When Delaware Democrats nominated Stephanie Hansen on Dec. 21 to run in a special election for a state Senate seat, voting was just two months away.
She hit the campaign trail immediately. Although Democrats held a slight advantage in the district, she knew that special elections, like midterms, could be the party’s Achilles’ heel. Working-class voters tend to sit out contests not held in presidential election years.
As Hansen went door to door, she quickly realized she had an additional problem: utter despair and depression.
“All of the crazy things, all of the executive orders that created such chaos, hadn’t happened yet,” she told The Huffington Post. “What I saw on the ground, beginning in December, was that the Democrats in the community were very depressed, very sad. There was a lot of anguish, from Dec. 21 till right about the inauguration.”
Hansen had a unique ground-level perception of the electorate, a view that perhaps only her Republican opponent, John Marino, can share, as he also went door to door at the same time.
“As soon as the inauguration and the women’s marches [happened], Democrats and those who are like-minded became very angry,” Hansen recalled, citing the seemingly unending series of executive orders. “I watched that whole process happen. That anger turned into something different. It turned into determination.”
“It was really a curious thing, going from sadness to anguish to anger and then into determination. From a sociological perspective, it was a great thing to watch that happen.”
As protests moved from airports to town halls, Hansen’s race caught the attention of Democrats around the country looking to channel their rage and newfound determination.
More than $300,000 poured in from small donors. Hansen said more than 12,000 individual contributors gave her an average of $24. Ultimately, she received more donations than votes. Still, she managed to crush Marino 58 percent to 41 percent in a race he had previously lost by just two points.
“These people were happily, joyfully running to the polls,” she said. “I haven’t seen that kind of turnout in a long time. It was really a curious thing, going from sadness to anguish to anger and then into determination. From a sociological perspective, it was a great thing to watch that happen.”
For Democrats and other opponents of Donald Trump, it’s been an equally great thing to watch. Democrats have seen a significant uptick in turnout for special elections in Iowa, Virginia, Minnesota and Connecticut. Party activists are pouring everything they have into a Georgia special election Democrats normally wouldn’t bother competing in: to fill the seat former Rep. Tom Price left empty when he was confirmed as health and human services secretary.
Now that her campaign is over, Hansen has been getting pressed by people outside the district who supported her to pay it forward.
“Many of the groups that supported me are saying, ‘OK, we supported Stephanie; now, Stephanie, you join us and help these people in Connecticut, and these people in Georgia,’” she said, referring to three special elections in Connecticut and the race to replace Price.
And it’s true that the kind of swing the party saw in Delaware, if nationalized, changes the map. Marino got 5,963 votes in 2014, losing to Bethany Hall-Long’s 6,230. Hall-Long became lieutenant governor last year, creating the opening that led to the special election. But this time around, Marino got just 4,936 votes, nearly 20 percent fewer than he had before.
This wasn’t that unexpected, as turnout is typically at its lowest during special elections. What startled Republicans ― and energized Democrats ― was Hansen’s vote total of 7,315.
“By the end, we had a number of people feeling like, ‘I voted for Trump, but maybe I made a mistake.’”
Did a thousand Republicans switch parties and support Hansen, or did Democrats who had previously stayed home make their way to the voting booth?
Hansen said she knows some Republicans flipped, and that she noticed a mood change among them, too. She was very concerned at the outset of the race that she might lose.
“I thought I might be neck and neck or slightly behind,” she said. “My opponent was fairly well-known and a good campaigner, a good candidate. He was out at grocery stores and shaking hands, had signs up in many neighborhoods. It was difficult to get up and go door-knocking in neighborhoods where he’s got 20 signs and I’ve got nothing.”
Plus, Hansen said, she saw Republicans feeling “energized” so soon after the election.
“They were energized all the way up until the inauguration,” she said. “After inauguration, the days began to pass and [Trump] began with one executive order after another and one cause of chaos and instability after another, and the Republicans became less energized. They’d say, ‘Oh my, what did we do?’ By the end, we had a number of people feeling like, ‘I voted for Trump, but maybe I made a mistake.’”
Hansen said she consciously worked to make room for those voters in her tent.
“In my speeches, I welcomed people who wanted to have second thoughts,” she said. “They are still of the mindset they have to go out and vote. They just may not vote for the Republican this time.”