How Three Trump-State Dem Parties Are Angling for Comebacks

Kansas, Oklahoma, and Michigan are working from the bottom up.

A voter casting a ballot at Buck Creek School near Perry, Kan. on Nov. 8, 2016.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Aug. 14, 2017, 8 p.m.

Trump-state Democrats have big plans to go small.

That’s the tactic some party officials are modeling so far with President Trump in office, suggesting wholesale shakeups in their shops will lay the groundwork for Democratic gains at local, state, and national levels in the years ahead.

Bound by losses in last year’s presidential election, Democratic party leaders in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Michigan have significantly altered their ground-game plans over the past six months, playing into a “50-state strategy on steroids” that one party official said is essential to capturing seats.

“When you lose elections, you can throw everything on the table,” said Ken Martin, president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.

Martin said the party needs a ramped-up version of the plan that former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean created a decade ago to have a shot at gains now. It’s a herculean task that’s plagued Democrats in deep-red states like Kansas and Oklahoma, neither of which have voted Democratic for president since 1964. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton last year by 36 points in Oklahoma and 21 points in Kansas.

While presidential wins there anytime soon are out of reach, Democrats are in need of comebacks at all levels. Just over six months into Trump’s first term, Democrats like Martin—who has recently met with dozens of state party leaders across the country to discuss “resistance” strategies—say the path to national gains starts hyper-locally.

Take Kansas, for example, where officials have organized 72 out of 105 county parties in recent months, up from just 40 that had met the required benchmarks to be an affiliated organization in 2014. They’ve also opened up the process for drafting a new party platform and have seen a 200 percent membership increase in their monthly donor program, the Blue Kansas Club, since January. On top of that, party officials cited some 600 candidates who have newly filed for local offices.

“They’re actually changing the way they do business,” Martin said. “Just in the last several months they’ve seen this real outpouring of energy of people running at the local level.”

It’s just one result of what Kansas Democratic Party Chair John Gibson said was a push to recruit candidates with a long-term strategy in mind. “If we only look at it as a bench-building exercise,” he said, “we’re really missing the point.”

That’s a point that would likely resonate with Gibson’s Democratic counterpart in Michigan, Brandon Dillon, who said the state party is “helping progressive nonpartisan candidates who are running for local offices across the state.” The goal is to help 250 candidates this cycle.

Before last year, Democrats hadn’t lost Michigan at the presidential level since 1988. The just-over-10,000 more votes that Trump received than Clinton resulted in a defeat that Dillon said Democrats can’t afford to repeat.

“One of the things that was lacking was grassroots organizing,” he said, pointing to a new initiative called Project 83, which aims to strengthen each county’s overall engagement. “We just hired our sixth organizer in the state, which is six more than we’ve had in the last 10 years.”

In Oklahoma, a county-by-county effort could be even more critical for tapping into large swaths of conventionally red areas, which in recent weeks have shown flashes of blue. In July, Democrats won special elections for state House and Senate vacancies in Tulsa and Oklahoma City that opened after Republican leaders resigned.

“We’ve won two out of the three, which were Republican-held seats,” Anna Langthorn, Oklahoma’s newly elected Democratic party chair, said about the recent gains. “It looks like our prospects for winning the other four are going to be pretty good as well.”

State party leaders are adding more organizers to gauge residents’ political leanings in areas that have fallen through the cracks—places such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Dillon said there are some 300,000 to 400,000 people who haven’t received much attention from either of the two parties.

In Kansas, Gibson sees similar openings in places like Oberlin, a deep-red area in Decatur County where Democrats have not historically performed well, and Garden City, the state’s most ethnically diverse area with a growing immigrant population. “They hadn’t elected party officers, but now they’re up and they’re organized and they’re trying to build coalitions within their community,” he said.

Part of that expansion means recapturing the progressive energy that infiltrated Oklahoma, Kansas, and Michigan in 2016, when Sen. Bernie Sanders topped Clinton in each in the Democratic nomination races.

In Kansas, that energy was particularly visible, with Sanders defeating Clinton in the caucuses 67 to 32 percent. Gibson said a path to victory requires fielding a Democratic candidate in all 125 state House seats. While Republicans still have an 85-40 advantage over Democrats there, the party chair said, “I think we may have openings we don’t expect.”

One surprise came in the much-closer-than-expected April special election in former Rep. Mike Pompeo’s Wichita-based seat. Racking up more impressive swings in Kansas and beyond will take increased investment from Democrats at the national level, party chairs suggested. But some leaders said they aren’t waiting for direction from the DNC.

In Michigan, Dillon said his party developed a fundraising strategy that focused on grassroots donations, instead of “traditional institutional funders.” But he said “more financial commitments from the DNC and others” will help the party “put more organizers on the ground.”

The DNC’s grassroots investment in Kansas so far amounts to roughly half of what it would cost for field organizers, Gibson said, suggesting he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the committee is headed in the right direction.

In Oklahoma, Langthorn said the party is now bringing in about $40,000 per month since she took over—a higher clip than the party has seen over the past decade, she said. Right now she spends about half on expenses, with a goal of raising about $10,000 to $20,000 more per month.

For his part, DNC Chair Tom Perez has pledged to give $10,000 to each Democratic state party per month starting in October—a $2,500 boost from current stipends—to help build grassroots support in non-election years.

Martin, who has monthly conference calls with DNC staff, with Perez often dialing in, said on a national level the party is figuring out what it can do to ensure no state is left behind in what it hopes is the start of a significant comeback.

“If you look at Kansas and Oklahoma, it’s a good example of what happens when you make strategic investments,” Martin said.

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