Liberal activists are unleashing their fury on the Democratic Party establishment for failing to recognize that rampant disgust with President Donald Trump is now fueling an enthusiasm among voters that could turn even Republican districts blue.
After a longshot Democratic candidate came within seven points of winning a Kansas district that has been Republican for more than 20 years, progressive strategists blamed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for not putting enough money and resources into the race, and national operatives more broadly for too little attention.
"To the Washington Democratic insiders who wrote this race off before it began, it’s time to wake up and realize that the grassroots expects this resistance effort to be waged unflinchingly in every single county and every single state across the country,” said Jim Dean, president of Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group.
Bernie Sanders’ former presidential campaign team, now running a group called Our Revolution, piled on: “The Democratic Party can no longer ignore districts that they consider ‘safe’ for Republicans.”
Even the Democratic candidate in Kansas himself said the party needs to become active everywhere – even in conservative districts and states.
“(DCCC) and DNC need to be doing a 50-state strategy,” said James Thompson in his concession speech.
Thompson’s strength headed into the final days of the Kansas special election stunned Republicans and forced national GOP officials to make a major, last-minute effort to help their nominee.
Democrats in Washington – at the Democratic National Committee and the DCCC, which is House Democrats’ campaign arm – flatly reject the charge that they did anything wrong in Kansas, arguing that involvement from the national party would have been counterproductive and an unwise use of scarce resources. For many reasons, moving the needle in a district this conservative is difficult for a group like the DCCC.
But the split over Kansas is emblematic of the rift growing wider between the activists and the operative class as two wings of the Democratic Party struggle to find common ground not only on policy but on the strategy and tactics that might lead them back to power.
“The DCCC will continue its longstanding and failed model of helping only most favored candidates until grassroots disgust makes that stance untenable,” said Jeff Hauser, a longtime progressive strategist. “Taking `chances,’ especially in a cycle which might well prove to be a wave, should be the DCCC's default approach.”
Democratic allies of the DCCC have argued that running TV ads in the Kansas district would do more harm than good because Republicans could have used them to argue that Thompson was a tool of the national party – a potent criticism in a conservative area. They also say that calls for the party to help with mail or field staff would have taken months of preparation for a race nobody knew would be competitive until last week. (The DCCC did not conduct a poll of the race until days before the election.)
“Everybody’s internal numbers on both sides didn’t have this being a race in time to start a field operation,” said Ian Russell, who served as DCCC’s political director last year.
He added that the committee also had to be realistic in its assessment of the race, which many party strategists deemed unwinnable even with an energized Democratic base. Any investment from Democrats would have been met with an equal or greater response from Republicans, while donors might have been misled into thinking that a victory was imminent.
“The DCCC has to be honest with its donors about where they have opportunity,” Russell said. “If you cry wolf all the time, it makes it very difficult to actually move resources you have a real race.”
But that misses a larger point, some progressive leaders say. To many on the left, the party went to great lengths to ignore the race entirely, refusing to acknowledge it in emails or fundraising pitches despite the work being put into it volunteers.
Democrats could at least have set up a digital fundraising page, said Michael Whitney, who was the digital fundraising manager for Sanders’ presidential campaign, or made any other small gesture in a sign of support for those working on the ground.
“It's not about the DCCC or the DNC as an institution doing something on their own,” Whitney said. “It's about working with grassroots supporters and donors when opportunity exists to help Democrats win.”
Progressives and the DCCC have another chance to get on the same page next week, during a special House election in the north-Atlanta suburbs that both parties see as a political bellwether. The political committee has had field staffers working in the Georgia congressional district for months and is spending $250,000 on get-out-the-vote ads on African-American radio stations.
The efforts are poised to benefit Jon Ossoff, who has become a favorite of the activist left, which has helped him raise more than $8 million for his campaign in only a couple of months.
National Democrats have long had reservations about the viability of the race, but they see it as a better bet than the contest in Kansas. And DCCC officials say their involvement there – along with the relationship they’ve tried building with activists groups and the 20 staffers they sent into Republican districts in February – is proof they have a strong partnership with their party’s grassroots.
“Energy amongst Democrats is off the charts, which the DCCC recognized and acted on earlier than any previous cycle,” said Meredith Kelly, DCCC spokeswoman.
But Kelly also acknowledged that the progressive strategists might have a point about making an effort in districts where the party would normally not have a chance at victory. Now that the party has finally seen the turnout in a special election race, it can have greater confidence about analyzing future races – which could lead to a more boldness in taking on Republicans in traditionally red districts.
“We now have a good sense of energy that’s out there in terms of how it actually translates at the ballot box,” Kelly said. “That certainly is going to shape how we look at the remaining special elections and the general elections next year.”