Failing to Effectively Leverage the Disability Vote May Have Cost Democrats a Seat in the House
By Gregg Beratan, (@GreggBeratan ) Co-founder of #CripTheVote and Colleen Flanagan, (@ColleenFlangan) Executive Director of Disability Action for America
Assuming the current predictions stand, the preliminary election results from the Ohio 12th special election demonstrate precisely why Democratic candidates should be courting the Disability Vote.
The race in Ohio’s 12th district, is extremely close. Although it was an uphill battle, Democrats could have outright won this seat — except for a grave mistake. In failing to effectively engage the Disability Community by speaking to our bread-and-butter issues, Democrats literally wrote off votes that could have helped them win this election and take this seat in the House.
A comparison with a race that resulted in a Democratic win earlier this year illustrates helps the power of the Disability Vote. In an equally close race in the Pennsylvania 18th — a district that Trump won by 20 points — Conor Lamb, a young Democrat, won the race after embracing the Disability Community. Lamb met with disabled people, visited the local Center for Independent Living, and — most importantly — committed to supporting the Disability Integration Act (DIA).
DIA is federal legislation that would guarantee the right of seniors and people with disabilities to live in the community, rather than be forced into unwanted institutionalization. Support for the bill doesn’t just leverage the votes of younger people with disabilities and seniors, but also generates support among families fighting to avoid the unwanted institutionalization of their loved ones.
Publicly committing to co-sponsor DIA effectively allowed Lamb to galvanize support from the Disability Vote in his favor and clearly pushed him over the threshold in a very close race in a district that has consistently voted Republican.
In fact, Conor Lamb trailed his Republican opponent Rick Saccone throughout the special election campaign, but notably Lamb moved ahead in polls after visiting the Center for Independent Living and publicly endorsing DIA.
Frankly, Democrats should look closely at their probable loss in Ohio. The Ohio 12th should have been an easier win for Democrat Danny O’Connor. Trump won Ohio’s 12 district by only 11 points, unlike Lamb’s district where Trump won by 20 points. Unlike Lamb, O’Connor failed to engage the Disability Community, choosing instead to court the ever-shrinking moderate Republican vote and using generic Democratic talking points about pre-existing conditions which don’t resonate within the Disability Community. Now, O’Connor finds himself trailing by .9 of a percentage point, hoping that the provisional ballots offer him a miracle.
The results in the Ohio special election underscore the concerns raised by the Disability Community that the traditional Democratic strategy, which generally only includes disability as an afterthought, won’t be enough to win elections. Members of the Disability Community have urged Democrats to incorporate policy issues specific to the Disability Community — including endorsing the Disability Integration Act — into their campaigns, but most have failed to do so. Instead, they seem to be advancing the interests of the institutions, their owners and the unions that organize in those facilities — as well as the insurance companies that make or save money by institutionalizing people with significant disabilities.
This has opened the door for Republicans to leverage the Disability vote. In fact, because DIA is bi-partisan, bi-cameral legislation, every candidate for Congress — from any party — has the potential to leverage the Disability Vote by endorsing DIA. With cosponsors from both ends of the political spectrum, no candidate would find themselves out of place, and defending Disabled Americans’ Constitutional rights to life and liberty can expand the base of any candidate that has the vision to do so.
Ultimately, the GOP could use support for DIA to leverage the Disability Vote and stave off the blue wave. Alternatively, Democrats could flip Republican districts, as we saw in Lamb’s district, by having those candidates commit to co-sponsor and vote for DIA.
Over the last two years the Disability Community has become a potent political force. The work of activists from ADAPT has been widely credited with defeating attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. ADAPT was integral to crafting DIA and has been a driving force in pushing the legislation forward. The Disability Community is unified in its support of the legislation, with every national disability rights organization counted among its supporters. Ignoring this legislation is choosing to ignore voters who can swing an election. The parties can make the Disability Community work for them or they can continue to cross their fingers in close races.
With campaigns such as #CripTheVote and RevUp, and political operations such Disability Action for America, the Disability Community has never been more organized heading into an election. The Disability Vote has the potential to open up races that candidates would normally never have a chance in. We saw this in Lamb’s race, but it is also evident in the 2018 Texas Senate race where Beto O’Rourke, who has actively sought the disability vote and who is a longtime supporter of DIA, is polling within a few points of the incumbent Ted Cruz. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election in Texas Since 1994, yet O’Rourke is trailing Ted Cruz by only single digits. With evidence like this, it is clear that the Disability Community can have a strong impact on an election, and it is time for candidates to start courting our vote. The only question is which candidates and party will leverage these votes.