The victory by Doug Jones in Alabama – a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat in 25 years – was an earthquake. Many pundits are already predicting a wave of electoral victories for Democrats in 2018 as a result. But if the party, my party, doesn’t take seriously the lessons of his election, those predictions are likely to fall short.
NBA legend Charles Barkley, a native Alabamian who campaigned across the state for Doug Jones, said: “This is a wakeup call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.” He’s right, of course. But these aren’t the only voters long neglected by Democrats.
Doug Jones’ victory should also be a wakeup call to the Democratic Party about the power of independent voters – particularly millennials – and the critical need to build bridges to them as early in the electoral process as possible. As a red state millennial and an elected Democratic state senator myself, I can attest to two things. First, we can be competitive as a party anywhere we invest the time and energy to reach out to local communities. Second, our success depends on developing a political culture that can attract millennials – now the largest group of voters in the country.
In polls, up to 45 percent of Americans identify as independent voters, while only about 25 percent identify as Republicans and about 30 percent as Democrats. This is largely driven by millennials, half of whom identify themselves as independents. Yet, over 26 million of these independents were locked out of the 2016 presidential primaries.
Independents – along with a huge turnout from African Americans – propelled Barack Obama to the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency. It is telling that the former president won 52 percent of independents in 2008, but Hillary Clinton lost independents getting, only 42 percent in 2016. In Alabama, 51 percent of independents voted for Doug Jones. That’s how we are going to win again in red states.
Yet, just a couple weeks ago, the DNC’s Unity Reform Commission, created in a deal struck by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton delegates during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, missed a golden opportunity to reach out to millennials and independents. Rather than recommending that the DNC fully embrace both constituencies by opening the presidential primaries (something they have the legal power to enforce) and recommending that the state parties do the same for down-ballot races, they simply suggested state parties reduce the waiting periods to register with them. Basically, they told independents and millennials: “Sure, we’ll talk to you, but only after you join our party.”
It’s a missed opportunity that could come to haunt us in 2018 and far beyond.
In Nebraska, we allow all voters to participate in open primaries for the state legislature. In fact, we allow any voter to vote for any candidate, regardless of their party with the top two moving on to the general election. It has created a body where despite the fact that Republicans account for 71 percent of legislators, Democratic state senators like myself can get a hearing on our bills, build creative coalitions, and actually pass innovative 21st century policies that move our state forward, on everything from groundwater use to immigration reform. It has also created opportunities for millennials like myself to have power and a real voice in government.
If Democrats want to earn the trust of the American people to lead the country, then we need to expand the ways we relate to many communities of voters and begin the process of developing those relationships in the primaries – where many of the most important political decisions are made. Opening our primaries to independents is a critical way we can grow beyond being just a coastal party and once again compete in middle America and the South.
Independents' support for Doug Jones should be our wake up call to make it happen now.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld was elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 2014 at the age of 29, and is the founder and executive director of Nebraskans for Civic Reform. He represents the University of Nebraska Lincoln campus, downtown, and northeast Lincoln in Nebraska's unicameral legislature.
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