Letter from Virginia — From the November 2017 issue

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The race to rebuild the Democratic Party

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On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

She had planned this postelection trip several weeks earlier, around the time of the first presidential debate. There was a joke among her friends in Washington that, win or lose, it took five vacations to recover from a campaign, and now Litman found herself numb and grieving in a rainforest bordering the Caribbean. She sat hunched over her phone on the wooden deck of her Airbnb, composing an email to colleagues back home.

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Clinton’s defeat was shocking, yet Litman knew it was only the latest in a series of losses. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans had picked up twelve governorships, for a total of thirty-three, and more than 900 seats in state legislatures, so that they controlled thirty-two statehouses. In twenty-five states, they held both the governor’s mansion and the legislature, compared with only six for Democrats. The pipeline to national politics was growing narrow, Litman thought. It seemed unlikely that the Democrats would be able to field strong candidates in the future. The leaders who emerged from the 2016 campaign — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden — were all in their late sixties or seventies.

In Costa Rica, Litman happened to be reading When Women Win, by Ellen Malcolm. Malcolm was the founder of Emily’s List, a PAC that directs money to pro-choice women running for office. When Malcolm started the organization in 1985, there were only two women in the Senate and twenty-two in the House. Her idea was to give female candidates the resources to run by funding their primary campaigns in the early stages. (“Emily” is an acronym for “Early money is like yeast” — it makes the dough rise.) Employees fanned out across the country, meeting with potential recruits. Since then, Emily’s List has become one of the most powerful PACs in the country. In 2011, Stephanie Schriock, the group’s president, traveled to Boston to recruit Warren, a law professor at Harvard, to challenge the Republican Scott Brown for his Senate seat in Massachusetts. Warren later credited the group, and the $1.2 million it raised for her campaign, with making her victory possible.

As she sat on the porch, Litman, who is twenty-seven, wondered if she could do something similar for millennials. In her email, she laid out a way to fix the Democratic Party’s recruitment problem — to do “what the state parties should be doing.” She proposed an advocacy group that would cultivate a new generation of Democratic talent by recruiting young people to enter local races — for school boards, city councils, and state legislatures.

A political organizer in New York read the email and urged Litman to talk to her husband, Ross Morales Rocketto, a political consultant from Houston who had been thinking along the same lines. When Litman returned from her trip, she and Rocketto began developing plans for a group they would eventually call Run for Something. Litman contacted prominent members of the Democratic establishment — including Charles Olivier, the CFO of the Democratic National Committee, and Jon Carson, the executive director of Organizing for Action, the pro-Obama nonprofit, both of whom agreed to serve on the advisory board.

Run for Something launched on Friday, January 20, the day Trump was inaugurated. By the end of the first week, more than a thousand people had applied for support through the website. Volunteers, trained by Litman and Rocketto, began screening potential candidates in thirty-minute phone interviews: Do you consider yourself progressive? What does that word mean where you are? The volunteers were also tasked with determining whether an applicant had a big enough support network to be viable: Are you already involved in your community? How many followers do you have on social media?

Run for Something doesn’t require candidates to adhere to a specific platform, but Litman is generally looking for young people who are in favor of universal health care, immigration reform, gun control, and abortion rights — candidates who believe that climate change is man-made and want to reform the criminal justice system, protect voting and L.G.B.T. rights, and reduce income inequality. Once through the screening process, they are coached by political veterans who provide advice on topics such as fund-raising and media relations. Run for Something is currently mentoring more than two hundred candidates across the country. A smaller group — about eighty people so far — has been selected to receive an official endorsement and press attention.

As of now, Run for Something is funding candidates only in Virginia, where all one hundred seats in the House of Delegates are up for grabs this month. Rocketto is in charge of overseeing recruitment and deciding who should receive donations — up to 15 percent of the cost of the average race for their position. “We’re looking for people who can articulate their motivation for running,” he told me. “That type of self-reflection is really difficult.” Before receiving funding, candidates must sign a contract promising to include Run for Something “in major decisions like staffing, budgets, public communications and overall strategy.” Depending on the circumstances, the group may recommend a campaign manager or send volunteers to knock on doors.

In May, Hillary Clinton invited Litman to her office in Midtown Manhattan to discuss Run for Something. It was the first time Litman had met one-on-one with the woman whose campaign she had worked on for nearly two years. She told Clinton that she hoped to have at least 50,000 applicants by the 2018 elections. “What can I do to help?” Litman recalled her asking. Clinton mentioned that she had donors willing to give money to the cause, and, later that month, announced that her own PAC, Onward Together, would endorse Litman’s project.

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