Large grassroots protests against the White House agenda and activist pressure on Democrats are helping to push lawmakers into a harder line against President Trump’s Cabinet picks.
But while Capitol Hill Democrats have been buoyed by the street activism, the party’s political committees are taking an arm’s-length approach to actions like the huge Jan. 21 women’s marches and weekend protests against Trump’s curbs on Muslim’s travel to the U.S.—in part because they’re wary of appearing to coopt movements that grew organically.
In Congress, Senate Democrats have raised the temperature of the confirmation fights, forcing delays in committee votes on several nominees. One progressive lawmaker said members see what’s happening at the grassroots.
“I think the public voice does strengthen the determination to resist the path that the Republican majority is setting,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told National Journal. Freshman Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said the protests provide “great momentum” overall.
Outside the Capitol, however, the party has only a limited ability to directly benefit from the mass protests. National campaign committees, state parties, and candidates are low on campaign staff and money at the moment. The Democratic National Committee is largely hamstrung until members elect a new chair later in February.
The candidate field is still mostly unsettled in races expected to be competitive in the 2018 midterms. Even the two Virginia Democrats running in a high-profile race for governor this year are still in the process of hiring staff with their primary more than four months away.
However, the party’s limited ability to harness the energy from the swell of anti-Trump protests isn’t necessarily a bad thing, many Democrats say. In an antiestablishment environment, having a massive, grassroots movement is more powerful in the eyes of the public and the media than one being orchestrated or branded by the Democratic Party.
If Democrats insert themselves too aggressively into the protests, it could turn off some who identify as independents or those who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders and are still sour over last year’s presidential-primary process.
“If the DNC or Priorities had tried to sit down and plot the Women’s March, it would have failed,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, the super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. “And so I think we need to give some space for the movement to breathe; we need to give new voices a chance to speak. It doesn’t discount experience or people who have worked on campaigns. I’m one of them, but we’re not the only solution to the problem.”
In some instances, party officials have found their efforts aren’t needed to direct activist energy. One DNC staff member got in touch with the Florida Democratic Party this week about organizing a protest outside President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, timed to happen while Trump is there visiting this weekend. But the Florida Democrats reported back that a few locals had already created a Facebook event to organize such a protest, and there are now nearly 4,000 RSVPs.
Former Rep. Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the two Democrats running for Virginia governor, attended the Women’s March on Washington, and Perriello joined protesters rallying against Trump’s refugee ban at Dulles International Airport over the weekend. But, hesitant to appear as though he was commandeering or taking credit for the protests, Perriello first encouraged supporters in a tweet on Friday to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, and waited until Tuesday to send out a fundraising email linking the protests to his campaign.
It’s early yet, but Democratic operatives see reason to be optimistic that the current energy will translate into support for Democratic candidates. While not explicitly party-led, outside groups have been aggressive in directing activists to train their fire on members of Congress and elected officials by calling their offices and attending local town halls, rather than only donating to progressive organizations, attending rallies, or engaging on social media.
Websites and documents like the “Indivisible Guide” and SwingLeft.org have also cropped up directing those distraught over Trump’s election to take these types of productive measures. The guide dubs itself “a practical guide to resisting the Trump agenda,” and Swing Left directs people to their nearest swing House district.
That’s not to say major Democratic organizations haven’t been doing anything to direct the energy. EMILY’s List held a boot camp for prospective candidates on the weekend of the Women’s March in D.C. The DNC is also working with state party staff to direct volunteers to a call tool on their website to contact their U.S. senators and encourage them to oppose Trump’s Cabinet nominees and Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So far, volunteers have made 50,000 calls through the tool, according to a DNC staff member.
In the Capitol, Merkley on Monday vowed to filibuster Trump’s Supreme Court pick, and on Tuesday Democrats forced at least a daylong delay in the Judiciary Committee vote on Jeff Sessions for attorney general. In a separate action Tuesday, Democrats boycotted a Finance Committee meeting, delaying votes on Trump’s nominees to run the Treasury and Health and Human Services departments.
At press time, it was not clear whether Democrats would seek to prevent a Wednesday vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Scott Pruitt’s nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Democrats had reasons for their actions: In boycotting the scuttled Finance Committee vote, they pointed to new information about foreclosure practices at the bank that Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin once headed and HHS pick Tom Price’s purchase of biomedical stock at a discounted price.
But lawmakers are also facing pressure from the Left to take a tougher line against the Cabinet picks. One activist said grassroots activity paid off in the boycott of the Mnuchin and Price votes.
“This is a direct response to grassroots pressure. There is absolutely no way Senate Democrats would be doing this if their base wasn’t demanding it,” said Kurt Walters, campaign director of the group Demand Progress.
The group said it had organized more than 600,000 petition signatures and worked with other groups to drive 41,000 anti-Mnuchin phone calls to Senate offices.
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