham said. “We can barely keep up with the candidates.”
A founder of the Women’s March in Minnesota, Alicia Donahue, is running in the 3rd Congressional District against Erik Paulsen, and two women, Leah Phifer and Cook County Commissioner Susan Hakes, are running or exploring a run in the 8th Congressional District, were incumbent DFL Rep. Rick Nolan is running again. Three women have announced runs for Minnesota governor, including DFL Reps. Erin Murphy and Tina Liebling, and State Auditor Rebecca Otto. A woman has never served in the state’s highest office in Minnesota.
But Beecham also wants activists to not forget what happened in 2016. “If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t take our work for granted,” she said. “Not electing women and those who support their interests has significant consequences. It’s going to take more this time, we are going to need to step out of our comfort zones.”
But Democrats’ challenges in the 2018 election go beyond maintaining enthusiasm. Over the last several election cycles, the party has been slowly pushed onto an island in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul, with Republicans knocking out rural Democrats in seats across the state. What’s more, 19 Minnesota counties that one went for former President Barack Obama flipped to support Trump last fall, giving hope to Republicans that they can carry a statewide race with the right message. It’s a political and demographic problem that’s led to plenty of soul searching among Democrats.
There are also those factors that Democrats can’t control leading into the 2018 election, the biggest one being the Trump administration. The string of bad headlines and scandals out of Washington have motivated people to get involved, but the election is a long way off.
“If national conditions hold, I think our chances [of taking back the House] are better than 50-50,” said Hortman, a seven-term Democrat from Brooklyn Park serving her first year as minority leader. “That is, if Trump continues to be Trump, and the Republican Congress continues to do nothing about it.”
Hortman knows things could shift suddenly and dramatically, but as of now, 2018 feels a lot like 2006, she said, when Democrats picked up 19 House seats and took full control of the Legislature. “What I always tell our candidates is that elections can bring a wave, but they might not,” she said. “If there is going to be in a wave, you have to be in a position to take advantage of it.”
For his part, Taitt doesn’t think the district’s current Republican Rep. Nolan West would’ve won last fall had Trump not been on the ballot. West won the seat by 168 votes, despite a string of controversies over past social media posts that criticized Abraham Lincoln and celebrated the Confederacy.
But he’s also not counting on a wave on his side, knowing that Republicans will be actively protecting their majority in the House and pushing people to get out and vote in the governor’s race, which they are also targeting.
Democrats need to keep the energy going, he said: “The only way we win is by harnessing these groups and harnessing this grassroots energy in the party right now.”