Democrats' off-year wins mask party troubles since loss to Trump
Published 1:29 pm, Thursday, November 9, 2017
A string of victories in off-year elections have Democrats encouraged that, a year after Hillary Clinton's stunning loss to Donald Trump, they've found a way back from the wilderness.
But the national party remains in rough shape, riven by infighting over the 2016 race, lagging far behind Republicans in fundraising, and unsure whether it will field a strong standard-bearer to challenge Trump in 2020. Speculation about who might lead the party's ticket revolves around a familiar cast -- Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren.
While Trump himself still frequently reminisces about his electoral college victory, his political team long ago shifted focus to the 2018 midterms and to 2020. His reelection campaign is already up and running, he's raised tens of millions of dollars for the Republican National Committee, and he's using the power of the presidency to both pressure Democratic lawmakers up for reelection next year to support his agenda and bolster their Republican opponents.
Democrats, meanwhile, are still searching for leaders, a message and the money to do it all. The Democratic National Committee has raised half as much as its Republican counterpart so far this year, and had just $7 million on hand at the beginning of October.
"The party is absolutely in a rebuilding phase right now. It's kind of playing the last deaf echoes of the previous campaign," Eric Garcetti, the 46-year-old mayor of Los Angeles who isn't hiding his interest in 2020, said in an interview.
Democrats opted against an exhaustive examination of their 2016 defeat, as Republicans did four years earlier, to avoid getting bogged down in the past. It hasn't worked. Last week, former committee chairwoman Donna Brazile published an explosive excerpt of an upcoming book in Politico, alleging that Clinton's campaign took over the national party more than a year before her nomination and handicapped rivals led by Sanders.
Former Clinton campaign aides have challenged Brazile's account.
Yet the party's leaders were buoyed after scoring their first big wins of the Trump era on Tuesday -- especially Ralph Northam's 8.5-point defeat of Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor's race. Finally, Trump's unpopularity seemed to translate to electoral victory for Democratic candidates, many whom were motivated to run by the president's victory last year.
Democrats also took control of Washington's state senate -- the last legislative chamber on the West Coast led by Republicans -- and may yet claim the lower chamber of Virginia's legislature. They reclaimed the New Jersey governor's mansion, ended the GOP's super-majority in the Georgia state senate and, in Maine, won a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid, the health program for the poor.
Tuesday's wins don't erase the party's challenges, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez acknowledged.
"I'm well aware that we still have more work to do in the Democratic Party earning peoples' trust," he said on Wednesday. But the wins, added to victories earlier this year in special elections for state legislative seats and other local positions, have him optimistic. "We have great candidates leading with their values and we have boots on the ground - we're organizing, we're talking to people."
One of the next tests for Democrats is the December special election for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"It's an uphill battle" for Democrat Doug Jones, who is challenging former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, Perez said. "He's undeniably the underdog and that's the reality of the situation."
The turmoil in the opposition party is a delight to the president, who's tried to rile up Sanders supporters since Brazile's article by tweeting that the 2016 primary was "rigged" and calling for the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate.
But if they can pull themselves together in time, Democrats likely have a favorable political environment in both 2018 and 2020. Trump sits at a 38 percent approval rating, according to Gallup's weekly average, an uptick from a low of 35 percent in late October. Democrats are favored by nine points in the generic congressional ballot, considered a bellwether for the midterms, according to RealClearPolitics.
"We don't have time or resources to waste time fighting with each other," Leah Daughtry, a longtime friend of Brazile's and an adviser to Clinton's campaign, said at the party's semi-annual meeting last month in Las Vegas. "Help me, Holy Ghost, we don't have time."
Brazile, though, said it's the right moment to speak out.
"I've been told that this is the wrong time to tell troubling truths. Imagine if this book came out next year, before the midterm elections, or the year after, when the 2020 cycle will be beginning," she said Tuesday on Bloomberg Radio. "The year after a presidential election is the best year for debate and dissent."
Perez said that as he campaigned in Virginia over the weekend, not one voter asked him about Brazile's book. Even so, he acknowledged that the DNC has "more work to do to earn the trust of voters who are disappointed by what happened last year" and is "acutely aware that we didn't put the best foot forward during the primary process."
In Congress, the party has been an effective opposition, preventing any major legislation -including the promised repeal of Obamacare, Republicans' top priority at the beginning of the year - from advancing to Trump's desk. Outspoken younger senators including Kamala Harris of California, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey have emerged as potential party leaders and 2020 candidates.
But a national message and a brand eludes the party. Democrats are divided whether their primary selling point should be opposition to Trump or emphasis on their own values, including raising wages for low- and middle-income Americans, expanding access to health care, and protecting civil rights. Before their election victories on Tuesday, Democrats poured money and effort into a series of futile attempts this year to claim the congressional seats of Trump administration appointees in special elections.
Trump "pulled off the impossible because so many people just didn't feel like Democrats were talking to them, caring about what they care about," Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, another potential 2020 hopeful, said in an interview earlier this year.
There's more hand-wringing to come: Biden will soon begin a book tour to promote his memoir of the final year of his son Beau's life, "Promise Me, Dad." He told told Vanity Fair last month that he wouldn't rule out running for president in 2020 and indicated that he wouldn't shy away from talking about the last election. He has written that Clinton lacked "joy" in her campaign.
The DNC often lags behind the Republican National Committee in fundraising, but the gap is painfully wide this year. The party committee raised $51 million to the RNC's $104 million in the first nine months of the year, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Last week, the committee fired its top fundraiser, Emily Mellencamp Smith, in hopes of breathing new life into the operation. Perez said that the RNC out-raised the DNC two-to-one in 2006, and yet Democrats were still able to win the House.
"We have a really good game plan," he said just before polls closed on Tuesday. "Organizing everywhere, competing everywhere, leading with our values, rebuilding our technology structure, communicating what we stand for. You don't turn around problems overnight."
But he added: "Winning elections helps."