The Hill interview — DNC chief: I came here to win elections

The Hill interview — DNC chief: I came here to win elections
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE was only eight months into the job, but the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman’s thoughts had already turned to his legacy as he ate cornbread and barbecue chicken between campaign stops in Virginia.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Budget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight MORE (D-Mass.) and a leading progressive group declared in recent days that Perez would be judged by his ability to unite the Democratic Party, which is still dealing with deep divisions from the 2016 primary between Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE (I-Vt.) and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Democratic demolition derby Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE.

Perez spent Sunday talking about party unity on the campaign trail, but knows he’ll be judged in the short term on the party’s electoral success. Winning, he hopes, will be a salve for party wounds until Democrats can bury 2016 once and for all.

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“This is an outcomes business and legacies will be determined in no small measure by our success in winning elections,” Perez said in an interview with The Hill.

“That’s why I’m in this,” he said. “We’ve lost too many elections. I came here so we can start winning elections.”

Perez hopes that starts Tuesday, when Democrats are looking to use the Virginia governor’s race to secure their first major Trump-era victory after a dispiriting string of special election losses in 2017.

The stakes are high for Perez. Democrats expect that their candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, will defeat Republican Ed Gillespie, but the contest has tightened dramatically in recent days.

“Let me assure you, as someone who three years ago had a near-death experience on Election Day, don’t take anything for granted at the polls,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony US prosecutors bring new charges against China's Huawei Lawmakers grill Census Bureau officials after report on cybersecurity issues MORE (D-Va.) warned supporters at a joint appearance with Perez at Kline’s Dairy Bar in Staunton, Va.

Perez isn’t taking anything for granted, either. He has crossed the state ahead of Tuesday’s election, racking up hundreds of miles and more than a dozen stops in the race’s final days.

On Sunday, Perez started the day at La Jarochita in Manassas, a Spanish-language, buffet-style Mexican restaurant in a nondescript shopping center where working class families in the burgeoning immigrant community gather to eat after church.

“Hola, me llamo Thomas,” Perez says as he goes table to table, launching into his pitch about why Hispanics must get out to vote for Northam to send “una mensaje fuerte” — a strong message — to President Trump.

There, Perez makes the rounds with councilman Hector Cendejas. The DNC chairman is simultaneously seeking to fulfill his promise of fostering relationships with local party leaders who felt ignored under his predecessor, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). 

Perez has pledged that the DNC will act as more than just a vessel for the Democratic presidential nominee every four years.

“A lot of folks I meet here are surprised to hear I’m with the national party, because we haven’t shown up in the past,” Perez said. “It’s about building relationships. Success can’t be transactional.”

From there, Perez worked a grass-roots organizing event for state delegate candidate Hala Ayala in Lake Ridge, where he gave a pep talk to the three-dozen canvassers and activists who endured the rainy weather to knock on doors.

“The new Democratic National Committee is all about electing people up and down the ballot, from the school board to the White House,” Perez told the young volunteers.

After that, it was an office drop-by for state delegate candidate Elizabeth Guzman in Warrenton. Then the dairy bar with Warner to whip-up support for Northam. Perez’s day finally ended after 7 p.m. on the University of Virginia campus, where he met with the leader of the college Democrats in his dorm room.

After Tuesday, Perez will turn his attention to the 2018 midterms. Perez works in the same building as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and the two have been strategizing on the best path for Democrats to pick up the 24 seats they need to reclaim the majority.

Perez said there are 70 districts that are more competitive than Georgia’s sixth district, which Democrats lost by more than 20 points in 2016 but closed the gap to fewer than 4 points in a closely watched special election defeat this year.
“I think we have a real shot at winning the House,” Perez said, comparing the 2017 political landscape to 2005, “when we had a very unpopular president with a very unpopular agenda and a very unpopular right-wing Congress.”

A year later, in 2006, Democrats took back the House.

The real prize is the Senate. The map is stacked heavily against Democrats, with so many of the party’s incumbents seeking reelection in states Trump won. But there is hope among Democrats that GOP infighting and anti-Trump energy among grass-roots liberals will propel the party to a majority in the upper chamber.

“The thing about the Senate is that the map continues to expand,” Perez said.

Perez is eyeing pick-up opportunities in states where Democrats believe GOP infighting has left Republicans vulnerable.

Perez mentioned Arizona and Tennessee, where GOP Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcSally launches 2020 campaign Sinema will vote to convict Trump Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle MORE and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMcConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight MORE have announced they will not seek reelection after feuding bitterly with Trump. Nevada, where GOP Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerLobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play This week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report MORE has attracted a primary challenger, and Alabama, where Breitbart-backed candidate Roy Moore is a lightning rod for controversy, are also on Perez’s radar.

Perez said he’s working closely on those races with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Dems blast Barr for 'clear violation' of duty in Stone case, urge him to resign Senate Democrats introduce legislation to change impeachment trial rules Warren asks for probe of whether Trump violated law by delaying Puerto Rico funds MORE (D-Md.), Perez’s home-state senator and a “longtime friend.”

Perez is also in regular contact with his “two great mentors” — former President Obama and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE. Perez said both men have been instrumental in helping him make the transition from civil rights attorney and Labor secretary into the world of campaign politics.

“Whether it’s talking to the president directly or talking to his innermost circle, he’s been exceedingly helpful,” Perez said.

Still, Perez faces systemic challenges at the DNC. The Republican National Committee has outraised their DNC counterparts by a 2-to-1 margin — more than $50 million — in 2017.

Perez bristled at the notion that some Democratic donors are so frustrated by the DNC’s dysfunction over the past few years that they have sworn off giving money to the national party.

“I’ve talked to donors who said they’d never write a check again, and now they’re writing checks because they’ve seen our plan,” he said.

Perez said the DNC is keeping pace with past fundraising efforts and the party was able to take back the House in 2006, when they were similarly outraised by a 2-to-1 margin. Perez noted an uptick in small-dollar donations, saying the DNC had its best third quarter ever as it hauled in $5 million in donations of $22 or less.

“But I’m not satisfied, we have to do more,” he said.

Even as he tries to maintain focus on the party’s future, the Democrats have been unable to out-run the ghosts of 2016.

Old wounds reopened this week when former interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile alleged in book excerpts that the Clinton campaign took over the DNC before winning the primary against Sanders.

Brazile’s revelations blindsided the DNC and angered Perez.

“It certainly wouldn’t have hurt anyone for [Brazile] to wait a week,” Perez said. “The timing for me is undeniably frustrating, but I will not let anything distract me from the task at hand.”

Still, Perez says he’s taking the substance of Brazile’s allegations seriously. Over the weekend, he released a memo stating that the DNC would be transparent with the primary process and would make changes, including announcing the debate schedule before the candidates are even known.

Perez said he has worked with Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonProgressive prosecutors hit back at Barr criticism Key House Democrat says Perez must go: 'He doesn't lead on anything' Minnesota sues Juul over rise in youth vaping MORE (D-Minn.), his opponent in the DNC chairman race and a Sanders supporter, who Perez later tapped to be his deputy chairman in a show of party unit.

“We fell short in carrying out our obligation to ensure people felt the entire process was fair,” Perez said. “What we have to do is send a clear signal. If people feel the playing field isn’t level or the process is opaque, they’re going to lose faith in the party. We can’t have that.”