Letter from Virginia — From the November 2017 issue

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The race to rebuild the Democratic Party

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The potential of the Emily’s List model first became clear in 1992, memorialized in campaign histories as the Year of the Woman. The previous October, the country had been transfixed by Anita Hill’s televised testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which she alleged that her former boss, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her for more than a year while she was a lawyer at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s. Hill said that Thomas talked incessantly about sex, commented on her appearance, and once made a strange remark about finding a pubic hair on his can of Coke. Four days after her testimony, however, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a Senate that was 98 percent male. The resulting furor galvanized women across the country to enter politics. In the next cycle, Emily’s List helped elect a record number of women, including four senators — among them Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — and twenty representatives.

The election of Donald Trump has been cast as a similarly catalyzing event. Resistance marches have drawn hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets, but an electoral wave won’t be as easy today, in part because the Democrats’ recruitment machinery is broken.

Until the late twentieth century, the Democratic Party depended on unions and urban party machines to turn out voters in local races. When outsourcing and right-to-work laws caused union membership to shrink, however, the party didn’t adjust its operating model to cope with the change. The Democratic National Committee, the party’s formal governing body, continued to see its role as supporting presidential candidates, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works on state-level races, directed its resources toward incumbents rather than young challengers. Responsibility for elections to school boards and city councils fell to the local parties, which lacked the money to invest in new candidates. Deep-pocketed benefactors, who can have a big impact in local races, preferred to give to high-profile campaigns that would buy them access and influence in Washington. As a result, Democrats have been ignoring local races for more than two decades.

Republicans, on the other hand, never able to rely on union organizers, have enthusiastically cultivated young talent. In 1979, Morton Blackwell, a member of the R.N.C. in Virginia, founded the Leadership Institute to “prepare conservatives for success in politics, government, and the news media.” Blackwell, who went on to organize the youth effort for Ronald Reagan, began by offering a paid summer internship that included private dinners with right-wing leaders and job placement services. Since then, the institute has taught nearly 200,000 high school and college students how to form conservative student groups, organize grassroots activists, establish school papers, and, most importantly, run successfully for elected office. Its alumni include Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul. Jeff Horwitz, who profiled the group for Salon, described the Leadership Institute as “one of the best investments the conservative movement has ever made.”

In 2005, when Howard Dean became the chairman of the D.N.C., he made it his mission to catch up with the Republicans. His plan became known as the fifty-state strategy. Dean invested $150,000 a year in each state party rather than focusing exclusively on those in swing states. He put their communications directors on the D.N.C.’s payroll and gave local candidates access to a national database of Democratic voters. “We have to talk to everybody,” he explained recently, “not just the people who are going to vote for us.” Dean and other party leaders believe his efforts helped lay the groundwork for Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, especially in purple states such as Colorado and North Carolina.

But his success was short-lived. In 2010, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, groups funded by Charles and David Koch pledged to spend at least $45 million on congressional races across the country; Democrats lost sixty-three seats in the House and six more in the Senate as the Tea Party swept conservatives into power. Dennis W. Johnson, a historian of modern political campaigns at George Washington University, thinks that the 2010 election was crucial in setting the Democratic strategy for the next several years. “I think it just frightened the heck out of the party,” he told me. As campaigns became exponentially more expensive, the Democrats channeled their money to the places where they were most in danger of losing seats. In their view, “building the party base at the state level was just not feasible,” Johnson said.

The results have been devastating. Not since the 1920s has the party held so few elected positions around the country.

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October 2019


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