What DNC Members Want

Democratic operatives in the six states Trump flipped offered insight on what their party and the next chairman should do to come back.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., hold a rally at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, July 31, 2016. Clinton and Kaine are on a three-day bus tour through the rust belt.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Dec. 1, 2016, 8 p.m.

Demo­crats in the half-dozen states that Don­ald Trump flipped in 2016 have plenty to say about the fu­ture of their party, in­clud­ing some ad­vice for the next na­tion­al party chair­man.

Their primary mes­sage, with four can­did­ates for the po­s­i­tion set to face off Fri­day at a for­um in Den­ver: Fo­cus on the eco­nomy and or­gan­ize, or­gan­ize, or­gan­ize.

Those were the re­cur­ring themes in in­ter­views with Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials in the six newly red states of Iowa, Flor­ida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin, who in­sisted that the party needs to con­nect with voters in sub­urb­an and rur­al areas who don’t share the same con­cerns as the urb­an voters that make up much of the party’s base.

To ac­com­plish this, Demo­crats want more re­sources in­ves­ted in year-round or­gan­iz­ing ef­forts. Ohio Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Dav­id Pep­per poin­ted to the Obama cam­paign’s neigh­bor­hood-team or­gan­iz­ing mod­el from 2008 and 2012 as a use­ful ex­ample.

As these new or­gan­iz­ing ef­forts get un­der way, the first or­der of busi­ness for the new Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man will be to chan­nel the Trump-sparked en­ergy that spiked after Elec­tion Day. In Ohio, thou­sands of people con­tac­ted the state party want­ing to get in­volved, and since then the party has hos­ted a series of stand­ing-room-only or­gan­iz­ing meet­ings. In Wis­con­sin, the party is already hir­ing field or­gan­izers for the 2018 midterms.

“We’re see­ing a lot of en­ergy,” Pep­per said. “Iron­ic­ally more en­ergy and more people show­ing up than showed up on their own dur­ing the cam­paign.”

In the up­com­ing chair con­test, some Rust Belt Demo­crats said they are un­com­fort­able with the idea of a Wash­ing­ton-led coron­a­tion of Rep. Keith El­lis­on of Min­nesota. They said they are still pro­cessing what went wrong and hope the nearly three months left be­fore the Feb­ru­ary vote will force the cur­rent field of can­did­ates to listen and for­mu­late plans—as well as al­low new can­did­ates to step for­ward.

El­lis­on won the early back­ing of a hand­ful of power­ful Demo­crat­ic Party lead­ers, in­clud­ing in­com­ing Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont, and he has the sup­port of some labor uni­ons.

Many DNC mem­bers want can­did­ates to ex­plain their ana­lys­is of what went wrong in 2016 and lay out spe­cif­ic plans for how they would fix it. Of course, for many Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials in the re­gion, Hil­lary Clin­ton ap­peared to be do­ing everything right, un­til elec­tion night. The out­come came as a sur­prise thanks to in­ac­cur­ate polling.

The four de­clared can­did­ates for DNC chair in­clude El­lis­on, former Ver­mont Gov. Howard Dean, New Hamp­shire Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Ray­mond Buckley, and South Car­o­lina Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Jaime Har­ris­on. They will make their pitch to state lead­ers at the As­so­ci­ation of State Demo­crat­ic Chairs meet­ing Fri­day.

“I think this should be much more than just sort of an en­dorse­ment derby,” Pep­per said. “It needs to be, truly, who’s dia­gnos­ing what happened in a way that feels right.”

Any strategy that re­lies too heav­ily on res­ist­ing Trump is likely to be met with sus­pi­cion.

“We need someone who can get up every day and talk about what we stand for, as op­posed to simply say­ing that we’re not Trump,” said former Iowa Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Scott Bren­nan, a DNC mem­ber.

The single biggest takeaway among Demo­crats in the states Trump flipped is that the party lost touch with rur­al and sub­urb­an blue-col­lar work­ers, par­tic­u­larly whites. Trump trounced Clin­ton among them with a sharp­er, more force­ful mes­sage on jobs and trade, es­sen­tially hi­jack­ing a tra­di­tion­al Demo­crat­ic mes­sage.

There is broad agree­ment that the only way to win these states back is by pla­cing a sharp­er fo­cus on voters’ eco­nom­ic anxi­et­ies. Giv­en Clin­ton’s per­form­ance in the in­dus­tri­al Mid­w­est in par­tic­u­lar, it now ap­pears Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­l­at­ively com­fort­able wins in Wis­con­sin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2012 might be the ex­cep­tion rather than the new nor­mal.

Trump prom­ised dur­ing the cam­paign to bring back coal, steel, and man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs that have been lost. He looked to sell his early ef­forts Thursday with an event tout­ing Car­ri­er’s de­cision to ship few­er jobs to Mex­ico than it had planned.

“It was bogus, but the ar­gu­ment on our side was, ‘Well, he can’t do that,’ in­stead of say­ing, ‘He can’t do that, but here’s our plan for your re­gion that’s been strug­gling for a long time now,” said Pennsylvania Demo­crat­ic strategist Mike Mikus.

Michigan Demo­crat­ic Party chair Brandon Dillon said he thinks the DNC must find a way to be more ac­com­mod­at­ing of re­gion­al dif­fer­ences, not­ing the mes­sage in his state might “need to be more as­sert­ive on things like trade and eco­nom­ic fair­ness than the mes­sage might be in a state like Cali­for­nia.”

The same could be said for urb­an and rur­al areas with­in the same state, as voters liv­ing out­side some thriv­ing cit­ies are look­ing for bold pro­pos­als and drastic change. Many of these areas have been de­clin­ing for gen­er­a­tions, which raises the pos­sib­il­ity that nearly every elec­tion go­ing for­ward could be ap­proached as a change elec­tion for them.

The­or­et­ic­ally, this should present an op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats in 2018.

Des­pite ac­know­ledge­ment that Trump had a more simplist­ic and clear eco­nom­ic pitch, most Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials who spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al said they don’t think there is any­thing wrong with most of the party’s plat­form. Pri­or­it­ies such as equal pay, a high­er min­im­um wage, and af­ford­able health care shouldn’t be scrapped, they say. On those is­sues, the party may just need to re­con­sider how it com­mu­nic­ates with voters.

That leads to or­gan­iz­ing ef­forts. If there is gen­er­al agree­ment that the party did a poor job con­nect­ing with rur­al and ex­urb­an voters, the ques­tion then be­comes how to reach them. The me­dia land­scape is be­com­ing more com­plex, and is com­plic­ated by so­cial-me­dia feeds clogged with fake news that re­in­force people’s par­tis­an be­liefs. If the in­ter­net is a messy place, it could be­come in­creas­ingly ne­ces­sary to talk to people dir­ectly.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to get a mes­sage out to every­one,” said Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Martha Lan­ing. “We’re find­ing the ways we’ve used in the past aren’t work­ing. So we really want to em­phas­ize a grass­roots neigh­bor-to-neigh­bor sys­tem, talk­ing in your com­munity about what needs to change for people’s lives to get bet­ter.”

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