Democrats look to rebuild party structure with midterms in mind
Democrats are working to rebuild a state-level political juggernaut ahead of next year’s midterms as they look to head off a potential electoral thrashing in 2022.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and its state counterparts recently struck an agreement that party officials say could prove transformative to both their short- and long-term political prospects by providing much-needed financial aid to struggling state parties after a particularly difficult decade.
The deal, which was hashed out over weeks of negotiations and has buy-in from the White House, comes as Democrats prepare for what is expected to be a difficult election cycle. They are defending ultra-narrow majorities in the House and Senate, while grappling with the fact that the party of a new president typically loses ground in the midterm elections.
“This is my prediction: I do think that that means we will pick up seats in 2022 with these early investments in state party infrastructure,” Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said.
“This says every state matters, we’re going to campaign everywhere, and we’re going to be smart with additional resources,” she added. “It is a major shift from how things have been, and it’s not what the Republican Party is doing. The Republican Party is centering on one person and one race.”
The $23 million agreement provides most state Democratic parties with $12,500 each month in funding from the DNC, up from about $10,000. Eighteen parties in states where Republicans hold the reins of power will receive additional funding for a total of $15,000 per month from the DNC.
The deal also reestablishes the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that will allow the party’s biggest donors to give up to $875,000 apiece to a fund that will be split among the parties.
The agreement struck between the DNC and the state parties is good for at least the next four years, and party officials acknowledge that it won’t lead to sweeping change overnight.
But there is also a sense of urgency to the effort, especially given the spate of down-ballot losses suffered by Democrats last year.
Republicans need to pick up only about half a dozen seats in the House and just one in the Senate next year to recapture their congressional majorities. At the same time, a handful of House Democrats have announced plans to either retire or run for higher office, leaving several competitive seats up for grabs.
“The term of this deal is really significant. The DNC is locked into a four-year deal with state parties,” said Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and president of the Association of State Democratic Committees. “They’re taking a big risk on that. None of us know what the 2022 midterms are going to look like. And of course if we get our butts kicked, raising money could be a big challenge.”
While the monthly stipends amount to only about half as much as the $25,000 per month that state parties received from the DNC more than a decade ago under former Chairman Howard Dean, the extra funding marks the latest step in a years-long effort to rehabilitate Democrats’ party infrastructure that began four years ago under former DNC Chairman Tom Perez.
The idea, party officials say, is to build out a permanent campaign infrastructure at the grassroots level that gives state leaders more flexibility to organize on their own terms. Kleeb, for instance, said that the additional funding will allow her to hire a digital organizer to oversee online voter registration and outreach efforts.
The DNC’s current chief, Jaime Harrison, himself a former South Carolina Democratic Party chair, has pledged to bolster Democrats’ state-level political infrastructure. The effort also has the backing of the White House, and President Biden’s deputy chief of staff, Jen O’Malley Dillon, is said to be in regular contact with the DNC.
“President Biden has been so supportive of this, as has Jen O’Malley Dillon,” Martin said.
Biden has fused his political operation with the DNC, something that Martin said has not been done since former President Clinton was in the White House.
Biden’s immediate Democratic predecessor, former President Obama, largely shunned the party’s institutional structure during his time in office, opting instead to lean on a network of outside groups, like Organizing for Action, to advance his political goals. Under that model, however, the DNC and state parties struggled, current and former officials said.
“When President Obama came into the White House, they had a much different vision on how to build infrastructure,” Martin said. “The White House decided at the time that they were going to build the infrastructure on the outside.”
“That was a really challenging time for the Democratic Party. We saw a lot of losses because of that,” he added. “Probably one of the worst periods for our party, at least in modern history, in modern memory.”
While Obama remains a highly influential figure among Democrats, many are quick to recall the political setbacks that occurred during his presidency.
The 2010 midterms saw Republicans gain 63 seats in the House and consequently the majority in the lower chamber. In 2014, Democrats’ Senate majority evaporated as the GOP picked up nine seats. By the time former President Trump took office in 2017, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and 31 governor’s mansions, up from 21 when Obama was inaugurated in 2009.
One longtime DNC member complained that Obama’s political operation often sought to help select candidates at the expense of other down-ballot Democrats and the traditional party structure, and praised the current effort to bolster the DNC and state parties.
“We all learned the lesson from the Obama years where we had a strong president who was able to do transformative politics at the national level. But if you didn’t hit that ‘cool kids list,’ you were screwed,” one longtime DNC member said.
“They’re not going to let us make the same mistakes and get into this territory ‘I’m going to only help candidates who I connect with’ attitude.”
Another DNC member said that the failure to invest in the DNC and state parties left Democrats with a dearth of experienced campaign workers as many former staffers moved on to other jobs.
“What we were left with was this void of a generation of campaign staff,” the member said. “The campaign staffers that were trained well in the early 2000s were now in the White House or in Congress.”
Democratic leaders say they have learned from past mistakes. In addition to the agreement struck between the national party and state parties, Harrison has pledged a more active role for the DNC in the midterms and has so far committed $20 million to rebuilding the party’s so-called “50-state strategy” ahead of the 2022 elections.
“If we really want to be a national party that competes in every zip code, we need to acknowledge that Rome wasn’t built in a day. The success in Arizona and Georgia didn’t happen overnight,” Martin said, pointing to two long-time Republican strongholds where Democrats scored key victories last year.
“It’s an acknowledgment that if we want to see the next Arizona and Georgia, we need to make the investments.”