Democrats have been given an enviable political landscape, with an opposition president at a historically low approval rating and scandal besetting his White House. But they risk potentially blowing it due to a lack of central leadership, diffuse organizational structures and disputes over tactics and issues.
That’s the fear that some top officials harbor as they gear up for the 2018 elections: that the party has yet to learn its lessons from the 2016 cycle; that a horde of newly organized political groups are drawing money away from party infrastructure; and that a lack of a singular leader has complicated the need for a centralized message.
Those fears have been overshadowed, so far, by the party’s Trump-era triumphs—including the temporary defeat of efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And to the outside observer, they seem odd considering the extent of progressive activism nationwide, which has produced indelible rallies, memorable town halls, and several electoral victories at the state level.
But signs of potential problems are there.
The Democratic National Committee’s fundraising in May was its worst since 2003. The committee only recently hired a new permanent finance director. And former chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s name continues to surface, and not in particularly helpful ways, with negative headlines about her fired IT staffer who was arrested on one count of bank fraud.
New deputy chair and Democratic congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was bullish on the committee’s prospects. But even he acknowledged that there was work still to do.
“What we’re doing is converting the DNC from a battleground-oriented party, from a presidential-oriented party, from an every-four-years type of party into not a battleground state, but an every state, not a presidential, but every race and not just every four years but every day, every year, all the time,” Ellison told The Daily Beast in a phone interview last month, saying that he is optimistic about where they are going.
“I think that we are heading in the right direction. Now fundraising-wise we have to do better,” Ellison continued. “I believe that we’re going to be just fine. We need to kick into another gear. We need to get people to invest in us. And my hope is that we can really attract that small dollar donor.”
As Ellison and company try and create a small donor network, one of the problems they’ve confronted is that there are many organizations now vying for Democratic donors. Indivisible, a national resistance organization comprised of former congressional staffers, raised over $40,000 on the Friday after the most recent ACA repeal effort failed. In June, they had taken in about $1 million from individuals. And other progressive groups like Daily Kos, ActBlue and Swing Left have collected inordinate sums of money—over $2 million total—for candidates who have yet to even be announced.
“I know that activists have been looking for multiple outlets to channel their progressive energy since Trump's election, and Daily Kos has helped channel that enthusiasm in immediate and pragmatic ways, from raising millions of dollars to help elect Democrats this very year to providing a mechanism that lets activists invest in the defeat of Republicans in 2018 who don't even have Democratic challengers yet,” Carolyn Fiddler, political editor and senior communications advisor for Daily Kos, told The Daily Beast.
Flush with cash, these independent progressive organizations have been able to throw their weight around in elections of their choosing, even if the national apparatus sits one out.
Daily Kos was instrumental in raising funds for the first special election of the year alongside Democracy for America, a political action committee founded by Howard Dean and Our Revolution, an organization spun out of Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT.) presidential campaign. Despite taking place in a district that President Trump carried by 27 points, the Democrat in that Kansas congressional race, James Thompson, lost in a surprisingly narrow fashion, raising questions as to why the national Democratic party stayed away until the last moment.
The official Democratic party line has been that their involvement in certain Trump-friendly districts would hurt candidates more than it helps. And in some cases, the candidates themselves have said that’s true. Montana folk singer Rob Quist reportedly turned down a visit from DNC chair Tom Perez earlier this year, for instance.
But the lack of apparent symmetry between the outside groups and the party committees has worsened the perception of there being diametrically different wings to the party. And as the Democrats wait for their first national win, tensions are beginning to surface.
“No, I don’t think they’re doing a good job,” Nina Turner, the newly chosen president of Our Revolution, plainly said of the DNC. “People are tired of being bought and sold, talking-out-of-both-sides-of-their-mouth politicians. Democrats are going to learn this lesson in 2018.”
PUSH IT TO THE LEFT
It’s not just a decentralized fundraising climate that has complicated Democratic electoral priorities in the age of Trump. The party has also struggled to find a uniform issue set that could form the basis of a mid-term agenda. Elected leadership tried to remedy this a few weeks back with an introduction of a policy platform called “A Better Deal.” Though it earned accolades from progressive, populist types for focusing on breaking up monopolies, there remain certain flash points that have left party members pitted against each other.
Turner, for one, takes specific issue with the reluctance of some Democratic congressional members, and the DNC overall, to explicitly embrace a Medicare for All platform which she views as the civil rights issue of the moment. And her group, Our Revolution, which has been active in national health care protests, has started to more aggressively call out Democrats who don’t support that plank.
“It’s really what is going to push the political class to do the right thing,” Turner told The Daily Beast. “We’re going to expose them. Let the people know.”
Not everyone in the party is enthused by the idea of Medicare for All as a litmus test. Even Ellison, who was backed by Our Revolution in his run for DNC chair and is a Medicare for All supporter, said it was too big an ask for certain members.
“I know that in my district when I say ‘Medicare for All,’ people applaud,” Ellison said. “I know in other places I’ve been, people applaud. But I don’t know if they applaud everywhere. Let’s save the patient protection and Affordable Care Act and let’s start a conversation about how we cover even more people. And about how we relieve employers the burden of having to pay health care insurance. Let’s do that and if we do it, we just might end up in a place that’s really really cool.”
It’s not just on this policy where these fissures are breaking out. A similar debate has occurred in dramatic fashion over abortion rights as well.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said last month that his organization will not necessarily demand that candidates be pro-choice—a comment which prompted sharp disapproval from abortion rights activists.
“The media has been framing this as a split between Democrats, and that’s not what it is,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, a pro-abortion-rights organization said in a statement. “Among the rank-and-file groups that make up the majority of the Democratic base, there is really no split on abortion rights.”
Already, the dust up over how pro-choice a Democratic candidate should be has caused electoral hiccups for the party. In April, Senator Sanders campaigned for Our Revolution-endorsed Heath Mello, a candidate for mayor of Omaha who had previously cosponsored a bill requiring a physician performing an abortion to tell a woman that an ultrasound was available. Though the bill was more complicated than its portrayal, Sanders received a wave of backlash for his endorsement. And in the midst of what was described as a “unity tour” with Perez, the latter ended up reversing his own course and saying a litmus test on abortion for Democrats is necessary.
That moment, like the gulf between Ellison and Turner on the importance of Medicare for All, illuminated a fear Democrats have heading into 2018: that tactical differences and policy disputes may end up complicating their message and--in a worst case scenario--depress their vote.
LACK OF A LEADER
All these disputes and disagreements existed prior to the 2018 cycle, of course. But the party was able to compartmentalize them in large part because they had a singular leader to set the agenda. Single payer advocates and abortion-rights groups have their qualms with Barack Obama. But his political preferences became de facto party priorities and his organizations -- the DNC and OFA -- sucked up much of the resources.
Now in the political wilderness, there is no sole leader setting the agenda and dictating the terms. Some operatives are fine with that, seeing it as an opportunity for the grassroots to develop new talent.
“What I want is followers, we’ll find a leader,” Paul Begala, a political commentator who worked in the Clinton White House, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to do a top down fix here; not when your party is at a 100 year low in the state legislatures. Our problem is not simply the White House. It’s way more important to repair the grassroots.”
But it’s also true that in the absence of a figurehead, different sects within the Democratic Party are competing over direction and policy priorities.
“I’ve never been a big fan of the singular person,” Ellison told The Daily Beast. “I like the idea of having a singular message and a singular set of values we stand for. Now that there’s no individual who can sort of direct the flow, I think we can take a much more Democratic, small D, look at who we are and where we’re going.”
The hope from Ellison and others is that, in the absence of central leader, the party and its supportive outside organizations will shift its focus to much needed state and local races. As Turner noted, Democrats in the age of Obama “found ourselves just kind of celebrating that for 8 years and not doing a whole lot of planning.” There is some evidence to suggest that this might come true. Though Democrats have yet to flip a congressional district, they have made inroads in statehouses.
But stopping Trump’s agenda won’t happen with the flipping of Oklahoma’s 44th district. It will come by taking over a chamber of Congress. And with the 2018 elections fast approaching, progressives and party leaders are beginning to fret that they’re mucking up their golden opportunity.
“If the Democrats are serious about introducing legislation even if it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in passing, that’s saying something,” Turner said. “If they’re just doing that just to seduce people in 2018, we’re going to be in for a rude awakening.”