DES MOINES — A growing number of Democratic lawmakers who are increasingly concerned that their party might fall short again in elections next year are on the road this summer to buck up beleaguered party activists and recruit new candidates.
Some have broader political ambitions, but most of these little-known Democrats are being invited by local and state party activists seeking out fresh faces to help raise money, recruit candidates and woo new voters. It’s a reflection of the growing voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s top leaders in Washington — and sheer worry that the party may once again spoil its chances.
Struggling to rebuild its ranks after being wiped out of power in Washington and some state capitals, Democrats run the risk of more setbacks next year, even as President Trump’s approval ratings tumble. The party is in dire straits, trailing national Republicans by some measures in fundraising. The Republican National Committee outraised its Democratic counterpart by more than $6 million in July.
These challenges come as an increasing number of new Democratic congressional candidates say that they won’t vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to lead their caucus in the future, signaling that they, like many of the voters they meet, want generational change as well as ideological change inside the caucus.
Among those traveling this summer is Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who supported Pelosi in last year’s leadership vote but at 41 is among the caucus’s younger members. She recently went far outside her district in Queens to visit the Iowa State Fair. Local Democrats picked her up at the airport, whisked her to the site of the famous butter cow and made sure she sampled such fair staples as a pork chop on a stick and fried Oreo cookies.
“I might come back for breakfast,” she joked as she posed for photos with a pork chop, “the food here is so good.”
Meng, who is a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is focusing much of her political travel on rural areas in a bid to better understand how to win back voters who have drifted away from her party. She said she feels the need to reach out because, “We don’t have the numbers, honestly, in the House and the Senate, in the White House.”
She said she’s not in Iowa because she wants to run for president — but other House Democrats are already running or clearly thinking about it.
“I’m not here to test waters,” she told a group of Des Moines-area Democrats as she explained why she was visiting the state for the first time. “I am here to do what so many people around this country are doing right now — being more involved than ever before in our party. I’m learning to be a better listener.”
The Democrats hitting the road this summer are different from the party leaders voters are accustom to seeing. One is Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), 54, who has announced he will quit Congress to run for president in 2020. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), 44, one of the most frequent travelers, is campaigning for Democrats in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Iowa, while declining to rule out a presidential bid. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), 36, represents a San Francisco-area district, but he is an Iowa native and keeps visiting his birth state and wooing party activists.
The same Des Moines-area Democrats who hosted Meng are hosting Ryan and Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), 55, and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), 38, for a major party fundraiser next month. Moulton, who strongly supported Ryan’s bid to unseat Pelosi, has been the subject of recent reports about a fledgling presidential bid and is helping recruit fellow military veterans to run for office.
“We’re seeing folks who aren’t an Obama, Biden, Clinton or a Sanders, and that’s what we as a party want to see,” said Sean Bagniewski, the party chairman in Polk County. He explained that Iowans are especially eager for Democrats to “focus on an economic agenda. As long as we have folks from the national party who are willing to come in and talk about that, we’re willing to host them.”
Pelosi last visited Iowa in 2016, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) made recruiting trips to Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of last year’s congressional elections, aides said. But neither top party leader makes frequent stops in early primary states or traditionally Republican states, unless it’s to attend big-city, closed-door fundraisers.
Ever since challenging Pelosi, Ryan has been fielding invites from Democrats across the country who are eager to meet him, and he has eagerly obliged. While he’s taken a pass on running for governor of Ohio, he didn’t say no when asked if he is considering a presidential campaign. “I want to drive this national message,” he said. “Where it goes, it goes.”
Lucas Meyer, president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, which hosted Ryan last week, said that members of his group appreciated that the Ohioan “is a young guy, he has a progressive message that people like and like to hear and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.”
Swalwell is doing most of his travel on behalf of the Future Forum, a group of 27 younger House Democrats that he leads. The forum is recruiting 30- and 40-somethings to run for Congress next year. Swalwell has devoted a notable amount of time in recent weeks to Iowa, using his family roots in tiny Sac City as an excuse to visit.
After making a stop to meet with a potential candidate in Omaha, he traveled across the river into Pottawattamie County, Iowa, where he headlined an event for local Democrats that local leaders said drew a bigger-than-expected crowd partly because activists were curious to meet a face they had seen frequently on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
During the event, he announced plans to return for a similar Labor Day fundraiser. “People were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to tell my friends,’ ” said Linda Nelson, chairman of Pottawattamie County Democratic Party. “He’s helping us build a crowd.”
Geri Frederiksen, a Democrat from Council Bluffs, credited Swalwell for taking the time to speak with a 24-year-old man who local Democrats had convinced to run for a school board seat.
“Congressman Swalwell has told him he’d help him, he wants to know the outcome of the election,” Frederiksen said.
Swalwell explained that he is merely “doing my part” to help rebuild the party. Democrats “just want to reclaim our country. We have seen where the president and Republican leadership in the House and Senate have taken us in the last seven months. No one on our side thinks that’s where we should be going.”
Delaney, who flirted with running for governor of Maryland next year, has more personal motives for making trips to early primary states. Little known outside Maryland, he’s a self-made financier and one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with an estimated net worth of more than $90 million. He stunned some colleagues by announcing plans to run for the White House, and he says he plans to have offices and staff in Iowa and New Hampshire by the fall. He plans to instruct his campaign team to also work with Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats to make gains in next year’s midterm elections — a move that he thinks can help him dispel the notion that a little-known House lawmaker can’t win the presidency.
“The reason members of the House do not become president is because they don’t run for it,” he said. “It’s hard to become president if you don’t run for it.”
Other Democrats thinking about running for president are only beginning to make overtures to party activists. According to several Democratic activists in the early primary states, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is set to visit Iowa in September. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has made overtures to Democrats in Iowa and South Carolina. Other names talked about as potential contenders, like Democratic Sens. Kamala D. Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have so far declined invitations to headline fundraisers or give speeches, saying that they’re not yet ready to stir the pot.
In addition to Iowa, Meng has recently visited Louisiana and made a stop in Central New York to meet with Democratic activists from 14 counties where there are few elected Democrats.
During her meeting with Democrats in Des Moines, one participant asked who she considers the leader of the party
“I don’t have a good answer for you on that — is it Tom? Is it Chuck? Is it Nancy?” Meng said, referring to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, Schumer and Pelosi. “I think we are hearing from a lot of newer members, younger surrogates of the party, and so no one can stand up and say, ‘Here I am, the appointed voice of our party.’ ”
A woman asked, “Do you think our country will survive the next four years of Donald Trump?”
“Yes, I think we’ll survive, but I think we have to work hard,” Meng said. “There are no shortcuts anymore. We have to really lay the groundwork and get back to the basics. It’s going to be really, really hard. At the end, our country will be stronger.”