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Letter from Virginia — From the November 2017 issue

Star Search

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.

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.

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.”

On a wet morning in May, Litman arrived at a coffee shop near her apartment in Brooklyn wearing a hoodie over a blue-and-white hillary T-shirt. Her hair was damp from the rain, and the black liner around her eyes was smudged. She had the rumpled look of someone who had been up all night. “I don’t know how to be a real person,” she said by way of explanation. She had been working on campaigns for six years straight and now measured her life in election cycles. She ordered a breakfast sandwich with avocado and slouched into the chair opposite me, cradling her coffee mug.

Litman is engaging and confident, a short woman built like a softball player. In interviews, she is relentlessly upbeat, reciting talking points and steering the conversation away from anything too personal. She has a quip for every criticism and glosses over contradictions with ease. Her speech is deadpan and rapid-fire, littered with obscenities and Beltway acronyms. “I try really hard not to talk like the establishment hack I am,” she told me.

Litman grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington. In 2007, when Obama held his first rally for students, a seventeen-year-old Litman was twenty feet from the stage, having skipped school to hear him speak. As a senior in college, she was hired to write emails for Obama’s reelection campaign, and she stayed on after his victory as the deputy email director at Organizing for Action. But soon she was thinking about her next campaign. She contacted Teddy Goff, the digital director for Obama’s reelection bid, to ask about joining Clinton’s team. “Hi, I’m bored,” Litman recalls writing. “I’m done drinking a lot and I’m ready to learn something new. Can you help me?” Goff brought Litman on as a volunteer, and by March 2015, she was running the campaign’s email strategy.

Over the hiss of the milk steamer, I asked Litman how she handled races where a Run for Something candidate was competing in a primary against a Democrat backed by the local party. I had been talking with Hannah Risheq, a twenty-six-year-old social worker in Virginia who had just jumped into a delegate race with Run for Something’s support, and she had told me that members of the local party were refusing to invest any time or money in her campaign.

“The party has a crappy track record of picking winners,” Litman responded. Part of her goal is to help them find better candidates by creating more competitive races. This is one of the reasons why she believes Run for Something has to remain separate and independent from the D.N.C. “If they have a race where the candidate they support is not representative of the community they’re running in, we’re gonna hold them accountable,” she said.

Yet Run for Something’s relationship with the party seems cozier than Litman admits. Although she refers to state party officials as her “frenemies,” Run for Something candidates are discouraged from criticizing the party and its leadership. Losing candidates are expected to support whoever wins the Democratic nomination, even if they disagree with them. This expectation of loyalty is among the most controversial aspects of Run for Something’s strategy — along with its demographic requirements.

Theda Skocpol, a professor of government at Harvard University who is studying political activism in four swing states that went for Trump, has met dozens of people rallying for progressive causes in small, rural towns. Not all of these activists want to run for office, she told me. Some are focused on reshaping their local party; others are skeptical of the party machinery. Many are not young. Skocpol thinks it would be more effective to support these emerging leaders than to focus exclusively on young people who fit Run for Something’s paradigm. “No advocacy group based on the internet or based in some liberal Northeast or Western state can possibly do what needs to be done,” she said. “What needs to be done is organizing in these counties. It has to be based in the realities of these places.”

I mentioned to Litman that some people might find it ironic that a young Clinton staffer was running “local” campaigns from her apartment in Brooklyn, given the common criticism of the campaign as out of touch with Middle America. “Cool, you do it then,” she responded. Like many Clinton insiders, she blames external factors for the defeat last November — “I think we unfortunately underestimated how much people hate women in charge” — and is uninterested in asking candidates to reexamine the party’s platform. It is therefore not surprising that Litman has secured support from Clinton’s PAC. “The establishment Democrats have been really supportive of us,” Litman said. As for former Bernie Sanders staffers, “They don’t answer my emails. They don’t trust me.”

Finding new candidates in the race to rebuild the Democratic Party has become the latest phase in the ongoing conflict, exposed by the Clinton-Sanders primary, between its establishment and progressive wings. Sanders-backed PACs and advocacy groups were designed to support candidates who share his policy vision. At Our Revolution, for example, candidates must sign on to a platform that includes Medicare for All, a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, and free college tuition for qualified students.

In contrast, Run for Something encourages candidates to tailor their platforms to their communities. Kellen Squire, who is running for the Virginia House in Charlottesville, describes himself as an “outdoorsman” and an “unabashed supporter of the Second Amendment.” I asked whether Litman was concerned about seeming too focused on personal stories and identity politics over principled stances on the issues, another criticism that has been leveled at Clinton’s team since the election. Some of the candidates Litman mentions most often are Matthew Calcara, who is running to become the first openly gay member of the Kansas legislature; Chris Hurst, a would-be delegate in Virginia whose girlfriend was shot on-air while filming a local news segment; and Nadya Okamoto, a formerly homeless student at Harvard who is running for city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Litman speaks more often about their backgrounds than their ideas for the future. But she pointed out that the race, religion, gender, and life experiences of Democratic candidates matter because, if elected, they will be charged with representing vulnerable populations who are being targeted by Trump’s policies. It helps to understand what it means to be vulnerable.

Hannah Risheq, the social worker running for delegate in Virginia, was one of the candidates whose story appealed to Litman. Risheq is outspoken and blunt; she has long, dark hair and a slight squint when she smiles. She grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, a short drive from the town where her mother, who is Jewish, and her father, a Palestinian immigrant, ran a seafood restaurant. When she was a toddler, her parents found a note taped to the front door of the restaurant that purported to be from the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. It carried a warning: “Either get out now or we burn the place down.” They returned not long after to find the building in flames. Risheq’s parents opened a new restaurant — this time a Middle Eastern café — but she says that after September 11, some of their most loyal customers discovered that her dad was Muslim and boycotted the business.

On the night of Trump’s victory, Risheq was also at the Javits Center, sitting a hundred feet from the podium where Clinton was scheduled to appear. The loss devastated her for months, until her fiancé told her: “You’re crying all the time; you need to channel this energy.” In March, after Jim LeMunyon, a Republican member of the Virginia House, helped prevent the state from expanding Medicaid, she decided to challenge him for his seat, and applied to Run for Something. Risheq passed her interview but came to Litman’s attention only when she posted a message on the organization’s Slack channel saying she was considering hiring a campaign consultant. “Don’t do that, talk to me first,” Litman responded.

Risheq was selected for the second tier of Run for Something candidates — those who can receive funding and endorsements — and assigned a mentor named Brian Zuzenak, who had directed Clinton’s campaign in Virginia. Zuzenak walked her through the process of verifying signatures to get on the ballot and stayed in touch with regular phone calls. He also helped quell the controversy when a local congressional district chair questioned the veracity of the signatures Risheq had collected.

Zuzenak says that one of the main challenges facing millennial candidates is youth itself: they haven’t spent decades in law or finance cultivating friends who are able to write big checks. “Coming to the table without a network of donors — that is a huge problem,” he told me. But he believed that Risheq “had the drive to do it.” Run for Something gave Risheq one of her first donations and connected her to national reporters. Litman’s public relations campaign on her behalf was so successful that, in April, the Huffington Post ran a story with the headline the resistance gave birth to a girl and her name is hannah risheq. There were also stories in Teen Vogue and The Forward.

In May, I went to visit Risheq in Fairfax County, Virginia, where her family had moved after she started college. She invited me into the foyer of the house she shares with her parents, dressed in hot-pink jeans and a flowered cardigan. Risheq sipped sparkling water while the family’s dog barked and her mother fried onions in the kitchen. “Where’s the mail from California?” she called out. She showed me a pale-blue postcard covered in handwritten messages from supporters in San Francisco. “Our diversity is our strength,” read one message. “We choose love & we are with you.”

“My campaign has national momentum, but locally people don’t want to vote for me,” Risheq said. She had been quoted in Time, but few Fairfax County voters knew her name.

As we sat in her living room, Risheq told me that she had stopped working with the campaign manager Run for Something had recommended because the woman was unmotivated. She was also chafing against the group’s reluctance to allow her to publicly criticize members of the local party who had fund-raised for one of her opponents, Karrie Delaney, a thirty-eight-year-old mother who chaired her local library board. Risheq felt voters should know that Delaney had been a registered Republican in Florida before moving to Virginia. Her Run for Something handlers agreed, but they had urged her to consider how negative comments about the party could impact her political career. Risheq was frustrated by what she saw as their excess of caution. “Everybody — everybody — is just so afraid of what it could do to their future.”

In June, the morning after the primaries in Virginia, I met Litman for breakfast at another Brooklyn café, which had a rainbow flag flying out front and the slogan immigrants make america great printed on its receipts. Litman was wearing an obama T-shirt and had brought her chief operating officer, Seisei Tatebe-Goddu, a thirty-four-year-old business consultant whose dark hair was pulled back in a bun.

As a first test of the group’s strategy, the summer primaries in seven states had delivered mixed results. Run for Something had endorsed candidates in fourteen races; five had won. Litman was eager to highlight Danica Roem, a former journalist who successfully focused her campaign on traffic problems on State Route 28 rather than the fact that she would be the first transgender member of the Virginia House. “It was an explicitly local argument,” Litman said, exactly the kind of issue Run for Something urges its candidates to run on. She was also proud of the turnout among Democratic primary voters, who had cast 550,000 ballots — the highest number the state had ever seen in a non-presidential Democratic primary. Litman attributed the surge to increased competition in the House races, encouraged by Run for Something and other groups. There had been twenty contested Democratic primaries in Virginia, more than double the number from 2009, the last time there was a contested gubernatorial primary in the state.

Litman was therefore unconcerned that most of the candidates Run for Something initially endorsed in Virginia had lost their primaries, including Risheq, who received only 23 percent of the vote. Another promising candidate, a civics teacher named Sara Townsend who was running for the second time, was beaten by a social worker with the support of Our Revolution, the Sanders group.

“If we can train people the first time around to run a good campaign, then the way you run your first campaign is the way you’ll run every subsequent race,” Litman said. Her rationale for Run for Something is built on this idea — that losing candidates eventually turn into winning candidates. However, research on congressional races by Jason Roberts, a professor at the University of North Carolina, indicates that fewer than 5 percent of candidates who have not held prior office ever win a general election. Repeat challengers are rare, and those who do run again seldom win. But Roberts thinks the success rate of new candidates would be higher in local elections, particularly those in which there is no popular incumbent. “Younger people are turned off by the political process,” he said. “The idea of getting them to take on something like this is smart.” Theda Skocpol, the Harvard researcher, believes candidates win when they become involved in their communities and develop a reputation. “People are credible candidates when they’ve got a network of people that they’ve impressed,” she said. And, the implication is, it’s not possible to engineer that from afar.

Litman insists that Run for Something can help any young person run a credible campaign. “If we teach the puppy to sit and behave,” she said, “we can send them off into the world and they’ll be well-behaved puppies.” I laughed, assuming this was a joke, but I found it a troubling metaphor. It was unclear what sort of candidate Run for Something hoped to groom. Would they be people who never criticized the party? Who stuck to their talking points and behaved?

It certainly seemed as though the wall that Litman had initially sought between Run for Something and the Democratic Party was cracking. A few weeks after my June meeting with Litman, Rocketto told me that Run for Something had begun collaborating with the party, offering to work as a headhunter to find candidates for next year’s local races. In Missouri, the state party had requested a list of Run for Something candidates, and then contacted every one of them in order to match them to open seats. Rocketto had made similar overtures to the state parties in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and New Hampshire. Finally, in September, Run for Something announced an official partnership with the D.L.C.C. These developments raised the possibility that, in the future, more Run for Something candidates would become party-backed candidates rather than their competition.

Back in the café, as we finished breakfast, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” played on the sound system. Litman reminded me that Jon Ossoff, a thirty-year-old Democrat, had recently raised more than $24 million for his unsuccessful bid to fill Tom Price’s congressional seat in Georgia. This indicated to her that, in the Trump era, the party’s financial resources were no longer finite. Democrats could afford to invest in young, diverse candidates around the country — even if they ultimately lost.

Litman and Tatebe-Goddu argue that, when it comes to catching fish, a net is better than a rod. Political candidates are no different. Even Emily’s List, which has three decades of experience vetting candidates, won barely half of its gubernatorial and congressional races last year. It was time, they said, to try a brute force attack on the polls. The party’s history proved it would be fruitless to try to pick winners. “It is peak hubris to assume that I know what the voters should want,” Litman said. “I think that’s how we got into trouble.”

Tatebe-Goddu, who was sitting beside Litman, leaned forward to drive home the point: “It’s a total myth that we can control any of this.”

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