As their progressive base rages against President Donald Trump, the candidates vying to lead the Democratic Party are all abiding by a simple rule: First, do no harm.
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are leading a race for Democratic National Committee chair that often sounds like an echo chamber.
The candidates’ ideas are largely non-controversial and built mostly around a desire to do everything possible to tap into the anti-Trump progressive energy without risking damage to what many fear is still a new and fragile movement that could die out well before the next election.
Gathered over the weekend in Detroit for their third of four “future forums” before the party selects a new chair, it was increasingly clear that even those seeking to lead the party are still trying to figure out how to harness a movement that has gained voice and energy during Trump’s first couple of weeks in office.
“A lot of what we’re wrestling with in terms of a movement the likes of which we haven’t seen since the ‘60s, and where the party fits into that, is uncharted territory, at least for our generation,” Buttigieg said in an interview.
It is, in part, because the new DNC chair won’t be installed until well after this first wave of anti-Trump activism.
The 447 DNC voting members won’t select their new chair until late February in Atlanta.
At forums for DNC candidates, the same ideas – the importance of organizing, a 50-state strategy, more funding for state parties, a focus on voting access and total deference to voters in primaries, to avoid the appearance of Hillary Clinton-over-Bernie Sanders style favoritism – are espoused by each of the candidates.
“We ignored the basics” in 2016, Perez said on stage in Detroit.
“We all like each other so much that whenever anyone has a great idea or a great phrase, it ends up getting incorporated into all of our speeches,” said Sally Boynton Brown, the Idaho Democratic Party executive director and a candidate for chair. “I think that’s a problem for all of us.”
Buttigieg argued that “people are treating things as obvious a little too soon” – pointing to the idea of a 50-state strategy, focusing beyond the big states, which was “wildly controversial” when Howard Dean first introduced it in 2005.
Tea party and town hall project
As Democrats decide on their new leader, a series of ad hoc groups have already taken on the task of organizing and channeling the protests – mirroring the tea party, which grew outside the Republican Party establishment in 2009 and 2010 but was eventually embraced and fueled by the GOP.
Jimmy Dahman – who spent the 2016 presidential campaign as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton in Iowa and Ohio – recently tapped into his network of Democratic contacts to recruit an army of 100 volunteers to launch the “Town Hall Project.”
It was a simple idea: Dahman, his volunteers and other progressives on social media would compile every Republican town hall meeting or event into one giant spreadsheet and post it online.
Inspired by the massive turnout of pro-Obamacare activists at a town hall hosted by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, Dahman said he believed people craved opportunities to tell their representatives face-to-face – much as tea partiers did in 2009 – and he wanted a way to empower them.
“I thought, ‘I wonder how many people feel the same way but didn’t know the event exists,’” Dahman said. “There’s an energy there. We just want to give people something to do with it.”
He said he’s heard reports of lawmakers moving their pre-planned events to larger venues.
“It’s not just in these big cities or where you’d expect – it’s in swing districts. It’s in safe seats,” he said. “What’s encouraging to me is that there are so many people interested and there are groups like this popping up with regularity.”
Surprised by base’s energy
In Detroit, Democrats described being astonished by the base’s energy. They said they’d watched anti-Trump events posted on Facebook by people who were not already deeply connected to the party draw hundreds of attendees.
Additional new groups are taking on tasks such as training potential candidates for office. Two veteran Democratic operatives launched “Run for Something” – with about 200 party professionals volunteering to help newly-engaged activists who want to get involved on the local or state level but don’t know where to start.
As of Friday, the group said, 3,300 people had already signed up to run for some office.
Emily’s List, which funds female Democratic candidates, held a training session the day after the Women’s March in Washington for 500 women. Another 500 were on a waiting list, and the group is working to train them in follow-up sessions, too.
Outside Washington, Democratic state attorneys general are increasingly coordinating their legal battles against the Trump administration – with figures like California Attorney General Xavier Beccera and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman expected to play increasingly prominent roles.
The super PAC Priorities USA has brought Democratic superlawyer Marc Elias onto its board and plans to focus on fighting state-level GOP efforts to restrict voting access in courts and legislatures.
Meanwhile, former Attorney General Eric Holder is leading the new National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which will similarly combat the district-drawing efforts that have helped the GOP secure its House majority.
What many Democrats hope the national party will become is something modeled after the Republican National Committee under former chairman Reince Priebus – a Wisconsin operative whose focus on the nuts and bolts of collecting voter data, building party operations in each state and fundraising allowed the party to turn over the keys of a functional campaign to Trump once he was the nominee, rather than building that campaign from scratch, as Hillary Clinton largely did.
The DNC chair candidates argued the base’s enthusiasm is only helping Democrats, even in red states, where 10 Democratic senators are up for re-election in 2018 in states Trump won.
Perez said the party is still confronting “existential threats,” including its loss of white voters in rural and exurban Rust Belt states.
“That’s why I’m going out to rural America next week – to Wisconsin and Kansas – to talk to them about, what was it about our message that didn’t resonate with you?” he said. “We have to make house calls in this job.”
Ellison said it’s urgent for the party to do all it can to encourage and channel the anti-Trump protests.
“We have to understand one simple idea, and that is if you want a friend, you have to be one,” he said.
Still, Ellison acknowledged that organizing and energy aren’t enough – the party needs money, and needs to spend it on local-level infrastructure. “You’ve got to train, recruit and get some of these young people to run for office.”