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DLCC: Worried About Low Turnout Today

In the second of my two interviews with top staffers from each party’s state legislative campaign committee, below is the transcript of my conversation Monday with Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee executive director Michael Sargeant. Prior to his elevation to executive director, Sargeant served as the political director and then national political director of the DLCC. Before joining the DLCC, he was the Tennessee House caucus director.

538: Can you give our readers a sense of how much the DLCC has invested in the state legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia for the election tomorrow?

Michael Sargeant: The reports haven’t all come out yet, but we’ve been a major donor to the effort in Virginia this year, just as we were two years ago.

538: And in New Jersey?

Sargeant: We’ve been a major donor in Virginia but not in New Jersey because we believe we’re going to hold the majority in the [New Jersey] assembly.

538: Are you tinkering with any new technological tools or tactics in the field campaign and for voter contacting generally, and if so what?

Sargeant: It’s an interesting question. We’ve all been taking a look from the last election on at a variety of things regarding microtargeting, and making sure we’re also doing more polling and just being more aggressive as well at the doors doing GOTV.

One of the things we’re very proud of is our DLCCweb program, which we’re making available on our website for legislative candidates around the country using this. We have around 350 to 400 candidates around the country using this and they were in full force last election cycle in 2008.

538: So you are using it beyond these races in 2010 and beyond?

Sargeant: We first used it in the ’08 races, again this year, and the program is just growing by leaps and bounds.

538: The conventional wisdom is that there is not going to be the “Obama surge” voters turnout in either state tomrrow, and you’ll have an older, whiter cohort turn out. Are you worried about that?

Sargeant: Yes. Look, I think it’s only natural that the electorate is going to be different in an off-year after a presidential election. I can’t speak enough that the strength of the campaign [VA House minority leader] Ward Armstong has organized. But it’s only natural that the turnout model is going to be different in 2009 than it was in 2008.

538: Do you think candidates Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine have any coattails—or alternatively that Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie will coattails or downballot effects—on the state legislative races, or statewide will it be a series of localized contests?

Sargeant: That’s a great question. I will say this. Our program has been to make an emphasis to make sure our candidates run localized, personalized campaigns that fit their districts—that they’re talking about that matter to their district, not necessarily a national message or a statewide message. That’s the strategy we’ve been working with our candidates since 2004, 2006, 2006, and the off-years since I’ve been here at the DLCC. So that’s been our strategy.

As for statewide campaigns, I think there will be places in the state where those campaigns help us and places where they will hurt.

538: You’re talking about Virginia? And which places will it hurt? The conventional wisdom is that Democrats do well in the NoVa counties near DC, but McDonnell is touting his strength there.

Sargeant: I think Bob McDonnell so far has run a strong campaign. I think our candidates have done a good job in Northern Virginia and have done a good job in the rest of the state. But McDonnell has run a strong campaign.

538: Shifting away from New Jersey and Virginia for a moment, can you comment on the situation in the New York State Senate?

Sargeant: Our main objective is working with Democratic leaders to put together the best campaign operation possible to win majorities. We did work with the New York Senate last cycle to help them gain the majority for the first time in many, many years. What’s happening now in New York, let’s just say it’s interesting.

538: Do you think that significant gains the Democrats have made in state legislatures the past three cycles—2004, 2006 and 2008—that these gains, in terms of total legislatures or chambers controlled, has reached a limit? Have you guys capped out?

Sargeant: I think the map is interesting and it looks different state to state. We’ve moved from 41 Democratic majorities to 60 since the 2002 election. That’s a seachange at our level of campaigns and politics. And there are still some places where Democrats can make serious gains, such as the Texas house and senate, and the Tennessee house. Those are places where we feel Democrats can make serious gains.

I think in large part, instead of it being a national issue, these campaigns are run locally and the dynamics, district to district, are going to be different, as well as what happens in each of the states. It’s not so much that Democrats have capped as much as what’s going to be the strength of the campaigns on the ground and what are going to be the issues that matter most to the voters who are there.

Democrats, you know, we moved 10 chambers toward Democratic control in 2004. And most people would say that was not a very strong year for the entire Democratic ticket. Democrats running for state legislature were running in a lot of strong campaign programs and by personalizing these campaigns.

538: Going back to New Jersey and Virginia, can you identify a rising legislative star or legislative candidate this cycle who is a rising star in that state?

Sargeant: I think Dave Englin in Virginia is very smart and works hard for his issues. He’s a real rising star. He’s a sitting house member from Northern Virginia and a very strong candidate.

538: What will be the headlines out of Richmond and Trenton on Wednesday morning as far as overall gains or losses for Democrats in those two state legislatures?

Sargeant: I think Democrats hold our majority in New Jersey Assembly. And in Virginia, they’ve gained 11 seats over the last two house election cycles in the Virginia House. So that’s been very tough math they’re battling in Virginia.

I think we’re in a position where there may be some losses but there just as easily may be some gains. There are some tossups that could go either way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a net gain in Virginia.

538: So do you think, in terms of the overall storyline nationally, if the governors races split, do you think Republicans will claim a victory if they do better in the state legislative races and statewide races? Is it a foreshadowing of a correction, or a pushback or Republican surge—what’s the bigger takeaway?

Sargeant: I think the bigger takeaway is that the Virginia house Dems have put themselves in the position to get close to a majority. And they have a very difficult map that they’re toiling under. With the turnout projections we’re looking at, it’s going to be difficult to win those last couple of seats to win that majority.

I guess the larger point I’m trying to make in Virginia is that it’s a very tough map and that redistricting matters.