In recent weeks, Democrats have scored huge electoral wins in Virginia, cultivated public opposition to the Republican tax plan, purged two liberal stars accused of sexual misconduct and gotten closer to winning a Senate race in Alabama that should be out of reach in such a conservative state.
But they still can’t agree on what the party stands for. From immigration to banking reform to taxes to sexual harassment, many in the party say it does not have a unified message to spread around the country. Those concerns flared up at a party meeting over the weekend in Washington.
“Anybody running for office right now has to talk about the reality that people are facing in their own lives. People aren’t interested in abstractions,” said Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid. “Obviously, Trump’s behavior is in many ways repugnant, and that’s obviously an issue. But candidates have to talk about how they’re going to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. And if you do that in an authentic way, it will resonate.”
Democrats tumbled into the #MeToo moment by successfully urging Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign following accusations of sexual misconduct, and the party triumphed in Virginia in November, winning all three statewide offices on the ballot and more than a dozen legislative seats. Democrats now lead in polling ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Regardless of whether Democratic nominee Doug Jones wins a Senate seat in Alabama, the party expects voters to remember President Trump’s embrace of Republican nominee Roy Moore.
But pulling those advantages into a coherent message remains elusive in Trump’s tweet-driven Washington. Instead, Democrats are continuing to argue among themselves over how to present themselves to voters.
In addition, the bitterness cultivated during the party’s 2016 presidential nominating contest has not fully faded. The Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission, launched to settle disputes that surfaced last year between the Hillary Clinton and Sanders camps, on Friday and Saturday suggested new rules for 2020 intended to open up the nominating process to more voices — and to break the establishment’s grip on the process.
The commission has also become a place for each faction of the party to vent about what was lost last year. Commission members from both camps warned that the party has not solved the problems with branding and organization that led to its 2016 losses.
“All I will do is refer you to all those silly news stories in September of 2016 that said, ‘Oh, Hillary Clinton has 77 field offices in Pennsylvania and Donald Trump only has two,’ ” said Elaine Karmack, a Clinton appointee to the commission. “Donald Trump didn’t need 77 because he had a fully fledged, very professional Republican Party that has been operating for decades now. We are constantly beat by these guys.”
Nomiki Konst, a New York-based Sanders supporter, warned that the party needs to quickly clean up, using the public meeting to accuse past DNC leaders of earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars for no-bid contracts with just a handful of political consultants.
“We don’t have time. We have . . . state legislatures controlled by Republicans and poor state party chairs” struggling to raise money with little support from national Democrats, she said.
“All that money went to presidential races, but it was burned — lit on fire,” Konst added. “And who suffers as a result of some consultants getting third, fourth and fifth homes? The American people — people being rounded up by” Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Struggles with branding have been evident in Alabama, where national leaders have worked to avoid linking themselves to Jones. Unlike in Virginia, where DNC Chairman Tom Perez live-tweeted several campaign visits, the party and allies, including Planned Parenthood, have left few footprints. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and other black lawmakers made campaign stops this weekend to build support for Jones among black voters. The party's Senate super PAC created an Alabama-centric shell PAC, Highway 31, which has spent $2.9 million and will not have to disclose donors until the election is over.
Moore and allies have ripped into Jones’s Democratic ties, airing ads with an old photo of Jones smiling next to Clinton. In his fitful endorsements of Moore, which also have been cut into ads, Trump has called the Democrat a “liberal” who would be a “puppet” of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — an example of the basic word associations that can still sting Democrats in red states.
Other divisions also linger.
Four moderate Democrats joined with Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee to advance rolling back Dodd-Frank restrictions imposed on the industry in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a move condemned by progressive stars such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
And after spending most of the fall saying they would fight Trump and Republicans to enact two top liberal priorities — changes in immigration policy and shoring up the Affordable Care Act — Schumer and Pelosi in recent days shifted gears.
Now, they are more focused on economic issues that might resonate more in swing districts and red states next year, such as underfunded pensions, boosting funds for infrastructure projects and the need to buoy opioid addiction prevention programs. In the process, they may be signaling that the other goals may have to wait longer.
That goal makes some sense, given that Democrats say they must find a way to reach voters who supported Trump last year if they are to make gains in 2018 and 2020. They continue to struggle: A late-summer push trumpeting an economic theme, “A Better Deal,” was drowned out.
In polling, Democrats and Republicans are trusted about evenly regarding to handle the economy. But recent polls by Quinnipiac University and Pew Research find Democrats with a single-digit advantage on trust to handle taxes; a roughly 20-point advantage on trust to handle health care; and a roughly 10-point edge in the generic congressional ballot among registered voters. Trump’s continuing low approval ratings also bode well for Democrats.
Party leaders seated around the conference room during the weekend meeting said there are encouraging, if small, signs of hope up and down the ballot.
“We had 3,000 people show up for our dinner; the Republicans had 500 show up for theirs,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said. He added that Democrats “are turning what started as frustration with Washington and what was happening in Des Moines with the state government into energy and action.”
Nebraska Democratic Party Chairman Jane Kleeb said that her once-depleted organization has recruited more than 55 candidates to run in local and statewide races — up from no more than 30 in past years.
“We had 125 people show up on a Sunday for a full-day training,” she said. “Campaign staff, candidates, grass-roots leaders — and the candidate track was the fullest.”
But more striking to Kleeb is evidence that what’s happening in Washington is seeping into conversations among everyday people far earlier than normal in a political cycle.
“I was at the Walgreens, and I overheard a guy say on the phone: ‘Do you know if your house is worth more than $500,000? You’re going to get hurt by the tax bill,’ ” she said. “In Lincoln, Nebraska! Out smoking on his break.”
Still, trouble with Conyers, Franken and others has scrambled the party's messaging, especially during Democrats’ fight against the tax cut, raising questions about how the party is going to win over elusive Trump supporters and find a way to change the subject.
Even Democrats’ handling of those accusations of misconduct has created divergent views. Some party leaders and activists said that Democrats did not give Conyers and Franken sufficient time to make their cases.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), a member of the unity commission, said she believed the accusations. “But when did we become a nation that people are accused, and they have no right to defend themselves? When did we become judge and jury?” she asked. “And while the Franken situation was going on, the only one they were calling to resign was John.”
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, said his party will focus on Republican lawmakers from high-tax states or suburban districts who vote for the GOP plan. He called the Republican tax plan “egregious” and one that “they’ll pay a price for at the voting booths next November. I think they know it, too. I think for some of them it’s almost like a suicide pact.”
Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), who is in charge of recruiting new House Democratic candidates, said the Conyers and Franken affairs were merely the “current highest-profile thing” accentuating the strength of his party’s record-setting candidate recruitment so far, which already tilted heavily toward female Democrats.
“I think that women candidates are going to be stronger than before; I think the women turnout will be stronger than before; I think women’s turnout for our candidates will be stronger than it’s been before,” he said.