How New Leadership Has Affected The Democratic National Committee

Feb 20, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 6:05 pm
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It's been nearly a year since the Democratic National Committee got new leadership. After a disastrous 2016 election, the party chose former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to turn around an organization on the ropes. To judge how that's been going, NPR's Scott Detrow checked in with several people who have experience as party chairs.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: All year, Tom Perez has repeated the same mantra.

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TOM PEREZ: We are about electing people from the school board to the Senate. The old DNC was about simply helping to elect the president every four years.

DETROW: Howard Dean took over the Democratic National Committee in 2005, so he knows about Democratic low points. Dean says Perez is facing much bigger problems than he had.

HOWARD DEAN: He had a lot of debt. There's a lot of infighting in the party, and things have changed dramatically. A whole - there's a whole new generation of young people who are fueling the revolution against Trump and the resistance movement who are not Democrats.

DETROW: None of that is easily solvable, especially after just one year. So what's the best way to judge a party chair?

MICHAEL STEELE: They have two responsibilities - raise money and win elections.

DETROW: Michael Steele ran the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011. Like Perez, he had to try and raise money at a point when his party was out of power at all levels of government.

STEELE: It's hard as hell.

DETROW: The numbers bear that out. Last year, the RNC raised about twice as much as the DNC did. The Democratic Party went through 2017 with relatively little cash on hand, leading to a steady stream of negative headlines.

STEELE: It's just a heck of a lot easier when you've got a president sitting down the hill from you to help you with that.

DETROW: Other factors have hurt fundraising efforts, too. There has been an explosion of new Democratic political action committees and organizing groups. In the long run, that could be good for Democrats, but right now, they're all competing for the same donors. Plus, the Russian hacking of DNC emails left donors feeling angry and betrayed. Donna Brazile took charge of the party as interim chair at the height of the 2016 WikiLeaks crisis.

DONNA BRAZILE: I spent more than a month of my life calling all of those donors, apologizing for having their, quote, unquote, "personal information stolen." I mean, there was nothing else I could do but to say I'm sorry.

DETROW: So fundraising has been a work in progress. What about winning elections? One of Perez's main goals at the DNC has been healing the internal wounds of 2016. He's tried to bring Bernie Sanders and his supporters into the fold. Over the past year, representatives from the Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns worked with the DNC to rewrite the rules for future presidential primaries. Brazile thinks it's working.

BRAZILE: The good news is that everyone is at the table. They have agreed on a set of priorities and reform initiatives that will strengthen the Democratic Party, that will make the party more competitive at the state and local levels.

DETROW: Of course, Brazile threw a big wrench into that effort when she published a book revealing financial deals between the DNC and the Clinton campaign that predated the 2016 primaries. Still, DNC leaders are confident they're slowly turning the page on 2016. If they aren't winning the admiration of a still-skeptical progressive wing, they seem to at least be getting grudging acceptance. Most Democratic incumbents aren't fighting off primary challengers this year, and Howard Dean points out that in Democrats' two biggest 2017 wins, voters turned out for moderates - Doug Jones in Alabama's Senate special election and Ralph Northam in Virginia's gubernatorial campaign.

DEAN: Sixty-nine percent of people under 30 voted for Ralph Northam. Now, Ralph Northam is a very good guy, and he's going to be a great governor, but he's no Bernie Sanders. He's a - what I would call a boring centrist.

DETROW: Over the past year, Democrats have flipped nearly 40 statehouse seats from Republican to Democrat. They've cut into Republican margins in special House races and feel confident about the odds of winning back the House this fall. Perez explains why.

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PEREZ: When we are competing at every level of elected office, you get energy that way. And we've been able because of the - really, the reaction to Donald Trump - so many people stepping up, and we saw it in Virginia. We see it elsewhere.

DETROW: But former party chairs like Howard Dean say special elections don't really matter compared to the main goal - midterm and presidential elections.

DEAN: At the end of the day, if you win, you've done a great job. And if you don't, you haven't, no matter how good you are. This may not be fair, but that's how you get judged.

DETROW: In other words, a Democratic senator in Alabama won't matter quite as much if Republicans still control Congress after November. Scott Detrow, NPR News.

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