Can Democrats Fix the Party?

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The Obama years sparked a Washington renaissance, transforming the District of Columbia from a jumble of wealth and blight into a gilded capital, one frankly worthy of heartland resentment. Glassy condos rise from a once-derelict warehouse district now called "NoMa." On gentrified 14th Street, brasseries like Le Diplomate cater to the city's elite. Anything that isn't under construction is gleaming – including the Capitol dome, fresh from a $60 million face-lift.

But at the dawn of the Trump age, one complex just south of Capitol Hill stands out. It looks like it missed the Obama boom entirely, which is hard to fathom because it's the headquarters of the Democratic Party – home to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well as the Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The sprawling three-story concrete-and-glass structure is wedged between an elevated railroad track and the Capitol Power Plant. Exterior paint that may once have aspired to adobe has faded to an indistinct pink, recalling lox. Streaks of rust mar the walls. Someone has tried to spruce up the joint, on the cheap, tacking up a floor-to-ceiling poster in a third-floor window of the party's post-donkey logo, a blue-circled "D."

Our republic is in crisis. And the party leaders who run this complex will play an outsize role in determining how the American experiment survives the Donald Trump presidency and a Republican Party that has abandoned patriotism for power. Paradoxically, after eight years of the most successful Democratic presidency in generations, the Democratic Party finds itself not only powerless in Washington, but with a party infrastructure as battered as the building that houses it. As Tom Perez, the intense new chair of the DNC, tells me from his top-floor office: "This is a turnaround job."

The Democratic Party is in the worst shape of its modern history. The presidency of Barack Obama papered over the fact that the party was being hollowed out from below. Over Obama's two terms, Democrats ceded 13 governorships to the GOP and stumbled from controlling six in 10 state legislatures to now barely one in three. Across federal and state government, Democrats have lost close to 1,000 seats. There are only six states where Democrats control both the legislature and the governor's mansion.

More troubling: Even amid the great upwelling of anti-Trump resistance, Democratic favorability ratings have continued to tumble since Election Day – to just 40 percent in a May Gallup poll. "Our negatives are almost as high as Trump's, as far as party goes," says Rep. Tim Ryan, a rugged Ohio Democrat serving Youngstown. Ryan led an unsuccessful 63-vote insurgency against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in November because, he says, "We weren't winning."

There is no official accounting for this erosion of power and popularity. Unlike the GOP in the aftermath of Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat, Democrats have not published post-mortems. But get party insiders talking – with anonymity exchanged for candor – and there's little debate about how the party went sideways.

Responsibility rests foremost at the feet of former President Barack Obama. As a candidate, Obama sidestepped the party's next-in-line culture, riding into the White House on the strength of a then-revolutionary digital-and-grassroots machinery of his own creation. "Obama was almost like the anti-Democrat," a former DNC chair tells Rolling Stone. "The president didn't care about the Democratic Party."

Once in office, Obama had the weight of the world to bear. He staved off financial collapse and secured health insurance for an estimated 20 million Americans, leveraging the party's infrastructure for these fights. "When you're at the head of the DNC and you have the White House," says Sen. Tim Kaine, who chaired the party from 2009 to 2011, "a lot of the job is about promoting the president's agenda." But Obama and his team neglected a far less heroic duty: the care and feeding of the national party, which Democrats had rebuilt during the Bush years with a "50-state strategy" that had empowered Obama with dominant Democratic majorities in Congress.

The GOP took full advantage of the president's disregard for party politics. The Tea Party vaulted Republicans to control of the U.S. House and statehouses across the country in 2010 – putting the party in the driver's seat for the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative boundaries known as redistricting. The White House mounted no resistance. "The Obama team, David Axelrod, had no organized structural redistricting [game plan]," says a longtime Democratic strategist. "The Republicans just ran up the fucking score everywhere. They got two or three extra congressional seats in state after state after state, creating lasting struggles to get back to a majority." Case in point: Democratic House candidates netted 1.3 million more votes than Republicans in 2012, but secured 33 fewer seats.

The 50-state strategy devolved under Obama into a presidential-battleground strategy, leaving state parties starved for cash and leadership. "Obama didn't put resources into local parties unless it was for his re-election effort," says the former party chair. Making matters worse: Obama tapped ambitious Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz – a favorite of White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett – to run the DNC in 2011. "That congresswoman had no idea what she was doing," adds the former chair.

Wasserman Schultz went rogue. In a rift with the White House that spilled into a story on Politico, she was criticized for using the DNC as a vehicle for self-promotion, hoping the office would serve as a springboard into House leadership. The White House made overtures to oust Wasserman Schultz, but she dug in, promising an ugly fight that could tar the president as both anti-woman and anti-Semitic. (Wasserman Schultz, who was forced to resign in the aftermath of the Russian hack of the DNC, declined to participate in this story.)

Obama dodged that fight, and instead fostered Organizing for Action, the grassroots group born of his campaigns. "They had a mirror organization that did just their politics, and it weakened the DNC," says a source in House leadership. "It directed money elsewhere and was not in the interest of the long-term stability [of the party]. It was a selfish strategy."

The hobbled DNC's chief remaining value was as a fundraising vehicle. For Obama, it "was like his ATM – and Clinton was the same," says the former chair. Clinton pioneered a strategy that allowed her largest donors to give $10,000 to each of 32 state parties participating in her Victory Fund. But that money didn't stay in the states. Instead, nearly every penny was hoovered up to the DNC for the benefit of Clinton's election.

Clinton today says she found the DNC to be a liability. In an onstage interview at a Recode tech conference in May, Clinton recalled, "I get the nomination. . . . I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party. It was bankrupt. . . . I had to inject money into it – the DNC – to keep it going." Clinton then raised eyebrows by indicting the DNC's data, which the party had inherited from the Obama re-election campaign. "Its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong," Clinton said. (The DNC's former data chief hit back, tweeting that Clinton's broadside was "fucking bullshit," but declined to be interviewed.)

Under Obama, the party infrastructure was honed to elect a president. And being a presidential party is a powerful thing – until you lose the White House. The Clinton campaign lost significantly on its own merits, though the party is loath to admit it. The same candidate who was caught flat-footed by the rise of Obama in 2008 found herself stunned by the grassroots surge behind Sen. Bernie Sanders. "And she was really surprised by how strong Trump was – and part of it was she just sucked," says the Democratic strategist, who criticizes Clinton despite being entrenched in her center-left, pro-trade wing of the party. "At a really fundamental level we gotta get people to acknowledge what a fucking piece of shit her campaign was, because Donald Trump should not have won this election." The strategist adds, "Yes, Comey happened. And yes, the Russians happened. But she had more money than God, and they spent all of it trashing him and not actually rebutting his ideological agenda." By transforming the election into a referendum on character, Team Clinton let Trump off the hook as the frontman for the extremist GOP platform. "The country's waking up shocked to what he's doing because Hillary didn't actually explain to anybody what he was going to do when he became president," the strategist says. "We focused on him groping people – and not on him saying he was going to end our alliance with Europe or he was going to strip health care. It was an amazing failure of our politics to make our case."

For national Democrats, the loss of the White House was compounded by a weak showing in House races. Clinton's 3-million-vote popular victory – moot for the Electoral College – should have paid dividends in swing districts. But the electoral machinery of the DCCC had its own troubles. Hampered by poor recruiting, the Democrats lost in 23 districts that Clinton won, including seven in California alone. The party netted just six seats to remain in a two-dozen-seat deficit to Paul Ryan and the House GOP.

The DCCC's woes were separate from the DNC's. The committee has functioned as the political machine of Nancy Pelosi, leader of House Democrats since 2003, who is the DCCC's prodigious chief fundraiser and has hand-picked its chairman. On Pelosi's watch, the committee has caught flak from allies for being slow to adapt to the digital and demographic revolutions in politics, creating a disconnect with the emerging electorate. "We weren't focused on how to communicate with younger people who are online and not watching TV," says Rep. Tim Ryan. A consultant now working with the DCCC says the party also lacked an effective Hispanic-vote strategy. "We were not really talking to a big chunk of the people we need to get to vote for us," he says. The result is that House Democrats are beginning the 2018 cycle in a deeper hole than necessary. "We should not be 24 seats down."

The weight of reviving the Democratic Party in the Trump era rests on the trim shoulders of 55-year-old Tom Perez. The new chair of the DNC has a runner's build, working-class teeth and a feisty disposition. Perez favors dark suits and baggy white dress shirts, with no tie. His corner office is Spartan – save for a cluster of photographs near his desk. A late-Nineties picture with Ted Kennedy, whom Perez worked for as special counsel, is inscribed by the late Massachusetts senator: "To Tom, with thanks for your skillful help . . . in advancing the cause of equal justice under law."

Facing off against Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in the race for chair, Perez was tarred by many as an avatar of the party establishment. But that's hard to square with Perez's biography. Raised in Buffalo, the fourth child of Dominican immigrants, Perez worked his way through Brown University with blue-collar jobs – including collecting garbage. Earning both a law degree and master's in public policy from Harvard, Perez spent much of his career as an attorney at the Justice Department, and in the early Obama years served as assistant attorney general for civil rights. From that post, Perez blocked a discriminatory voter-ID law in Texas, sued Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over racist policing in Arizona and oversaw the first convictions under an expanded federal hate crimes act passed in 2009. His record drew the ire of then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who decried Perez's "fundamentally political approach to the law."

Perez gained a national profile as President Obama's labor secretary; he fought for adoption of the "fiduciary rule," requiring financial advisers to work in the interests of mom-and-pop investors, not to line their own pockets with commissions. (This rule's implementation has been delayed by President Trump, who is seeking to overturn it.) Perez's record is not as a party insider but rather as a public servant who has stuck his neck out to protect vulnerable Americans. "I'm quite proud of the battles that I've picked with Wall Street," he says.

Perez is not a natural politician. He speaks with a taut seriousness that can lead to moments of abruptness. On an eight-city "unity tour" with Sanders, Perez accused Trump of not giving "a shit" about people and decried the president's "shitty" budget. The peppering of profanity rang false – like a dad trying to "hang" with his teenager's friends.

But Perez earns unvarnished praise from his former rival Ellison – a natural communicator whom Perez tapped as his deputy chair. "He's an awesome human being. No bullshit," the congressman tells me. "He's smart, incredibly earnest and serious. He's good in terms of organizational management, and he's relentless."

Perez brings years of experience wrangling federal bureaucracies to his new job, and seems to relish the task of rebuilding the DNC: "I come to this enterprise with immense optimism." The "turnaround job" Perez envisions has two components. One is structural. "We have redefined our mission," he says. "We are no longer just here to elect the president, but to elect Democrats up and down the ticket." The other is message – restoring trust in a "wounded brand."

On the structural front, Perez has already taken control – he's cleaned house from the Wasserman Schultz era and brought on board a new CEO, Jess O'Connell, the former head of the pro-choice fundraising powerhouse EMILY's List. Perez tells me he's seeking to double the DNC's budget from $50 million to $100 million, with the aim of building "state parties that can actually thrive."

The marker of success, Ellison tells me, is that people entering Democratic politics at the community level will know they've got a powerful ally in Washington. "If the people on the ground – the city council members, the aldermen – are not feeling like we're backing them up," Ellison warns, "then we're failing."

Perez envisions the DNC as a mainframe – distributing technology, cash and expertise to state and local parties. "We're in the infrastructure business," Perez says cheerfully. "You can't run successful campaigns over time if you're not organizing, if you don't have a voter-protection operation, if you don't have a robust voter file, if you don't have a training operation. All of those basic building blocks for success are what we're trying to do here."

Even before Clinton's attack at Recode, Perez had made beefing up the DNC's "digital architecture" a top priority. Despite the wealth of voter data it inherited from the pioneering Obama campaigns, the DNC is now playing catch-up to the Republican National Committee. In the wake of Romney's loss in 2012, then-RNC chair Reince Priebus invested tens of millions of dollars to centralize Republican data and analytics. The RNC developed powerful digital-targeting tools and made them available to anyone running for Republican office, from a city council candidate in Oklahoma City to the presidential nominee. First deployed in the 2014 midterms, the RNC's data system was primed and ready for Trump when he secured the 2016 nomination and outperformed the data operation of the Clinton campaign. An RNC digital officer bragged to me, shortly after the election, that Democrats "are back at square one, and we've got a product already built and tested through two major elections."

In our interview, Perez touted a tech advisory committee he's convened with "the best and brightest minds" – including Obama's chief digital strategist, Joe Rospars – to build "a platform that's going to enable us to engage voters in ways that we've never done before."

"We let Doald Trump hijack the narrative of the Democratic Party," Tom Perez says. "We've always fought for the underdog." Chip Somodevilla/Getty

On the messaging front, Perez sees Trump's mounting betrayals of working-class Americans as an opportunity to reassert what Democrats stand for. "We allowed Donald Trump to hijack the basic narrative of the Democratic Party," he says, "which is that we've always fought for the underdog – to make sure that they have a good job, that pays a middle-class wage, that provides health care and housing and retirement security for their family." Perez is trying to build a big tent around a fractured party, encouraging Democrats to look to the beliefs they share – and Trump threatens. "If our values were not aligned," he says, "then we'd have big trouble. But whether it's climate, whether it's wage inequality, whether it's immigration, all of the abiding issues of our time, there's a real alignment." While some Democrats may "want to tweak the Affordable Care Act" and others "want a Medicare-for-all model," he says, "those are discussions wherein the value proposition is the same: Health care is a right for all and not a privilege for a few."

For average Americans, the first glimpse of the DNC's rebuilding effort will come through a $1 million organizing project called Resistance Summer, which launched in June. Ellison explains the concept in an interview off the House floor. Representing Minneapolis, and the first Muslim member of Congress, Ellison is best understood as the DNC's chief grassroots officer. The 53-year-old is the kind of politician who amplifies the energy in a room. He has been barnstorming the country, lavishing attention on Democrats in red states. "I went to Boise, Idaho. They packed out the joint. In Boise!" he says. "They packed out the joint in Indianapolis. They're fired up. They believe Indiana is a blue state if we can get everybody out to vote."

Resistance Summer will put Democratic Party boots on the ground at the rallies, marches and parades of the anti-Trump movement. Making common cause with protesters and a new universe of grassroots political organizations is part of the culture shift Perez and Ellison are driving at the DNC. "We're getting local Democratic Party units out of the campaign office and into the street," Ellison says. "When you open your ballot on Election Day, you're not going to have Indivisible or Swing Left or Our Revolution on your ballot. You're going to have to vote Democrat. We can't show up late to the party."

By beginning in 2017 – an off-election year – Ellison hopes Democrats can engage in real dialogue, both listening to the concerns of voters and making the party's pitch that "we can change this problem by winning elections," he says. " 'Do you like being able to get health care when you have a pre-existing condition? If you do, we're here to help.' "

Republicans in Congress have given Democrats just the icebreaker they need to talk to voters, Perez tells me – with the Obamacare repeal vote. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the GOP bill would raise premiums by 20 percent in the first year and deprive 23 million people of health insurance over a decade. "They want to get a tax break of $600 billion to rich people by making it harder for you to access health care," Perez says. "We have to take that story to people. We're going to be talking about this in local mayors' races. We're going to be talking about this in governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey. We're going to be talking about this when we take over the Congress next year."

Except in daydreams of an anti-Trump tsunami, the congressional takeover plotted by Democrats for 2018 does not include the Senate. The map is so deeply disadvantageous – with Democrats seeking re-election in red states like West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Montana – that defense is the name of the game. "Here in the Senate we're looking to hold the blue line," says Maryland's Chris Van Hollen, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Van Hollen adds that there are a few "pickup opportunities"; Jeff Flake in Arizona, Dean Heller in Nevada and, at the outside, Ted Cruz in Texas could have tough races on their hands.

The linchpin of the Democratic Party's anti-Trump efforts for 2018 is capturing the House. The man crafting the strategy is the chair of the DCCC, Ben Ray Luján, a fifth-term representative from New Mexico whose district includes Santa Fe. Luján is a compact man with a Reaganesque haircut. Like Perez, Luján is the first Latino to hold his committee chair. In public appearances, the 45-year-old plays up his working-class roots – "My dad was an ironworker, my mom worked for the local public schools" – but this elides a deep political legacy. Luján's father, Ben, was a lion of New Mexico state politics, serving 11 years as speaker.

Though his sharp grooming wouldn't put him out of place on K Street, Luján has a lilt to his speech and a folksy demeanor. He gets riled up when asked whether Democrats are ceding the heartland. Rural outreach, Luján insists, "is important to me; it's also personal. I represent a district that's 47,000 square miles. It takes eight and a half hours to drive across it. In some of the small towns, the town halls are at the local saloon. After the meeting, people talk over a beer."

This is Luján's second stint as chair of the DCCC – a post to which he was appointed in 2015 by Pelosi and won re-election for, unopposed, this cycle. I first encounter Luján at a press conference at party headquarters, where he announces an expansion of Democratic targets on the 2018 electoral map – adding 20 additional Republican districts, bringing the total to 79. The increase has less to do with individual races than a national mood that's turning against the GOP – putting almost any district where Trump won by five points or fewer into play. "With Donald Trump's favorability in the 30s, Paul Ryan's in the 20s, we need to push in," Luján says. "The DCCC is preparing for battle."

The air of confidence and optimism around the DCCC is a sea change from the weeks after Election Day – when rank-and-file anger about 2016 House results spilled over into a minor mutiny against Pelosi's leadership. Members were frustrated with a political machine that failed to break the GOP's stranglehold on Congress for a third consecutive cycle. Seth Moulton, a 38-year-old Massachusetts representative, says that he and others pressed the committee to "come to terms with the fact that we've been losing elections. To stop patting themselves on the back and say, 'What do we need to change to start winning again?' "

Member anger wasn't targeted at Luján – who enjoys broad support, even among DCCC critics – but rather at staff, pollsters and consultants. "Ben Ray has been doing a good job of trying to figure out a new way to do it," says Rep. Tim Ryan. Adroitly, Luján did not fight calls for change, but saw an opportunity to put his own stamp on the committee, both with the support of, and autonomy from, Pelosi. "He's a very dynamic person, and he wants to do things that work," says Pelosi's deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill. "She's involved. She meets with Luján frequently for updates and strategy. She's involved in fundraising. But she's not running the building. He is."

In one key early change, Luján deployed field staff to districts high on the DCCC's target list. "We were able to get a field team put together in 20 Republican-held districts starting in February," he tells me. When Democratic nominees eventually step forward in these races, they'll plug into an organizing structure that's already been running in these districts for months.

The DCCC can be an oddly opaque institution. The committee did commission a 2016 post-mortem, but its 28 recommendations are treated like state secrets. The one DCCC official I can persuade to break the code of silence is Rep. Ted Lieu – a 48-year-old Air Force Reserves colonel who now serves in Henry Waxman's old seat in Santa Monica. Lieu is a Taiwanese immigrant in his second term. He has shined among drab Democrats for his willingness to spar with Trump on Twitter. In person, Lieu is sober and thoughtful, with the gravitas you'd expect of a governor. (Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, which helps elect veterans, describes Lieu in two words: "Unlimited. Ceiling.")

"The Democratic Caucus was not happy with the performance of the DCCC the last term," Lieu says plainly. "So we made a series of reforms. We made the chair of the DCCC elected; we created five vice chairs – all elected – to provide additional guidance, diversity of views, more fresh faces. We also are doing a deep dive on our pollsters and our consultants. Those who don't meet the standards will be fired."

As one of the five new vice chairs, Lieu is responsible for the Western region. "There is a systematic change to decentralize the decision-making so it's not all from Washington, D.C.," he says. For starters, the DCCC is opening a dedicated West Coast "pod" in Irvine, California, with a staff of 10 that will oversee the fight for the nine districts the DCCC is targeting in the state.

One of the reasons Democrats fared poorly in 2016, Lieu says, was a weak class of candidates. In too many districts, he says, "not only did we not have a good Tier I candidate, we didn't have a good Tier II candidate. That's not going to happen this year. We have the opposite problem."

"We're raining candidates!" says the DCCC's head of recruiting, Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia, Washington. "It's unprecedented." Heck points to Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who ran unopposed in 2016 in a district that Clinton carried. "We have 21 candidates who are interested," Heck says. "It's like, 'Where were you people the last four years?' I was out there beating my head against the wall trying to get people to run."

Ultimately, the Democrats can't control whether 2018 becomes a wave election. The upshot for the party is that their rebuilding efforts don't need to be perfect. The DCCC can fall short on some of its 28 reforms. The DNC's reinvention can still be a work in progress. "If Democrats retake the House," says David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, "it won't be because they suddenly devised some brilliant campaign strategy. It will be a voter backlash against Trump. The vast majority of seats are subject to the political crosswinds of national politics."

Still, for the Democrats to win back the House, the party will need to both harness the energy of its base and reach to the center. "What will put them over the top is if they start winning over huge shares of independent voters," says Wasserman. "The last few times the House flipped, independent voters voted for the out party by about 18 points."

Most encouraging to Democrats today is that the anti-Trump backlash is already producing a windfall of young veteran candidates – men and women in the mold of Tammy Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot whose Senate victory was one of the few bright spots for Democrats last November. "We've got about three dozen candidates who are veterans," says Lieu. Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq, says he's pleased to see the DCCC embrace veteran candidates. "The Democratic Party has realized that some of these thoughtful public servants who serve the country are exactly the kind of folks that independents are looking for in these swing districts."

To get a flavor of the class of 2018, I interviewed three veterans who weren't recruited by the party but have tapped themselves to run for office. They're all earnest, disciplined and formidable. And while they're all proud Democrats, their partisanship takes a back seat to patriotism. Josh Butner is a former Navy SEAL commander challenging Rep. Duncan Hunter in a California district east of San Diego. Hunter represents one of the most conservative districts in the state but is also under criminal investigation for allegedly misusing campaign funds. Jason Crow, running in a swing district in Colorado that Clinton won easily, is a former Army Ranger who addressed the 2012 Democratic National Convention for Obama, saluting the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He's running against Rep. Mike Coffman, who promised to stand up to Trump but has emerged as a rubber stamp.

And then there's Mikie Sherrill, a mother of four and former federal prosecutor who flew helicopters for the Navy after graduating from Annapolis. (Sherrill also holds a law degree from Georgetown and a global-history master's from the London School of Economics.) As charismatic as she is smart, Sherrill is running for a New Jersey seat held by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a hoary 22-year incumbent who refuses to hold town-hall meetings and barked at constituents questioning his support of Trumpcare to "back off." Frelinghuysen even complained to one of his donors, a board member at the company where a participant in the resistance was employed, that "one of the ringleaders works in your bank!"

Sherrill is aghast that Frelinghuysen won't talk to his constituents, which she considers "Job One." But she's also running because she feels that America's institutions are "being attacked from within." When I ask Sherrill at the end of our interview if she has any closing thoughts, she sounds less like a rookie candidate and more like she could be the next secretary of state.

"I'm very concerned," Sherrill says. "This country is at its best when it leads from courage and optimism. This administration has been leading through fear and intimidation. It's making us smaller than we should be, and it's decreasing our role globally. The world looks to us to lead. And I'm afraid if we don't live up to the task we've held for the last 50 years, we're not gonna like what comes next."

 

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