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.”