Democrats aren't counting on a blue wave to carry them in this year's midterm elections. Nothing is preordained in politics, as the 2016 cycle made painfully clear, so this time, they’re reading from an old playbook: Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy.
Widely panned for the plan at the time, the former Democratic National Committee chairman confounded critics when in 2006, Democrats took control of the House and Senate for the first time in more than a decade.
The state party infrastructure built by Dean paved the way for former President Barack Obama’s historic victory two years later. But by 2016, those gains were bulldozed by Obama’s takeover of the DNC during his presidency, leaving the party crumbling, in debt, and searching for answers. State parties were neglected as the DNC’s sole purpose revolved around keeping Obama in the White House.
Enter former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a civil servant with little experience in the political realm, who took over as DNC chairman last year. “We have to have an every-ZIP-code strategy,” Perez declared. But some question whether the DNC’s revamped plan is a true 50-state strategy.
It will be hard for the DNC to be effective when it entered this election year $6.1 million in debt, according to a Federal Election Commission report filed surreptitiously during President Trump’s State of the Union address, an hour when it was unlikely to draw much attention. In November, the DNC fired its top finance director, a position still vacant more than two months later. Last month, its CEO, who helped craft the every-zip-code strategy, stepped down. But a number of state chairmen contend the party has learned from its mistakes and that Perez is on the right path.
Those who worked for Dean in 2006 don’t buy it. They say the new DNC is selling hollow promises and that its flimsy 50-state plan is built on toothpicks.
50-state versus every zip code
Under Dean, the DNC dispersed $5,000 to $10,000 to each state party per month, but some states received more. Perez has uncorked the same cash flow to the states, which were receiving significantly less during the Obama years.
But Dean, unlike DNC chairmen since then, put roughly three to five state party staffers on the DNC’s payroll, and money for them was included in the monthly payments. Those staffers were chosen by the party chairmen, but the DNC had oversight. The DNC also put state Democrats on the payroll through training sessions in Washington.
“My hope is that they’ve recruited people to come into the DNC who understand how states work,” said Dan Parker, former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party. “If the DNC is continued to be run as a Washington, D.C.-based organization, it’s going to continue to fail. It’s a question of: Do you react to each race, or are you ahead of the curve?”
More money and time certainly make a difference. Dean inherited a limping DNC, like Perez. After taking over early last year, Perez became the favorite target for liberals angry over 2016 and frustrated by the party's slow recovery.
“I’ll say this: Governor Dean took over in early 2005, and by fall of 2005, most states were fully operational with their investment,” said Parker, who led Indiana’s state party when Dean came in.
Dean gave Parker the money to hire field organizers and a communications director, a first for the state.
“I ended up picking up three congressional seats that year in Indiana,” Parker said. “The program worked for us and laid the foundation for 2008.”
Perez rebranded the 50-state strategy to “every zip code counts,” re-upped the stipend for state parties to $10,000, and added a $10 million competitive grant program.
Still, one former DNC official who worked for Dean during the 2006 cycle said, “They’re not serious about doing a 50-state strategy.”
“It’s something that rings nicely,” the official said, but added, “It’s empty rhetoric.”
The official argued that by choosing grants over putting state party staffers on the DNC’s payroll, there’s no real “sacrifice” being made by the DNC, and there’s less accountability. Those in the state on the DNC’s payroll during the Dean years got healthcare, a 401(k), and were expected to be there a minimum of two years.
“If you’re trying to build long-term infrastructure in the states, grants aren’t the effective or efficient way to do it,” said the former DNC official.
Rebranding the DNC in a way that attracts donors has proven difficult since 2016. One DNC member voiced frustration with leadership. "The buck stops at Tom Perez," the member said. "He could be a better fundraiser if he just opened up the budget tomorrow, and said, 'Listen, we screwed up; we’re rebranding.' It would show he’s taking this seriously."
Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, defended Perez’s efforts.
“I would say that Perez has dispersed much more money than Dean,” said Bickford, who also worked with Dean as the DNC built along lines laid out in the 50-state blueprint.
Bickford admitted that the rollout of money has been “chunky,” but stressed that it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a party attempting to claw its way back.
“We are on extremely solid ground between now and December of 2020,” Bickford said. “There is going to be no deviation, because people know this works.”
Still, Perez continues to shoulder the blame for the DNC’s inability to raise money off of an unpopular president who has catalyzed a record number of candidates to run for office, and has enraged the Democratic base.
The slow rollout of funds to the states, and party chairmen venting their anxieties publicly, has made Perez's epic post-Obama cleanup challenge all the more difficult. Nearly a year into his tenure as chairman, Perez has faced whispers that a revolt is brewing over how he has treated the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.
On top of sending each state party $10,000 per month since October, Perez promised to funnel $10 million to the states when he took control. Seven months later, that extra money hadn’t materialized, according to a report by Vice News. Five days after Vice published a report quoting anxious party chairmen, the DNC announced the first wave of innovation grants to 11 states.
Perez shot back at the report, pointing to the $1 million the DNC put into the Alabama Senate race, the $1.5 million thrown into Virginia, and the grant issued to Washington state in December. States weren’t able to apply for the competitive grants until November, and they are approved on a rolling basis.
The DNC unleashed nearly $1 million for the first wave of the State Party Innovation Fund grant program on Jan. 24. The states targeted include Nevada, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. The program, meant to boost engagement with minorities, millennials, and rural communities, is the largest investment in competitive grants ever offered by the DNC.
"The new DNC is committed to investing in our state parties and electing Democrats up and down the ticket in 2018 and beyond," said DNC spokeswoman Sabrina Singh. "We know that when we organize and invest early — we win."
The goal: Build a party that lasts.
A relevant institutional party
There’s only one thing you need to know about the 2016 election, says DNC member Elaine Kamarck. All those stories about Hillary Clinton’s unparalleled ground game in battleground states and Trump having next to zero offices missed the mark.
“Well, hello, what happened on election day? It didn’t matter that Trump didn’t have offices, because Trump had a solid institutional Republican Party,” said Kamarck, who has sat on the DNC’s Rules Committee since 1997 and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Democrats didn’t have that strength at the institutional level, and Hillary’s campaign had to create it.”
Clinton had more than twice as many field offices as Trump across the country — 489 to 207— according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis a month after the election.
One of Kamarck’s missions is for the lesson from 2016 and previous cycles to finally stick. That is, to keep majorities, Democrats have to build an institutional party with professional staff and insist that incumbent presidents help. Since leaving office, Obama has done little to help the party raise funds.
As a lecturer at Harvard, Kamarck's researched the effectiveness of Dean’s 50-state strategy. Her conclusions apply today because many of the divisions among Democrats back then, namely Dean’s grassroots Left versus establishment House and Senate campaign leaders Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel, mirror the current rift between the Sanders and Clinton wings.
Kamarck found that a Republican president’s inability to show progress, which for George W. Bush rested on the Iraq war, provided a more powerful factor in nationalizing the midterm elections than anything Dean or the congressional campaign arms did. And it benefited Democrats.
Her paper, titled “Assessing Howard Dean's Fifty State Strategy and the 2006 Midterm Elections,” also concluded that it’s nearly impossible to test the 50-state strategy in statewide races, but House races “are a different story.”
People working for state parties who were on the DNC’s payroll as part of coordinated campaigns in 2006 made the difference.
“Those congressional districts where the DNC had paid organizers on the ground for over a year more than doubled the Democratic vote over what would have happened due to forces outside the control of the party, such as the war in Iraq and the unpopularity of a Republican president,” Kamarck wrote after the 2006 midterms.
Translation: If Democrats rely solely on a roaring blue wave built on animosity toward Trump, however unique the political moment appears and however sweeping his unpopularity remains, they could lose the opportunity to come back from 2016 and some of the biggest electoral deficits in the party’s history.
To Kamarck, the DNC has finally turned a corner heading into 2018, but it took former DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile “blowing the whistle on the whole mess.”
“I’m pretty confident that Perez understands all of this and is heading in the right direction,” she said.
To do that, though, the DNC needs to get over its fundraising problem, an issue complicated by the growing number of advocacy groups, from the fundraising powerhouse of Emily’s List to the new "resistance" organizations, such as Indivisible, built in the wake of Trump’s election.
The draw of outside groups
The party’s state-of-the-art voter file and its focus on state parties make the DNC relevant. The hard part is communicating this to donors disillusioned after 2016, who would rather send their money directly to candidates or to new anti-Trump groups.
Not to mention, projects that were once inside the DNC, such as voter protection initiatives and redistricting efforts, are now being conducted outside. That draws donors away.
“Political parties are an ongoing infrastructure in politics in a way interest groups simply are not,” Kamarck quipped. “They come and go with the whims of billionaires on the Left and Right.”
Unlike the DNC, Kamarck said, groups such as NARAL Pro Choice, Indivisible, and OurRevolution “tend to be around single issues” and “don’t recruit candidates very well,” nor “create legislative agendas very well.”
Even some of Perez’s harshest critics now say the DNC is turning a corner. Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, expressed agitation with recent reports that the DNC isn’t sending money to the states.
“We all wish that $10 million was in the bank and being dispersed right now,” Kleeb said. “But it’s not like the DNC is sitting on $10 million and not dispersing it.”
Kleeb admits states are feeling the “time crunch,” but Democrats are in the middle of rebuilding, and you can’t “sugarcoat it.”
“To me, this is less about blaming Perez and more about saying we decimated our party structure by letting Obama run it,” Kleeb said. “So, we all want money coming in faster. And yes, it better come to the states by April.”
“We are all at a point where we’re tired of the circular firing squad, and we know that doesn’t do anything to move the party forward because donors read those articles.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the level of payments to states under Dean's chairmanship.