A new generation of Democrats isn't waiting for the party to tell it what to do
The women darting through the statehouse here alongside mentoring lawmakers have what Democrats need: sterling resumes, grit and anger at President Trumpso deep that they are overlooking misgivings about establishment politics to run under the party banner.
“I woke up the day after the election and said, ‘I have got to do something to try to fix things,’” said Jessica Way, a 29-year-old teacher and labor organizer. She was now completing six months of intensive training provided by California-based Emerge America, which recruits women nationwide to become Democratic candidates. Applications to the program are soaring.
Thanks largely to Trump’s election, Democratic leaders are blessed with an unprecedented outpouring of interest in running for seats held by Republicans. Whether the party can leverage that enthusiasm remains an open question.
The surge of interest comes as Democrats are scrambling to rebuild a tattered party infrastructure. State organizations are depleted from neglect. Party stalwarts in Washington are bickering over what message wins in the age of Trump — and what districts are winnable.
The kind of top-down, laser-focused recruitment operations that Democratic congressional leaders built before their 2006 House takeover — and that their Republican counterparts duplicated four years later — have yet to emerge, and may not.
What is happening instead is that thousands of potential candidates are overwhelming recruitment operations like Emerge, pro-choice behemoth Emily’s List and Our Revolution, built by alumni from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
They reflect a national disaffection with Trump and the Republican agenda that could propel a wave of victories. But only if party leaders can figure out how to channel it.
“There is so much going on that it is kind of amazing to watch,” said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic strategist and blogger who blames power brokers in Washington for long writing off regions that could be winnable, leaving Democrats with historically little control over all levels of government.
“It is hard to figure out how much is actual traction, and how much is just spinning wheels. Some days I wake up optimistic and think they are finally figuring this out. Other days, it just feels like the same old, same old.”
A party that for the past several years clung to a strategy of cautiously choosing where to compete based on the kind data and algorithms that failed Hillary Clinton is rushing to reacquaint itself with its own grassroots.
At the same time it must avoid further alienating defectors who voted for Trump in hardscrabble Rust Belt towns and fast-growing Sun Belt suburbs.
It’s all making for a busy but challenging recruiting season.
The urgency facing Democrats was renewed after their recent loss in the Montana special congressional to a GOP candidate who physically assaulted a reporter asking questions about healthcare.
Obama campaign mastermind David Axelrod suggested that if Democrats hadn’t run a “genial troubadour” — nominee Rob Quist was a country singer with no political experience — the rural Republican stronghold might have been within reach.
“Candidate recruitment matters,” Axelrod tweeted.
Democratic operatives pushed back, saying Quist did much better than anticipated in winning 44% of the vote, and the GOP was forced to spend heavily to hold a seat it should have easily won. But the outcome nonetheless fueled charges that Democratic kingmakers in Washington, for all their talk about expanding the map and implementing a 50-state strategy, are reluctant to send the cavalry outside the same old battlegrounds.
Just before the election, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, had been in Washington warning that the party high command was out of touch with opportunities in states like his.
“Democrats need to do a better job showing up, making an argument even in places where people are likely to disagree,” Bullock said last month at a Center for American Progress conference attended by some of the party’s top stars and biggest donors. Bullock said if he had used the national party’s campaign blueprint in his 2016 race, he would have lost.
“We don’t have the presence in the states anymore,” said Howard Dean, who was the Democratic Party chairman during the wave election of 2006. “It will be hard to rebuild that in the next few months.” Dean expects Democrats to notch big gains in the 2018 midterms, but not because of efforts by the national party.