Several Democratic National Committee members have a message to their organization’s top leadership: President Trump is crushing us.
After pledging to compete everywhere ahead of the next election, multiple DNC members told The Daily Beast they have privately sounded alarms about the organization’s strategy heading into 2020, emphasizing what they view as Chairman Tom Perez’s inability to reach swing voters in Midwestern battleground states who voted for the president. A handful of Midwestern targets were critical to Trump’s general election success in 2016.
Jim Zogby, who co-chairs the DNC’s ethnic counsel, a group that represents people across different ethnic, racial, national origin, and religious identities, says he has been pushing Perez and other party leaders to expand its outreach to voters in the same areas that Trump successfully captured: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and—a Democratic sore spot in post-2016 politics—Wisconsin.
But that outreach to the committee has fallen on deaf ears.
“In Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, if we do events in those states that focuses on everyone else but them, that breeds resentment,” Zogby said. “That’s why [former Vice President Joe] Biden and [Sen.] Bernie [Sanders I-VT] do well, because they talk to those folks.”
Zogby was specifically referencing voters from Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern Central European, Arab, and Armenian-American communities highly concentrated in the Midwest.
“I am frustrated beyond belief at the sheer neglect of the constituencies I represent,” he added.
Zogby’s chief concern—raised by several other current DNC members who spoke with The Daily Beast—is that the Trump campaign is already reaching swing voters while the Democratic Party is overwhelmingly focused on expanding their existing base.
“There’s a general unease right now among operatives and others who believe the DNC is not doing enough to build out the infrastructure before the next election,” one DNC member said, who requested to speak anonymously about internal party conversations.
“There’s a deep concern that while we’re turned inwards, the Trump campaign is already out there talking to general election voters.”
In 2016, Trump swept much of the Midwest by razor-thin margins, winning Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by less than 2 percent. Pennsylvania and Michigan had not voted for a Republican president since 1988, while Wisconsin had not gone for the GOP since 1984. In Ohio, he successfully flipped areas that previously went for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Now, less than six months away from the Iowa caucuses, the DNC has managed to escape the kind of public criticism that split progressives and moderates into two groups after the 2016 primary. But that veil of optimism could be shifting as new battles pop up, now centering more around some concerns that they are not effectively reaching voters who preferred the president last time around.
"Donald Trump is in general election mode while we’re still in primary mode. We see it in Ohio,” David Pepper, who chairs the state’s Democratic Party said. “He’s absolutely carpet-bombing Ohio online. We’re doing our best to respond.”
Pepper doesn’t see that as a Perez problem, but more of a function of running a competitive, oversized primary against an incumbent who’s playing the general election game. “I don’t blame the DNC for that problem. It’s a bigger issue that that,” he said.
Pepper pointed to states like Ohio that house hundreds of thousands of voters who went for Trump and also a Democrat down-ballot, like Sherrod Brown, the progressive senator who successfully won a third term in 2018. In his view, presidential candidates won’t be targeting those same voters in the Democratic primary, so state parties have to do their part to pick up the slack.
“I think the roles of state parties, especially swing states, should be to talk to the same voters Trump is talking to for the general election,” Pepper said. “We can’t wait until next May to make the case if he’s already talking to them now.”
In Wisconsin, state party Chair Ben Wikler pushed back on the critique that the DNC is mostly paying lip service in the state that Hillary Clinton famously skipped in 2016, saying that efforts have ramped up since June.
“We’re not only building the bench of organizers of communities of color in the Milwaukee area but building a bench of voters who can persuade voters in places where bringing down Trump’s margin can narrow his path to victory in 2020,” Wikler said. “Anyone who thinks that Democrats aren’t fighting for voters in Wisconsin of every color and creed isn’t paying attention.” Wikler pointed to the state party’s recent hiring of an organizer in rural Northern Wisconsin, a position he said is funded by the DNC. Wisconsin Democrats have a total of eight regional organizers who are working across the state.
The DNC has created a War Room, a joint effort with communications, research, and digital departments, who drive rapid response against Trump with daily email blasts, among other initiatives. They’ve also built “the world’s most comprehensive research file on Donald Trump,” an official noted. The official pointed to a news story outlining the communications infrastructure they are building in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and Ohio.
"At the DNC we take nothing for granted: we're making historic early investments, working every day to hold Trump accountable for his broken promises and laying the infrastructure now to ensure our eventual nominee defeats Trump in 2020,” David Bergstein, the DNC’s director of battleground state communications, said.
Still, a DNC official directly familiar with battleground states’ efforts suggested all the messaging hasn’t trickled down to much action on the ground level yet.
“There’s some deep concerns brewing under the surface. Nothing that’s spilled into the public yet,” the member said. “Where’s all the support? They keep talking about the calories coming. People generally are feeling Trump is beating us on all fronts right now.”
The national party’s fundraising woes continue to present a problem when up against the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign’s significant advantage, multiple members said.
“The DNC is cash-strapped right now,” one member said plainly.
In June, the Republican National Committee more than doubled the DNC’s fundraising haul, totaling $20.7 million to $8.5 million, respectively. The DNC also spent nearly as much money as it brought in, burning through $7.5 million during the same month it hosted its first presidential debate in Miami.
“Our permanent, data-driven ground game never left in these battleground states and we already have triple the amount of staff in these states than we did at this point during the 2016 cycle,” a senior RNC official said about the Repulican Party’s investment specifically in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
For other DNC members, the issue stretches beyond battlegrounds into Perez’s inability to adapt to the changing concerns of new Democratic Party voters.
The latest example of that tension spilled into public view in recent days, when the committee nixed the possibility of a separate climate debate during its summer meeting in San Francisco, a move Perez backed that frustrated Democratic presidential campaigns, according to sources familiar.
Over the weekend, a committee vote rejected a plan that would allow 2020 Democrats to participate in third-party debates. Perez has consistently said that no single issue should take priority in a neutral Democratic primary.
But after the decision became public, one DNC member said they were contacted by staffers representing nearly every 2020 campaign over the weekend who expressed concerns about the move.
“They feel that Tom really mishandled this,” the DNC member who spoke to presidential campaigns said. “It puts them in a position where they have to say they don’t agree with the leader of the party. There’s no doubt people are starting to sour on his leadership.”
A separate official said it speaks directly to Perez’s inability to deviate from rules when appropriate, which they said makes the goal of party unity increasingly difficult, as well as a tendency to push established topics instead of branching out to areas of increased interest like climate.
Speaking about climate activists from the Sunrise Movement, the DNC member said, “What happened to the Sunrise kids on Saturday was wrong, wrong, wrong. This is a Tom thing. It’s a power struggle, it’s not about politics.”