Letter from Virginia — From the November 2017 issue

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The race to rebuild the Democratic Party

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Run for Something is not the first or the only organization to try to fix this problem from outside the party. Since the election last year, former staffers for Obama, Sanders, and Clinton have formed a variety of groups to harness the anger at Trump’s win and build a viable political movement. Flippable, an organization founded by three Clinton staffers who met in Ohio, wants to break the Republican stranglehold on state legislatures — starting by fund-raising for five House of Delegates candidates in Virginia, where Clinton won the thirteen electoral votes but Republicans control both chambers of the legislature. Ravi Gupta, a former campaign aide for Obama, created a PAC called the Arena, which holds training sessions in the basics of running for office, such as fund-raising and communication skills. And Our Revolution, a nonprofit calling itself the “next step for Bernie Sanders’ movement,” is endorsing progressive candidates in local races.

Run for Something is focused on millennials — the young people who, in theory, will lead the party twenty, thirty years from now. It supports candidates who are under thirty-five and are not seeking state or federal office. In addition, Litman wants at least half of the candidates to be women and people of color, to combat what she calls “a cyclical issue of old white dudes recommending other old white dudes.”

What sets Run for Something apart is that Litman has taken Dean’s fifty-state strategy to the extreme: she plans to spend millions of dollars to help young novices run for office, regardless of their chances of success. “I don’t really care if our candidates win,” Litman told me. “I’d like our candidates to win. But first-time candidates don’t often win, so to set that as a metric of success is to set us up to fail. There are other good things that come from a campaign besides winning.”

This is where Litman’s strategy departs from that of Emily’s List, according to Emily Cain, the group’s executive director. Cain concedes that encouraging more young people to run is an important part of rebuilding the pipeline — “It’s a sheer numbers game” — but Emily’s List chooses its candidates only after careful in-person vetting. They often have political experience — for example, Barbara Mikulski, the first woman the group helped elect to the Senate, in 1986, had served in the House of Representatives for nine years, and even an “outsider” like Elizabeth Warren had been a special assistant to President Obama. “It’s not just about making sure that they step up and run,” Cain said. “Our definition of success is winning.”

Litman is betting that losing candidates are still a good use of Democratic dollars. As of July, Run for Something had raised $400,000 and was spending it to support many candidates whose chances were slim. Litman argues that she can’t diversify the Democratic bench without supporting some long shots. Many losing candidates will run again, she says, and a handful of them will become the leaders of the Democratic Party. “We don’t need a hundred next Barack Obamas,” Litman told me. “We need a hundred people, one of whom will be the next Barack Obama.”

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