Progressives relish return to in-person events

Drained by a year of Zoom gatherings and virtual meetings, Democratic activists are starting to cram their calendars with in-person rallies, roundtables and other events to convince Washington leaders their priorities are popular on the ground.

In other words, the grassroots are ready to get back to the grass.

The strategizing is happening across the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum and is largely tethered to upcoming legislation, such as the pro-democracy reforms Congress will consider as Republicans in multiple states work to restrict access to the ballot box.

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“We’re encouraging people to continue to be safe, but we also want people to make a show of force for what they believe in,” said Jana Morgan, the director of the Declaration for American Democracy, a progressive organization consortium. “It’s really important that members of Congress see that people across the country are willing to take action.”

Democratic lawmakers are expected to convene outside of the Supreme Court next week with more than a dozen liberal groups working to get the For The People Act passed later this month. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAmerica's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet California Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans MORE (Mass.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharManchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights Hillicon Valley: Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation | Amazon fined 6M by EU regulators Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation MORE (Minn.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games MORE (Ore.) and other elected officials plan to join the National Organization for Women, March For Our Lives, and End Citizens United at the event.

After so long spent campaigning in isolation, Democrats are enthusiastic about once again using their preferred playbook. Cycle after cycle, organizers canvas, rally and protest to bring voters over to their causes, aggressively providing face time in the most literal sense.

While the technique is not unique to one party or faction within it, progressives have become particularly reliant on using their physical presence to sway opinions.

“The fact that we were out there energized people,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, describing her experience campaigning for President BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden vaccine rule sets stage for onslaught of lawsuits MORE during the pandemic.

Ahead of the general election, Weingarten’s nearly 2 million-member union carefully considered the merits of leading a national bus tour.

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“We encouraged people if they could do it to go door-to-door with the proper safeguards and precautions,” she said.

Democrats now increasingly say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest guidelines have cleared the way for many individuals to meet safely. The CDC advised in late May that those who are completely vaccinated do not need to wear a mask or practice social distancing, either indoors or out. And Biden has set a goal to have at least 70 percent of U.S. adults partially vaccinated by July 4, which could further instill confidence in resuming normal life.

While Democrats generally agree that a return to traditional campaigning is a good thing, it’s unlikely to occur in unison.

Some are urging balance and calling for physical activities to be included with new digital capabilities, while others believe that reintegration will offer inherent challenges that cannot easily be fixed, noting that the collective physical, emotional and psychological toll of the virus will take time to process.

“I wouldn’t overstate the difference these types of events will make," said Tyler Law, a Democratic operative and congressional campaign committee veteran. "We won the presidency and then two special elections in Georgia during the pandemic. Democrats adapted and thrived. That being said, traditional door-to-door mobilization is critical to Democrats’ success. Historically, large turnout drops have created midterm waves against Democrats. We need to do everything possible to ensure a high turnout.”

The midterm elections are still well over a year away, but at least one candidate competing in a Democratic primary ahead of a special election this year is thrilled at the chance to reunite with voters. Nina Turner, who is running for the Ohio House seat vacated by now-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Five things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries MORE, built something of a cult-like following among progressives over her speeches as part of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Five things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign.

“Her superpower is kind of stripped from her” in digital-only settings, said Angelo Greco, a senior communications strategist for Turner’s campaign and a fellow Sanders alum. As a co-chair, Turner played a role in the overall ground game operation, where some Democrats credited the Vermont senator for his approach to courting new voters. “That’s how Nina got her name,” Greco said. “People know her and miss her because of that, the moments when they were in a room with her.”

As one of just a handful of candidates running off-cycle during coronavirus, Turner had to reprioritize how to use her solo time. Greco said she has largely focused on gathering endorsements, working on various district-level initiatives and fundraising. Thankfully, he said, in-person opportunities are now starting to accumulate: “She really can’t wait to get back to campaigning in that style.”

Other progressives are experiencing similar shifts in commitments. Declaration for American Democracy is orchestrating a large mobilization campaign for the July congressional recess, with Morgan anticipating well over 100 events over two weeks.

Members of Black Voters Matter, an advocacy organization, are heading to Washington from Jackson, Miss. on a "Freedom Rides for Voting Rights" tour pegged to Juneteenth.

The uptick in activity coincides with a full schedule at the White House, where the Biden administration has announced plans to send vaccinations overseas while continuing to push for more adults to receive doses domestically. Biden recently expressed a desire for the country to experience "a summer of freedom" after being locked inside.

“A summer of freedom, a summer of joy, a summer of get-togethers and celebrations,” the president said Wednesday. “An all-American summer that this country deserves after a long, long dark winter that we've all endured.”

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Of course, Democrats will not be alone in their planning. Former President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE, who enjoyed holding mass rallies during the pandemic while casting doubt on the seriousness of it, is filling his itinerary with appearances while out of office. He’s already expected to hold events in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, with the possibility for additional stops. 

Trump and many Republicans preferred to go maskless during events. For Democrats, it remains an open question how many will mandate them at gatherings. With that in mind, some in the party are already thinking about possible ways to accommodate attendees and prospective voters. 

“It’s not hard to say to someone as you’re knocking on their door, ‘would you like me to keep my mask on?’” Weingarten said.