What’s Next for the Democratic Party?

Party officials and strategists stressed the need to recruit more talented candidates and reframe their economic message.

Sen. Tim Kaine listens as Hillary Clinton speaks Wednesday in New York, where she conceded her defeat to Donald Trump after the hard-fought presidential election.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Nov. 10, 2016, 8 p.m.

In her speech conceding the presidential election to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton told her downtrodden and shell-shocked supporters that “we must accept this result and then look to the future.”

By now, most Democrats have reached the acceptance stage of their grief. But the party’s future remains as cloudy as ever.

Come Jan. 20, Republicans will have control of the White House, a four-seat majority in the Senate, and a 40-plus seat advantage in the House. They will also have control of the vast majority of governorships and state legislative chambers across the country. And once President Obama leaves office and the Clintons fade from public view, Democrats will be without a clear national leader.

In the aftermath of Trump’s upset victory, the most urgent matters for Democrats, party officials and strategists said, are to address their weak bench and revamp their economic message to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate in order to have success in 2018, 2020, and beyond. That revamp will likely involve a heated internal debate over the direction of the party between progressives, led in part by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and more moderate or establishment-friendly figures.

“In the darkness of night, we see the brightest stars,” said Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “This will be sort of a reset for the Democratic Party.”

In interviews, Democrats pointed to some members of the Senate as rising stars. Harrison, for instance, referred to Cory Booker—the lone black Democrat in the upper chamber until newcomer Kamala Harris arrives from California—as “Obamaesque.” He also said Chris Murphy, a strong advocate for gun control, was a “rock star,” and praised Kirsten Gillibrand, who led the push to reform the way that military sexual-assault cases are handled. All three are younger than 50 years old.

Three of their colleagues who played major roles in the 2016 campaign also won’t be going anywhere, either. Vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, Sanders, and Warren will continue to have a national platform. Kaine, 58, and Warren, 67, could potentially challenge Trump in four years.

Other Democrats pointed to three female racial minorities who will be joining their ranks in the upper chamber next year: Harris, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. The 52-year-old Harris in particular is often floated as a future presidential contender.

“We definitely have a thin bench,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “We have some very talented people on that bench, but we need to build that bench up. And then we need to highlight the people that we have.”

But one of the main issues that Democrats face is that too few of their up-and-coming members work outside of Washington. That’s why elections in the next two years will be so important for the future of the party. 38 governors’ races will be on the ballot in 2017 and 2018. On top of that, there are a slew of key mayoral contests in big cities next year. Democrats stressed the need to better utilize their advantage at level government.

“It’s tough to lose, but now you’ve got a clean slate to build on,” said Tom Henderson, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa. “It’s now time for new people to step into leadership positions.”

The party also needs to decide on the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. A prominent voice on the Left—albeit not a new one—threw his hat in the ring for the post Thursday.

“The dems need organization and focus on the young. Need a fifty State strategy and tech rehab. I am in for chairman again,” tweeted former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who ran the DNC from 2005 to 2009.

A number of high-profile progressives are backing Rep. Keith Ellison for the chairmanship. Sanders told multiple news outlets Thursday that he’s behind Ellison, who was an early supporter of Sanders in the senator’s White House bid. In addition, Sen. Jeff Merkley—the lone senator to endorse Sanders in the primary fight—is backing Ellison for the job, a source with knowledge of Merkley’s views told National Journal.

Ellison, the cochairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is also picking up backing from Lefty advocates and groups off Capitol Hill. The high-profile environmentalist Bill McKibben tweeted his support Thursday. And a pair of progressive advocacy groups—Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee—told The Washington Post that they like the idea too.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley are also seen as possible candidates, as is Harrison, the South Carolina chair.

Harrison told National Journal that he was “very much thinking about it” when it looked like Clinton would occupy the White House, but he might be less interested after Trump’s win. It’s “a very different job” now, he said, adding that “the next chair has to be someone who understands the value of state parties.”

Aside from people to run for office and fill leadership positions, some Democrats said they also need to more effectively articulate the message they are delivering on the economy. Lake said that in polling she conducted in battleground states on the eve of the election, Republicans were running 17 points ahead of Democrats on the economy and 6 points ahead on jobs. More than half of all voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the country, according to exit polls.

While the party may have an edge on individual policy issues, such as the minimum wage, Lake said the failure to develop a cohesive economic message helped lead to the Democrats’ huge losses among white, blue-collar voters. Whites without a college degree, 34 percent of the national electorate, voted for Trump by 39 points.

“The No. 1 task that is before us is to develop an economic message and frame,” Lake said. “We will always be vulnerable among voters in general, and white blue-collar voters in particular, if we don’t.”

The challenge for Democrats moving forward will be finding candidates and messages that can appeal to the white working class as well as their coalition of nonwhites, millennials, and college-educated women.

“Democrats have to learn a dual lesson,” said Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and potential candidate for governor in 2018. “We cannot compromise our moral values on diversity and access, but we do have to be intentional about broadening our tent and making certain we create a space for this national conversation.”

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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