WASHINGTON – As the Democratic Party hits the final stretch of a nationwide organizing push, party leaders including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota are trying to strike the right balance between connecting with new voters and building on activist anger toward President Donald Trump.
Ellison, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, helped guide what the party called its “Resistance Summer” meant to mobilize, train and register voters at the grass roots level in all 50 states. At a time when the party’s power in Washington is at a low point, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll crystallized the challenge for Democrats: it found just 37 percent of Americans believe the party stands for something beyond opposing Trump.
“We just haven’t been in the community with people closely enough, we have not been present enough, we have not been at the door, at the meeting, at the rally, at the town hall,” Ellison said in an interview, going on to stress that human contact is always preferable to sophisticated, technology-driven voter targeting efforts.
Ellison assumed the deputy chair post earlier this year after losing a bid for chairman, and said Democratic activists in recent months have reached out to voters at hundreds of events, including door knocks and phone banks all over the country. The biggest organizing day yet is scheduled for Saturday, when participants will fan out for a unified “day of action.” In the Minneapolis area, Ellison has a goal of attempting to reach 2,500 voters.
“We’re going to rely on relationship building and ... let technology serve that goal, rather than the other way around,” said Ellison, a six-term congressman from Minneapolis.
Ellison also found last week the balancing act necessary to satisfy more ardent Democrats and progressives without alienating swing voters, perhaps even voters who chose Trump last year but might be having second thoughts. At a party organizing event on Friday, Ellison said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was acting more responsibly than Trump in their back-and-forth over the country’s nuclear escalation.
Ellison quickly retracted that remark. But he said he believes Democrats can’t shy away from opposing Trump. Citing Republican health care plans that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would take insurance away from millions of Americans, Ellison asked: “What are we supposed to do, not oppose him?”
The DNC’s push to define its message and purpose and to intensify local organizing comes even as party leaders, including Ellison, work to rebuild trust with existing party activists — many of whom were unhappy with the tenure of former Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was seen as favoring Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders in last year’s presidential race.
Even as Trump has struggled to advance his legislative agenda and suffered in the polls, the DNC is heavily lagging in donations compared to the Republican National Committee. The DNC raised $38 million in the first six months of 2017 compared to the Republican National Committee’s $75 million.
The GOP also exceeded Democrats in small donations, which was a strength of former President Barack Obama and is often seen as an indicator of grass-roots support.
Ellison downplayed the fundraising disparity. “The Democratic Party’s strength is its people,” he said. “The Republican Party’s strength is its money.”
William Hailer, a former Ellison aide in Minnesota, found the DNC in shambles when he became a senior adviser to the party early this year. Staff levels were at an all-time low, with just three people involved in fundraising. Now the DNC has nearly 30 fundraisers, and Ellison and Hailer expect that will boost campaign contributions.
Hailer said DNC leaders have focused on “organizing in every ZIP code, better communicating our message of inclusion and opportunity and holding Republicans accountable.” Democrats have prioritized pushing back on Republican efforts to dismantle and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Last month, Democratic legislative leaders presented the party’s “A Better Deal” agenda in Berryville, Va., with promises to add jobs, increase wages and crack down on large corporate mergers. One item in the platform includes reducing prescription drug prices, a prominent cause of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who participated in the rollout.
Ellison said activists have knocked on 100,000 doors around the country in recent months. The party released a smartphone app, Knock 10, that pinpoints the user’s location and gives him or her a list of 10 nearby doors to knock on.
“The Democratic Party is doing the soul-searching we’ve rightfully needed,” said R.T. Rybak, the former Minneapolis mayor who was a DNC vice chairman during the Obama administration. “My hope is that we come out with a clearer agenda that is more bold on health care and the environment and is more about helping the whole country grow, not just parts of it.”