Meet 2020's Millennial Kingmaker

Democrats will compete for president in New Hampshire soon enough. But they’ll have to get through this guy first.

Sen. Jeff Merkley at the New Hampshire Young Democrats Summer BBQ in Portsmouth, N.H. on July 12.
New Hampshire Young Democrats
Sept. 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H.—A casual dinner with a governor. A quick text to a congressman. And a few good chats with “Jeff,” a senator from out west. In the lead-up to 2020, one rogue millennial has a strategy for his spare time: Court the country’s top Democrats on his own terms.

Lucas Meyer, a burly 28-year-old who runs New Hampshire’s biggest group for young progressives, has quietly created a back channel for presidential aspirants looking to enter the state surreptitiously.

And since President Trump took office, nearly a dozen top Democrats have lumbered up north to use it.

“We want to leverage 2020 into our organization,” Meyer says about the New Hampshire Young Democrats over lunch just steps away from the Statehouse. “But we had to build something that people trust.”

To get some of the party’s top leaders to trust him—a twentysomething activist fond of four-letter words—he began by creating a dedicated place for Democrats to talk freely to young people. And in the heart of the first-primary state, Meyer has been building a safe space for leaders to court the generation most likely to reshape the political landscape ahead of the presidential election.

Citing hype about the midterms and 2020, Meyer rattles off a “sick list” of national figures from all branches of government with whom he’s managed to score in-person meetings.

When “Jeff” wanted to come to town—a first-name reference to two-term Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon—Meyer facilitated six events in far-flung pockets of the state. The treatment was similar for Rep. John Delaney, the only declared presidential candidate, and fellow Reps. Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton, as well as Govs. John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock, all thought to be exploring presidential runs.

“The most important thing is the autonomy,” Meyer says about his group’s status, pointing to his latest selling point: the New Hampshire Young Democrats’ independence from the state party and the Democratic National Committee.

“For the presidential folks, we’re a nicer entry point into the state because we’re not the state party,” he says.

That status has been critical for building relationships with potential candidates who want to touch down without national fanfare. And while Meyer is not bound by party rules of candidate neutrality, his pitch to national leaders remains the same: “We will set up a weekend for you. You can effectively test the waters,” he says, with one distinction.

“It’s at their discretion. If they want us to be quiet, we’ll be quiet.”

In the lead-up to the midterms, two of the Senate’s top Democratic stars, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have stayed away from the Granite State. But Meyer says the “magic ball” leaders—those he’d most like to meet with one-on-one—could come for a lower-profile visit, as others have.

For now, he’s got other national aspirants to court, sometimes as informally as through text messages—like he did with Ryan, a House member from Ohio, where Meyer went to college.

Recalling a joint event over the summer, Meyer joked about Ryan’s ability to read the crowd. “He started his thing with China and trade, and a group of young people were like, ‘What, dude?’ But then he went into this whole thing about his mindfulness and nutrition, and people were like, ‘This is amazing.’”

Later, Ryan flew Meyer under the radar to Washington for a policy speech to a centrist think tank. During the trip, Meyer bumped into former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the building’s elevator—just in time to deliver his own pitch. He hasn’t scored a Landrieu sit-down, but he likes the idea of a mayor presidential candidate, referencing Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti, whom he thought was “cool” after meeting with him in the state.

On another occasion, Meyer recalls being impressed by Bullock, the Montana governor and head of the National Governors Association, who has taken multiple steps toward a 2020 bid.

“I had dinner with him,” Meyer says about their meeting in August. “He fits into New Hampshire well.”

As leader of the only statewide group that's recruiting, training, and electing a new generation of progressives, Meyer has advised and trained candidates running in primary elections through NHYD's 603 Forward Program. Since 2016, he’s grown the organization from 400 members to nearly 6,000; the group was the first state chapter in the country to hire a full-time staffer, a model later followed by the Young Democrats in West Virginia.

On Tuesday, 15 NHYD-supported candidates won their competitive primary elections for state office. But the highest-profile example came from the man whose Executive Council campaign Meyer ran as a 24-year-old in 2014: Chris Pappas.

Meyer predicted in an interview just before Labor Day that Pappas would easily win the 1st District nomination to succeed Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Pappas, who could become the first gay House member from the state, won by double digits.

Still, Meyer was quick to point out where other Democrats may have erred, including Moulton’s endorsement of Pappas’s opponent Maura Sullivan. “That’s not a smart thing to do if you’re trying to build favor in the state,” he said of the House member from Massachusetts, whom he met with for a canvas kickoff.

Part operative, part fundraiser, Meyer—whose love for political schmoozing goes way back to when “Tipper Gore did a luncheon at our house”—is building the type of track record that could draw even more national Democrats into his orbit.

Since becoming president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats in 2015, Meyer has led the group to double its fundraising each year, working in a volunteer capacity while holding down a full-time job as an adviser for public and government affairs at a law firm downtown.

The state chapter is far out-raising the national organization, the Young Democrats of America, which had raised $9,190 this cycle as of the end of June, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The NHYD says it has brought in $177,000.

And while Meyer admits to a “complicated” relationship with the influential state party, he says they work together toward the same broad Democratic goals.

Ray Buckley, the long-standing state party chairman, lavished praise on the group’s efforts. “The New Hampshire Young Democrats have transformed into the best organized and most effective chapter in the country,” he said.

With the midterms less than two months away, Meyer hopes to push through more downballot candidate wins. But he doesn’t hide his penchant for presidential politics.

“If you had told me a year ago I would have any relationship with Jeff Merkley, I would have been like, ‘Who?’” he says. “And now I’m like, ‘What up Jeff!’”

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