Democrats’ Future Is Down the Ballot

Light blue background with image of blue wave, an American flag and the word "VOTE" laid over a ballot box and someone inserting their ballot into the box, a black and white image of a ballot that reads "OFFICIAL GENERAL ELECTION BALLOT" and an arrow pointing to it, a black and white image of three pride flags and a black and white image of two young people smiling.

In 2022, political pundits across the country were reminded that candidates still matter. That was most evident in races where election deniers were on the ballot, as they lost races that many had already put in the GOP column before Election Day. The Democracy Defenders — our pro-democracy candidates for local election administration positions — were overwhelmingly successful against their anti-democratic opponents, winning 10 out of 13 contests involving election deniers. The only election deniers to win governors’ races were incumbents, and their counterparts running for secretaries of state and other down-ballot races were rejected by voters in important battleground states.

One of the reasons we started Run for Something in 2017 is because we know how important it is to run quality candidates everywhere — in every state, for every office. And the midterm elections proved that when we run those candidates, we win — even in some of the toughest districts and in a generally difficult year for Democrats.

This is because, at least in part, Democrats at the top of the ticket get a boost from Democrats toward the bottom of the ticket, specifically contested state legislative seats, according to research from BlueLabs.

Our research shows that Democratic candidates running statewide earn up to a 2.3% vote share increase in precincts with fully contested state legislative races. We call this the “reverse coattails” effect. In short: Democrats can help drive the gains they covet in races for U.S. Senate and governor by investing down the ballot.

The success of these candidates, each of whom lead with authenticity, is a strong argument for Democrats committing to a down-ballot strategy that focuses on recruiting diverse, young candidates for state and local offices.

And while encouraging turnout by advocating for sound policy and pro-democracy stances works well for Democrats, we can’t discount the gains we’ve made from promoting diverse and inclusive representation among new Democratic leaders.

Currently, there are more out LGBTQ+ politicians in office than ever before, including Run for Something-endorsed candidates, like California Assemblymember Alex Lee (D) and Hawaii State Rep. Adrian Tam (D), who continue to blaze a path for first-time electeds like Maryland State Delegate-elect Joe Vogel (D). The highest number of out LGBTQ+ candidates ever ran in this year’s general election, and this translated directly to a historic number of wins.

At just 23 years old, Run for Something candidate and Illinois State Rep-elect Nabeela Syed (D) made history in November by becoming the youngest member and one of the first Muslims elected to the Illinois General Assembly. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that at least 80 Muslim candidates were elected this cycle; the highest number since the organization began tracking this data.

The success of these candidates — each of whom lead with authenticity — is a strong argument for Democrats committing to a down-ballot strategy that focuses on recruiting diverse, young candidates for state and local offices.

The importance of these races in building a strong Democratic coalition for the future cannot be overstated. The “reverse coattails” effect could even be credited with helping to propel one of the first Run for Something alumni to the U.S. House of Representatives during this year’s midterms. Colorado State Rep. Dr. Yadira Caraveo (D) will become the first Latina to represent Colorado in Congress after winning a closely contested congressional race for the state’s newly drawn 8th Congressional District. She’ll be sworn in this coming January along with Run for Something-alum and Texas State Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D). Simply put: This is the value that investing down-ballot holds for the Democratic Party.

The gains to be made by this strategy are reflected in the political distribution of young voters — specifically young voters of color, women and LGBTQ+ voters. According to CIRCLE at Tufts University, youth turnout was at its second highest in three decades in 2022. Young voters overwhelmingly preferring Democrats by a 28-point margin may have played a sizable role in stopping a Republican “red wave,” and staving off election deniers in swing states.

Run for Something’s goal has remained the same since our founding: build local and state-based infrastructure by recruiting and supporting young, diverse and progressive leaders who are members of the communities they serve. Since young people are closer to the problems, they are closer to the solutions. Beyond further proving that representation matters, the 2022 midterms showed that representation can yield results. To follow up a year like 2021 — in which more than 300 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation were introduced in state legislatures nationwide — with a historic number of LGBTQ+ candidates elected to office in 2022 is precisely how the model should work: Countering cruelty and unjust rule by building a truly representative democracy.

As we begin 2023, Run for Something is committed to its mission of recruiting and engaging young, diverse, progressive candidates and encouraging participation from historically marginalized groups through local partnerships and alumni mentorship. Continuing to build this long-term infrastructure nationwide at the state and local level is how we’ll advance the historic gains we’ve made in 2022, and protect our democracy for generations to come.

Ross Morales Rocketto is the co-founder and co-executive director of Run for Something.

This piece is part of Democracy Docket’s How We Won series, which features op-eds from candidates and organizations that answer the question: How did you win in the 2022 midterm elections and what does this victory mean for democracy?