This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
The Democrats’ stunning success in the November 7, 2017, Virginia state elections, and more recently, Democrat Doug Jones's election in Alabama, portends a great blue wave in 2018. Or does it? The good news is that dozens of new groups mobilized thousands of volunteers and candidates, many of whom were new to politics. With a lackluster and centrist gubernatorial candidate in Ralph Northam, Virginia also produced a rare case of coattails in reverse. The down-ticket campaigns increased turnout, which improved the margin in the governor’s race.
Most of the new groups that contributed to the Virginia wins have been created only since Trump’s election in 2016. They range from groups devoted to candidate recruitment and training for state and local races, such as Run for Something, to full-service organizations like the Arena, to specialized outfits like Sister District, which direct volunteers from safely blue areas to races where they are needed. The new groups in turn connect with broad-gauge mass coalitions like Indivisible and established groups such as Emily’s List. Remarkably, they don’t seem to be tripping over one another, as they gear up for 2018.
In the now-legendary Virginia win, first-time candidates ran for seats that had been uncontested for decades, not only propelling Northam to an impressive 9-point win, but very nearly winning control of what had been the 2-to-1 Republican House of Delegates. The winners were disproportionately young, female, and diverse. But the races were not won on identity issues. Perhaps the poster child for the Virginia success was a transgender woman, Danica Roem, 33, whose main issue was the traffic jams on Route 28. Roem ousted a 73-year-old Republican who’d sponsored a bill restricting transgender use of public bathrooms. Roem made headlines by making clear that the “trans” she wanted to discuss was transportation.
Amanda Litman, the 27-year-old former Hillary Clinton email director (and former Prospect intern) who launched Run For Something, points out the importance of contesting races that have long seemed unwinnable. “As the first Democrats to run for these seats in decades, our candidates were talking to voters who had never talked to a Democratic candidate. Even if they didn’t win, those conversations are how we rebuild our party for the long term. A district becomes flippable by doing this over the long term.”
For the most part, lingering factionalism between Hillary and Bernie people did not undermine the good energy in Virginia. One unfortunate complication was that Sanders’s group, Our Revolution, which had endorsed the progressive former congressman Tom Perriello for governor, refused to back the party nominee and ultimate victor, Northam. Sanders himself spent election eve in New York City campaigning for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had no serious opposition. Our Revolution, in another expression of purism (and ultimately a display of its own weakness), endorsed only six legislative candidates.
Yet despite the official stance of Our Revolution, former Sanders supporters worked side by side with former Clinton supporters to produce this landslide. The election was about the future.
INFIGHTING BETWEEN the Obama/Clinton and Sanders factions does continue at the Democratic National Committee. One problem, says a senior operative, is that divisions at the DNC have alienated donors. The DNC may seem mercifully irrelevant to the grassroots activism, but it does have a role to play. The DNC keeps the national voter list, and the technology for the use of that list has lagged compared with its Republican counterpart, and needs to be modernized. Under effective DNC chairs, the national party has also helped fund and professionalize state parties.
Presidents and presidential candidates have a chronic habit of turning the DNC into a personal machine and vacuuming up money needed for long-term party building and for state, local, and congressional races. This dysfunction reached a peak under Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama left the DNC with a debt upwards of $20 million and effectively handed the operation over to Hillary Clinton, well before Clinton was the official nominee, violating both rules and norms, and rightly incensing the Sanders campaign. Clinton in turn cut a complex deal that came close to merging her own fundraising with the party’s. When Donna Brazile’s recent memoir confirmed in well-documented detail just what had occurred, old wounds were rubbed raw again.
DNC Chair Tom Perez and Vice Chair Keith Ellison, whom Perez narrowly beat for the top slot, present a public façade of unity. But friction persists. At the DNC’s October meeting, Perez ousted four high-profile Sanders or Ellison supporters from leadership positions, while elevating Clinton allies and lobbyists, prompting complaints of a purge. Most Sanders supporters were in fact reappointed. A spokesman for Ellison, Karthik Ganapathy, downplaying reports of a purge, said in a statement, “Keith suggested names for DNC at-large membership and committees. Some were selected and some were not. In the end, the selections are the prerogative of the chair.”
Perez himself faces a steep learning curve. “He has never done anything like this job,” says one longtime political director, who is a fan. Much of the job entails raising money, and the lack of money creates a vicious circle. Without money, the DNC lacks the staff to modernize campaign technology and help state parties, which only makes it seem irrelevant and drives donors elsewhere.
Over the weekend of December 9, however, the party’s Unity Reform Commission agreed to far-reaching reforms that will limit the voting power of superdelegates to the party’s national conventions, open up the primary and caucus process to same-day registrants, and subject the party’s budget to much greater transparency and scrutiny. The reforms are intended both to heal the wounds of 2016, and to ensure that the party has a durable existence independent of presidential personalist campaign machines. The reforms still have to be approved by the full DNC, but both Perez and Ellison have pledged to support them intact, and not to relitigate details of a hard-won compromise. “This was the best thing to come out of 2016,” says Larry Cohen, vice chair and senior Sanders appointee on the reform commission. “I have never been more hopeful.”
LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY lives in the village of Amityville, in Long Island’s Suffolk County. Her congressman is Republican Peter King, 73, who has held the seat since 1986, when Shirley was in kindergarten. The district, whose boundaries have shifted, now has a slight Democratic registration majority. Yet King has never faced a formidable challenger. This is exactly the sort of district Democrats need to flip, if they are to take back the House—conventionally a long shot, but winnable.
Shirley, a 36-year-old mother of two toddlers who has worked for nonprofits focused on women’s and family issues, got so incensed after Trump’s election that she decided to revive the dormant local Democratic Party. Working with a few friends, she used a Facebook group to created a grassroots organization called New York’s 2nd District Democrats. Within a few months, it had 2,500 members. The group began looking for someone to run against King. The only person interested was a relatively conservative local businessman named Tim Gomes, who has switched back and forth from Republican to Democrat, and recently lent his own candidacy $1 million from his personal fortune. So Shirley began considering whether to run herself.
About the same time, one of the new pop-up candidate recruitment and training groups, called Square One, flagged New York’s Second District as one of the widely overlooked, potentially winnable seats, a district that went for Obama and then for Trump. “We began calling around out there, and the only name we kept hearing was Liuba Grechen Shirley,” one of Square One’s organizers told a recent fundraising event.
One not-so-secret weapon for candidates like Shirley is the Republican Congress. The Republican tax bill is a complex mess, but one provision is clear as a bell in relatively high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. That’s the provision to limit the state and local tax deductions to $10,000 or less. According to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s tally, there are at least 30 winnable seats currently held by Republicans in those states alone, more than the Democrats need to take back the House.
In New York’s Second, Peter King voted against the Republican tax bill, mainly to protest that provision. But Shirley plans to hang the bill around King’s neck anyway. If he is re-elected, he will caucus with the Republicans to re-elect Paul Ryan House speaker, which guarantees still more damage to King’s constituents, even if King himself casts the occasional impotent protest vote.
At a fundraising event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 12, the weekend after the big Virginia win, Shirley was able to announce that the DCCC, normally a rather risk-averse operation widely criticized for working harder to protect incumbents than to invest in taking back competitive seats from Republicans, had agreed to add New York’s Second District to its list of contestable seats. That means that the Democratic nominee can potentially get financial support from the DCCC. First, Shirley needs to win her primary, and she has to demonstrate that she can raise money. But candidates like Shirley will be running for all the House seats deemed flippable, many of them recruited and coached by the new organizations.
Speaking at the fundraiser, Brooke Scannell, chief of staff to Representative Katherine Clark, who chairs DCCC’s “Red to Blue” candidate recruitment committee, confirmed that the DCCC now reckoned that as many as 91 Republican-held seats fit the “flippable” description, and were worth investing in. That in itself is a remarkable transformation. Conventionally, most analysts have placed the number at no more than 40 to 50 seats. Clark told me that since the beginning of 2017, the committee has steadily increased the number of target districts from 54 to, now, 91, based on polling data, the willingness of candidates to come forward, and the success of the new groups. “It’s less a case of ‘Come work with us’ and more ‘What can we learn from you?’”
THE OUTRAGE FOLLOWING Trump’s victory and the spontaneous activism that it kindled sets the table for a genuine wave election. The continuing acrimony between diehard Sanders and Obama veterans still fighting last year’s battles can harm the capacity of the institutional party to help this grassroots upsurge, but it can’t destroy it. The fact that new grassroots activists are bringing candidates to the party committees, rather than the party committees recruiting wealthy centrists who can self-fund and generate little excitement within the base, is just how things should be. “Historically,” says Litman, “the party focused on rich old white dudes who could raise money and on districts they thought they could win. That mentality is understandable, but it narrows the field and depresses energy.”
Democrats do have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Dukakis in 1988, Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004, and of course Hillary Clinton in 2016 were all winnable elections lost by a combination of blunder, hubris, and bad luck. Yet the fine thing about the apparent blue wave in the making is that it has just about nothing to do with presidential politics. It is a genuinely up-from-the-bottom grassroots resurgence that shows the ingenuity of American politics and its capacity to regenerate and to heal.
Best of all, this wave is led by the young, some of them now 30-something, veterans of the 2008 Obama campaign, by some of last year’s Sanders campaign, and by others even younger. But then, it is the young who have often brought the Democratic Party and our republic to be its best self, from the college students of the lunch counter sit-ins and the activists of the antiwar movement to the children’s crusade that enlisted Gene McCarthy to lead the Dump Johnson movement. To be sure, 2018 will be no cakewalk. Republicans got blindsided by their Virginia losses. They will fight back next year with massive funding and micro-targeted negative ads.
For a generation, until the Obama campaign of 2008, or the Sanders campaign last year, many of the young were often otherwise engaged, perhaps volunteering in do-good activities but skeptical about electoral politics. The election of Donald Trump got their attention. Elections may be messy, prone to corruption, too reliant on money, and just plain hard. But in a democracy, elections are ultimately all we have.