Last July, eight months after the Democratic Party experienced one of its most devastating defeats in history, DNC chairman Tom Perez announced an “unprecedented” rebuild of the party from the ground up with a $10 million fund dedicated to state parties. That fund could provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to each state party, an enormous sum for often cash-strapped organizations.
That money hasn’t arrived.
In fact, the DNC didn’t even have $10 million on hand as of November 30 and declined to comment on whether it had the money now. And even if it did, it wouldn’t distribute the money right away, frustrating state party officials who are anxious about the coming midterm elections and describe the effort to rebuild as slow and halting.
“What our fear is, is that no matter how high this wave is in 2018, that we won’t have the ability to take advantage of that and win governors races, congressional races, and state legislative races that would normally be out of reach but could be competitive,” Ray Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who ran for DNC chairman against Perez last year, told VICE News.
Democrats have a decent chance of winning control of the House of Representatives in November along with several governorships and state legislative chambers as voters across the country are energized by what they consider to be a dangerous Trump presidency. Bolstering their optimism, Democrats have won some unexpected races in special elections in Alabama, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, in part with the DNC’s help.
But those victories obscure what are still very neglected and broken-down state Democratic organizations around the country, and state parties are worried that if the national organization doesn’t move faster and fundraise more, they won’t be able to take full advantage of the expected blue wave.
So far only one state, Washington, has received a grant from the $10 million State Party Innovation Fund while about 24 other states that submitted grant proposals are waiting. At least 10 other states are mired in lengthy performance reviews the national party is conducting in each state, which the DNC is using to inform their grant disbursement.
The DNC says it is moving methodically and that more grants will be distributed in coming weeks. It also points to its assistance in recent special elections to show it’s on track. “The committee is in the process of reviewing many more proposals,” said DNC spokesperson Sabrina Singh. “The DNC has already supported state parties to help win critical races in 2017 from a $1.5 million investment in Virginia and six-figure investment in New Jersey, to nearly $1 million investment in Alabama and investments in a host of mayoral and legislative races across the country.”
But state party officials complain they are being micromanaged and slow-walked.
“The hoops the state parties have to hop through to get basic resources can be frustrating”
“I think people want to move faster and want to have more input and I don’t think either of those things are outrageous,” said Christine Quinn, vice chair of the New York Democratic Party and former speaker of the New York City Council. “People have been really clear about that with the party.”
Some Democratic officials argue that Perez and the new staff at the committee are simply doing the best they can after mismanagement of the DNC during the Obama years.
“Clearly Tom inherited a shithole, not just in fundraising but in terms of morale as well,” Ken Martin, head of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, said in a wry reference to President Trump’s incendiary “shithole” comment last week about immigration.
There has also been minimal help from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders—the biggest stars of the party—to fundraise, and a lot of money being raised on the Left is going to a host of shiny new “resistance” organizations or candidates rather than the Democratic Party itself. Others attribute current problems to 2016 elections that left the DNC with a tarnished brand, complicating efforts to generate enthusiasm and donations.
Every zipcode strategy
Altogether, that has created a strong headwind for Perez and his “every zip code strategy,” which is a reincarnation of the “50-state strategy” the DNC began implementing in 2005 under Chairman Howard Dean.
In the 2006 midterms, the Party went on to win both the Senate and the House of Representatives. While Democrats also benefited from an electorate tired of Republican ethical scandals and mismanagement of the Iraq War, Party leaders including Perez believe that the focus on state parties helped make that blue wave even higher.
Just like in 2005, Democrats are certainly energized. But that hasn’t translated into robust fundraising at the DNC, which was already in a financial hole.
“Tom is just really miserable in the job, which is part of why it’s not going well,” said one Democratic official who has worked with Perez. “He hates the fundraising and says no to so much of the fundraising even though they are obviously not in good shape financially.”
The DNC, however, insists there’s no fundraising problem and that the rebuilding of the state parties is happening on schedule even if that frustrates some officials. Part of that effort was increasing the monthly stipend to state parties from $7,500 to $10,000 in October. “Tom travels almost seven days a week and 90 percent of his travel is fundraising,” Singh said.
The Party also points out that through November, they raised $8 million more in 2017 ($60.7 million) than in 2005 ($52.9 million) before the 2006 midterm wave. But in an era when more and more money is pouring into politics every year, an increase is the norm.
The committee’s cash on hand as of Nov. 30 was just $6.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, the Republican National Committee had $39.8 million cash on hand.
“I talk to my colleagues all the time and I know people are getting anxious,” Ken Martin, head of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and of the Association of State Democratic Chairs. “It’s just a function of process right now,” he said.
“I know what I need to do: I need 20 more organizers on the ground right now”
A key reason for the gradual disbursement is that the DNC is conducting a SWOT analysis (shorthand for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) on each state party. But nearly a year into Perez’s tenure, there are still more than 10 states that haven’t had their SWOTs completed.
“Most state parties structurally are at about a grade-D level and having trouble going on, and this money could help them get up to at least the C level or higher,” said Buckley. Some of the more robust organizations in states like New York, New Hampshire, and Nevada say the need for immediate resources is less urgent than in more conservative states like Georgia, Nebraska, and Michigan.
“I know what I need to do: I need 20 more organizers on the ground right now,” said Jane Kleeb, the Nebraska state party chair, who instituted a “Blue Bench program” that has trained over 800 grassroots organizers. “The hoops the state parties have to hop through to get basic resources can be frustrating.”
Kleeb is part of the new slate of state party leaders elected in the last two years who took the initiative after the 2016 election to channel the anti-Trump energy of the Left into the often unsexy organizing work of phone calls, door-knocking, and data-updating. Other state parties, especially in states that voted for Trump, also greatly expanded their voter contact programs in 2017 in an effort to prove that the Democratic Party didn’t only care about voters close to Election Day.
Wisconsin’s Democratic party, which just this week flipped a state Senate seat from red to blue in a rural area that Trump won with 59 percent of the vote, has been actively sending organizers and volunteers outside the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee. Over one weekend last year without a big election looming, the state party and its volunteers knocked on over 15,000 doors.
“One of the lessons learned of the prior decade is if you under-invest in your in-state infrastructure, then you fail”
And in December of 2016, before Perez even became chair, Michigan’s state party launched what they dubbed “Project 83,” an effort to establish a presence in all of the state’s 83 counties after Trump unexpectedly won the state. They hired six full time organizers to coordinate the effort and in the last six months of 2017, the state party and its volunteers reached out to more than 150,000 voters and completed almost 3,500 volunteer shifts across 300 events.
“We’re getting back to basics. That’s all this is,” said Paul Kanan, the state party’s communications director. “Usually you have campaigns coming in on even-numbered years and there’s a lack of institutional and cultural knowledge, and state parties can help with that.”
But these efforts have also increased the frustration with the national party taking so long to dole out money from the promised $10 million fund. Asked whether the state party was upset with the lag, Kanan said simply: “We are looking forward to receiving the support from the Democratic National Committee.”
Many of the problems and frustrations that are coming to a head now predate Perez and the 2016 election.
“If I were to rate Obama’s greatest failure, it was him not building a party, with the narcissistic idea that he was enough,” Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC and its Rules Committee since 1997 and the author of “Primary Politics.” “I can’t fault the current strategy at all, but the basic problem is that is requires money and good fundraising, and that has been hard this year.”
And if that doesn’t change fast, it could affect Democratic races across the country in 2018. “Waves are good, but waves without a sophisticated party organization fall short,” said Kamarck.
There’s also private grousing about Perez not convincing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to help with more more raising money. Perez won the DNC chair in large part because of his alliance with Clinton and Obama world, and his victory was expected to deliverfundraising help.
But Obama has done only one fundraiser and Clinton has done none (she has allowed the party to use her email list, but one Democratic official said it hasn’t generated as much as they’d hoped).
The DNC says Obama will do more fundraisers this year, but there are no set dates yet. Clinton hasn’t committed to any in 2018. And Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is the most popular elected official in the party, has refused to let the party use the email list from his presidential run, opting to use it to build his own group, Our Revolution. Sanders had backed Perez’s main rival in last year’s chairman race, Congressman Keith Ellison.
But other Democrats are more optimistic that the DNC is on the verge of a turnaround, especially after significant victories in Virginia and Alabama in the last two months. “The DNC was a mess, and as the story of that mess has come out, donors were understandably hesitant,” said Kamarck, who’s also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“But I think that’s changing.”
State party chairs certainly hope so.
“One of the lessons learned of the prior decade is if you underinvest in your in-state infrastructure, then you fail,” David Pepper, the head of Ohio’s Democratic Party, told VICE News.
“Everything is fundraising contingent.”
Cover: Tom Perez, chair, Democratic National Committee, appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)