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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