When Terri McKinnon decided to take the plunge and run for office for the first time, she quickly felt like she was trying to climb an insurmountable wall.
McKinnon, inspired by President Donald Trump’s election, wanted to get more involved. After a few consultations with friends and family, she decided she was going to run for an open seat in the Michigan statehouse. She had little money, wasn’t prepared to pay a campaign staffer and had no idea how to get her name on the ballot.
“The learning curve was huge,” said McKinnon, who is now running to represent District 65 in the Michigan House, a sliver of land between Eaton Rapids and Jackson that backed the Republican House candidate by 26% in 2016. “I thought I was pretty well informed on how things worked. What I discovered really early on was that I didn’t have a clue all of the things that were going on when people are running for office.”
McKinnon’s story is not unique and represents a welcome challenge for Democrats in the Trump era. While the President’s election inspired countless Democrats to step up and put their name on ballots across the country, many of these first-time candidates were entirely unaware of what it actually takes to run even the smallest political campaign – from getting on the ballot to actually figuring out the number of voters needed to win.
Enter the National Democratic Training Committee, a group that has spent the last two years training Democrats across the country, including those in areas often not considered hot beds for Democratic politics.
Founded by Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic operative, the committee runs in-person, day-long trainings for candidates looking to take the plunge into electoral politics. Those trainings are supplemented by online sources that are available, at no cost, to candidates at all levels.
Democrats, through a web of super PACs and issue groups, have long looked to foster young candidates eager to get into higher profile House races. But Democratic activists, many of whom who are eager to get into politics themselves, have long complained that the party offers little training for people starting out in down ballot races, something Republicans have done. The dearth of support, these activists say, has left the Democratic bench depleted, especially in areas that have been written off as solidly Republican.
“Democrats in the past have not invested in training, in empowering the grassroots at the local level for anything other than national office and big sexy races,” Dietrich said. “I think that has been a mistake and I want to correct that moving forward.”
He added: “You either have to be a big sexy race that people want to help or … you are in a race that special interest groups are interested in. Well, that’s crap. That’s great for those people, but what about those thousands of other people who want to run and make a difference?”
To date, the program has trained 679 total candidates and thousands of campaign staffers. Of those Democratic candidates, 511 have made it through their primaries and are on general election ballots, according to data from the group.
Sam Charbonneau, who is running to represent an Indiana district across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, said that when he got into the race he didn’t “know anything about being a candidate.”
“I wouldn’t have done this without the support,” said Charbonneau, who is now attempting to win a statehouse district that backed the Republican candidate by 15% in 2016.
Ryana Parks-Shaw, who is running to represent a district in suburban Kansas City, told a similar story.
“To be honest, I didn’t realize it was so involved,” she said. “I really didn’t know where to start.”
Parks-Shaw has been a Democratic activist for years, helping register people to vote and working on issue campaigns in her area. But after Trump’s election, she decided to run for a district that had been in Republican control for years.
“Being a minority, being a female, has definitely presented additional concerns about challenges that I have to address,” she said, adding that she has found herself leaning on the training committee for help identifying the right voters who would be open to her message.
It remains to be seen whether programs like the training offered by the National Democratic Training Committee will be able to break the grip Republicans have on rural districts in certain states. But Kylie Oversen, the former head of the North Dakota Democratic Party and a candidate to be the state’s tax commissioner, said free trainings allow usually cash-strapped state parties to encourage skeptical candidates.
“We feel often like we are out on an island by ourselves in a place like North Dakota: Very red, Trump country,” she said. “But what we are seeing in North Dakota is we have got a lot of people who are stepping up who never thought about running before.”
And Dietrich, whose site went live in 2016, said they are seeing the same interest nationally from places he never expected.
In deep red Idaho, he said, the committee has 200 people at a training and in rural Alabama, he added, hundreds of people showed up for a day-long event.
“We have seen overwhelming numbers and interest from around the country,” Dietrich said. “Not only in blue states but in Trump country.”
The hope, he says, is that even when some of these candidates inevitably lose in November, their ties to the party will be deeper and they may consider running again.
“Yes, we are going to elect more people, but we are also going to build a deeper bench for the future,” he said. “These people are the face of their party in the future.”