Democrats are gathering this weekend to begin trying to rebuild their decimated party – and, perhaps, blow off some steam.
The Democratic National Committee will hold its first of four regional forums featuring the candidates to become party chair, ahead of an election in February.
But before Democrats move on, they’re going to revisit 2016.
Bernie Sanders’ supporters are still seething about the DNC’s role in limiting the party’s debate schedule and appearing to favor Hillary Clinton during the primaries. And the former secretary of state’s loss to Donald Trump further angered progressives who saw Sanders successfully court the very working-class voters who abandoned Clinton, costing the party the White House.
The race for DNC chair has turned into a de facto replay of the presidential primary. The top candidates: Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in the Sanders role and Labor Secretary Tom Perez from the Clinton camp. Ellison, like Sanders, has a base of progressives and working to expand beyond that. Perez has the more establishment backing from allies of Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the more moderate, outside, alternative ala Martin O’Malley, and three other candidates are also seeking the job.
Despite the lofty title, the function of the national party chair is fairly limited. Fundraising and helping state and local parties develop the tools they need to operate and target Democratic voters central to the job – and coalition-building and television appearances are big parts of it.
And the chair of the Democratic Party isn’t necessarily the leader of the Democratic Party.
The party’s most important voices long-term are likely to be the candidates Democrats field in governor’s races in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan – where the party’s loss of white, working-class voters has been most acute.
The Democratic National Committee is also unlikely to be a core driver of the party’s messaging in the era of Trump – when figures including Sanders and Elizabeth Warren galvanize the party’s liberal base in opposition to Trump.
“Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have de facto been catapulted into top leadership positions of the Democratic Party,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “They are, in many ways, the two top spokespeople for both the Democratic Party and the progressive caucus on the inside of Congress.”
Expecting more from a party chair, some Democrats said, would be to ignore the reality that opposition to Trump is what gels Democrats’ disparate factions – and will continue to do so during his tenure in office.
“In 2010, what was the message? Were Mitch McConnell and John Boehner the most compelling figures in America? No. People were galvanized by anger,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress. “That’s what’s happening now.”
Focus on redistricting and process
Increasingly, Democrats are acknowledging that the most daunting tasks the party faces aren’t in messaging but technical – starting with reversing Republicans’ gains in redistricting and in curbing voting access.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general, kicked off a new initiative called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee on Thursday. It is intended to help the undo the favorable districts Republicans drew after clobbering Democrats in state legislative and governor’s races in 2010 – the year of the last census.
District lines won’t be redrawn until 2020, but Holder argued Democrats need to begin readying their fundraising, court cases and more to fight what he called “the biggest rigged system in America.”
Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, who is leading the redistricting group along with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, acknowledged Democrats nationally have ignored the state-level map-making fights for too long.
“We should have gone to court much more quickly in the states that we eventually went to court in,” he said in an interview, pointing to recent court victories in Virginia and Florida as evidence Democrats can force GOP-held legislatures’ hands.
Malloy argued a focus on governors’ races in the coming years is critical, too – because those statewide races are more winnable than GOP-drawn state legislative districts, giving Democrats a voice or at least a veto in many states headed into 2020.
He said the focus on redistricting is part of the party’s broader need to turn its eyes from Washington to the states.
“I want a less Washington-centric party, quite frankly. I want a party that represents the diversity of Democratic interests and is a 50-state plus territory party,” Malloy said.
“I think that is over-consideration of what’s good for Washington has hurt the party, and listen – I want to control the Senate someday and I want to control the House someday,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we should be sacrificing governor’s races to do it when the governors are the most important factor in any state to being a vibrant Democratic Party.”
The other technical challenge, Democrats said, is voting access – a broad category that includes voter ID laws that many in the party believe unfairly punish older and urban voters, as well as early voting access and the ease of voter registration.
The Center for American Progress urged a focus on those voting access issues in a “Path Forward” report, attempting to steer Democrats’ focus toward that issue as well as combating corruption and opposing Trump when his actions favor the wealthy over the working class.
Attempting to remain upbeat, many Democrats argued recriminations over 2016 and the doom-and-gloom talk of the party’s empty bench is reminiscent of John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004 and ignores recent political history.
“If in January 2005, you would have told me that in 2009, the next president of the United States is going to be a man named Barack Obama, who’s African-American and from Illinois,” Tanden said, “I would have been like, ‘you’re high.’”