The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Blue wave’ or ‘left-wing mob’? Anti-Trump fervor fuels a new movement aimed squarely at winning elections.

Lorraine Wilburn, who is running for a state House seat in Ohio, talks with voters during the Perry Township Oktoberfest at Hartwick Park in Canton, Ohio, on Sept. 15. (Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio — President Trump’s political nightmare, a mother of two in a custom campaign polo, bounded down the driveway like a sweepstakes winner. She had just chatted up a shirtless Republican out to mow his lawn, and he liked what she said.

“He’s with me on the cost of health care and preexisting conditions,” Lorraine Wilburn, a first-time Democratic candidate for the Ohio statehouse, told her 11-year-old son, Finn. “He said he would take a look at me.”

Finn was used to this sort of enthusiasm, ever since his mother started attending liberal activist meetings after the 2016 election. He had learned not to be surprised if Mom started sounding like a comic book heroine akin to Wonder Woman, whose image she keeps on her phone.

“We are fighting for the mortal soul of our country,” Wilburn continued, beaming, as though such struggles can be won in quiet cul-de-sacs outside Canton on a sleepy Saturday morning.

If the Nov. 6 midterm elections turn into what many Democrats hope will be a “blue wave,” swamping Republican majorities from Congress to state legislatures nationwide, it will have been powered in part by a new and sprawling network of activists on the left who, like Wilburn, have leaped into action over the past two years — energized by their deep desire to thwart the rise of Trump and his agenda.

With Democrats eyeing the 2018 elections as a chance for a blue wave, here's how they're fighting to win the 24 seats they need to take control of the House. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Origins of a movement

Like the conservative tea party groups that rose up after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and that helped Republicans retake the House and gain power in state legislatures in 2010, this new liberal movement has emerged largely outside the traditional party structure.

It is led by hundreds of thousands of mostly white, college-educated, middle-aged women who trace their inspiration to the inaugural women’s marches in January 2017 and whose ambitions have only grown amid a succession of disagreements with Trump, including over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

What began with meetings at diners and public libraries has matured into a sprawling array of overlapping groups, some intensely local and operating on shoestring budgets and others well-financed and professional.

National networks with names such as Indivisible, Action Together and Together We Will serve as organizing umbrellas for thousands of far-flung, self-directed activists. New national organizations including Swing Left, Sister District and Flippable have more-centralized operations targeting specific races. Still other efforts, such as Mobilize, are little more than new technology platforms that allow activists to connect to campaigns online. All told, this loosely woven framework has added up to a potentially potent force, new on the political left, with a singular goal of winning elections.

But its task is not easy. New polls show that Trump’s base also has grown increasingly energized, particularly in the wake of the Kavanaugh battle. The president’s approval rating has ticked upward, and he has taken to predicting a “red wave” that will turn back any rising Democratic tide while mocking liberal activists as an “angry, left-wing mob.”

Republican Senate candidates have gained ground in conservative states such as North Dakota, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, where Democrats had hoped their energized supporters could deliver victories but where losses would all but ensure continued GOP control of that chamber.

The energized left could prove more decisive in the fight for control of the House and state legislatures, where the battle is being waged in several dozen Republican-held suburban districts in which highly educated female voters have considerable sway. But even those contests are tight. Although national polls show that Democrats hold a double-digit advantage when voters are asked which party they intend to back in their local House race, a Washington Post-Schar School survey this month of 69 battleground districts showed Democrats with a relatively narrow edge of 50 percent to 46 percent.

With predictions of a "blue wave" on the rise, The Washington Post's polling director Scott Clement dissects the signs pointing to a tough election for the GOP. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Making connections

Thin margins of error have not discouraged the new foot soldiers of the Democratic resistance. They don’t cover their faces with bandannas, speak of socialist revolution or get lost in debates about the best model for Medicare expansion.

Instead, many of them juggle campaign events with school commutes and soccer practice. They leave the kids with their husbands to march, come out of retirement to register voters and form close bonds with neighbors who were strangers when Hillary Clinton was the presumptive president. An aspiring blue wave with a decidedly pink hue, they are women defined by a desire to atone for their relative inaction in 2016.

“People are making social connections that they really, really like,” said Abby Karp, an organizer for Swing Left in North Carolina, who works days as a dean at a private school in Greensboro. “I don’t even have a Facebook page anymore. I have a political page. I don’t know what my cousin is doing. I know what canvass is coming up.”

Like the tea party rebellion, this resistance was sparked by a new, culturally transformative president who promised change backed by his party’s control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Conservative activists then and liberal activists now testify to many of the same symptoms that drove them to house parties and protests: sleepless nights, a fear for their children’s future, and an existential anxiety about the country they love and the values they hold dear.

Crystal Sousa, a Democratic teacher in Denair, in California’s Central Valley, who was moved by Trump’s victory to run for a seat on the local school board that had long been Republican-held until she won, remembers walking upstairs on election night to find her 15-year-old daughter. She was in her bedroom Googling houses and teaching jobs in Canada, because she thought the family would have to move because she had a preexisting medical condition.

Sousa now coordinates with 12 grass-roots groups in the area and hundreds of volunteers who drive out two hours from the coast to the valley every weekend to knock on doors to unseat Rep. Jeff Denham, the local Republican in a district Clinton won.

“I didn’t realize it was going to be life-changing,” she said of the first house party she hosted in 2017.

As a movement, the Trump resistance appeared more quickly and grew larger than the tea party did after Obama took office, said Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard who has studied both. “They are not demanding purity,” she said of the new uprising. “They are going to revitalize the roots of the Democratic Party and they are going to feminize it, but they are not going to turn into Bernie Sanders.”

The nation’s self-sorting has left blue urban areas surrounded by seas of red, and that has prompted a resistance on the move as well. Brooklyn liberals, lacking competitive races nearby, travel Saturdays to rural Pennsylvania to walk neighborhoods.

“People say you are doing so much,” said Sandra Sullivan-Dunbar, a theology professor at Loyola University, who is organizing multiple groups in the Chicago area through Sister District, a group working on legislative races in other states. “I say it’s cheaper than therapy.”

Efforts are often jury-rigged from the ground up. At a congressional fundraiser at a restaurant in Albuquerque in late August, members of the local Indivisible group — part of one of the largest networks opposing Trump — helped stage a silent auction that netted nearly $13,000 for Democratic House candidate Xochitl Torres Small, who has a shot at winning a Republican-held seat. The tour of a nearby Navajo rug market went for $120. The Indian food feast for six sold for $360.

ActBlue, a central conduit for Democratic campaign contributions, has recorded 4.5 million contributors so far in the 2018 cycle, with about 61 percent of the money coming from women. That compares with 1.5 million donations in the 2014 cycle, when about 52 percent of the money came from women.

“Coming together is the antidote. It’s the antithesis of the divisiveness,” said Lauren Friedman, an Ohio state Senate candidate and mother of three, who started organizing with Wilburn in Canton days after Trump’s election. “Even us just going and canvassing — that is making a change.”

Wilburn still remembers her disbelief on election night in 2016. A liberal activist for years, she did not volunteer that year. “I used the excuse of being a busy mom for checking out of the process for a moment,” she said. “Even those of us who are involved had gotten too complacent.”

Within days, she had connected with Friedman, another mother at her children’s school, through the Facebook page of Pantsuit Nation, a national pro-Clinton group. Everything since has been a blur, the dozens of Facebook groups she has joined, the meetings with congressional staff members, the seven buses they chartered to bring 350 people to the inaugural Women’s March in Washington, that first time they booked the local library for a meeting of the group now called Action Together Stark.

More than 50 attended, then more than 150 came to the second gathering, then more than 200, almost all of them women with similar backgrounds.

After Wilburn decided to run for a local seat, she persuaded Friedman, who had served as a Navy intelligence specialist in the Persian Gulf, to run as well. Both women quit their jobs to run full time.

“I tell her, ‘You save the world, and I’ll make the tacos,’ ” said Wilburn’s husband, Jake, who wears his wife’s campaign shirt, which includes an image of Wonder Woman.

They live in Stark County, Ohio, a bellwether of the ultimate bellwether state, where Obama won twice before Trump walloped Clinton by 17 points, the largest Republican victory since Ronald Reagan in 1984. The races they chose are not easy ones, far off the national radar. The last time Friedman’s Senate seat was contested, in 2014, the Democrat won only 33 percent of the vote. Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in Wilburn’s House district in the past two cycles.

But by the time they decided to run for office, a new liberal infrastructure had sprung up around them, shifting their view of what was possible.

A group of female filmmakers, One Vote at a Time, flew out a team of six to shoot and produce free video ads for them, while a separate collection of ad executives in California, Civic Power of Media, offered to take over Friedman’s social media efforts through the election. Red2Blue, a group born of resistance meetings at a Brooklyn synagogue, has organized text-message canvassing for Friedman from the Canton voter file, communicating through Slack with activists nationwide.

Another group, Code Blue, founded by a Los Angeles television producer of reality food shows, has been phoning voters in the district for Wilburn. Matriots, an Ohio political action committee founded by six Columbus women who attended the Women’s March, has been sending campaign checks. Run for Something, a group co-founded by the Clinton campaign’s email director, provided candidate training.

The work on behalf of Wilburn and Friedman benefits Democrats up the ticket. When Wilburn hands out literature, she includes the entire Democratic slate, pushing votes for Sen. Sherrod Brown, gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray and Ken Harbaugh, a Navy pilot who has the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a Republican-held seat.

It is too soon to know what the effect will be or whether the homogeneity of the early efforts will make it more difficult to connect with voters who do not resemble the new activists. Many of the grass-roots groups have made efforts to appeal to black and Latino voters, a crucial demographic for Democrats, with limited success.

In 2017, Skocpol, the Harvard researcher, sent surveys to the memberships of all the resistance groups she had identified in eight counties that Trump had won in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The 337 activists who replied fit a remarkably narrow demographic: 90 percent were women, 90 percent were white, and 83 percent had either bachelor’s or graduate degrees. The median age was 55.

On a recent Friday night, the McHenry County Democratic Party gathered at Cathy Johnson’s home in Marengo, Ill. — almost all of them women. When they entered, the first thing they saw was a table covered in all the necessary tools: postcards, stamps and labels with the names of voters organized by district.

“There’s something new to be angry about every day,” said Kathryn Potter, 34, a stay-at-home mother who lives in the 6th Congressional District.