On the morning of November 9, 2016, millions of Americans woke up in a fog. In New Holland, Pennsylvania, Annie Weaver stopped at the Wawa on her way to the school where she teaches, and she couldn’t look anybody in the eye. Brandi Calvert, a real estate agent in Wichita, Kansas, only got out of bed because she had to take her 11-year-old boy to school. Before heading out, she told him what had happened, but he refused to believe her.
I walked my daughter to school that morning in Washington, D.C. and went inside for her kindergarten class’s biweekly open house. A third-grader had drawn the assignment of reading the day’s news over the PA system, and he began with a brief history of the expansion of voting rights. He then ventured into more recent events: “In 2008, Barack Obama was the first African-American elected president. This year, in 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first female president — nominee. In a surprising election, she was defeated by Donald Trump,” he said. “Stop by room 308 to see our timeline. Have a great day.”
My daughter — who’d very much been “rooting for the girl to win” and found Trump to be a miscreant and an offensive bully — stood unusually silent, as her teacher, clad in black jeans and an olive green hijab, turned her face to hide her tears.
There was nothing to say — nothing that could be said — to make right the raw fact that, after a hate-filled, vitriolic campaign, enough people in the United States had voted for Donald Trump to make him our 45th president.
Back in Wichita, Calvert drove home and called her mother. “I went through the emotions of crying and being angry and disbelief, and surely it was a mistake and will be corrected,” she recalled.
After processing her grief, a two-week-long endeavor, she said, Calvert, like millions of people across the country, became consumed by the need to “do something.” There was nothing to say, but there was something to do. Still, what was that something?
The last two years of party-building and pushback belong to a multiethnic, multigenerational, and multifaceted collection of movement activists.
Most of those people had previously done little in the way of political activism, but many had been deeply involved in community events, the local school, or charities. They didn’t know it yet, but they were already political organizers. Convinced that there was no way that Trump could actually be their president, they took a kitchen-sink approach to dealing with the country’s impending doom. Upward of 160,000 people collectively donated $7 million to Green Party candidate Jill Stein to fund a recount, hoping that Clinton would come out with enough votes to be the actual victor. When that didn’t work, the newly minted activists turned their attention to the members of the Electoral College, lobbying them relentlessly to flip their votes and elect somebody — anybody — other than Trump. If the electors couldn’t do that, the activists urged, they could at least throw the election to the House of Representatives, right? Perhaps House Speaker Paul Ryan would do his statesman duty and save the union. Surely, Democratic leaders in Washington could stop it all from happening.
It soon became apparent that nobody was coming to their rescue, and that the people who wanted it done would have to do it for themselves. It was never guaranteed that there would be widespread, powerful resistance to the Trump administration, or that Democrats would be able to plausibly challenge Republicans for control of the House in less than two years. Indeed, the leadership of the Democratic Party was ripe with talk of compromising, even as Trump’s circle praised former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of internment camps during World War II.
The last two years of party-building and pushback belong to a multiethnic, multigenerational, and multifaceted collection of movement activists, largely led by women in support of women, activated by a catastrophic election that uncorked a latent power that had long been dormant on the political scene. Over and over, candidates and volunteers have said that the last time they saw a mobilization that was anywhere near as passionate and expansive was on behalf of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Unlike in 2008, there is no centralized leadership this year. That means that, even after the votes are tallied on Tuesday, there’s nobody to tell them to go home. The Democratic Party is stuck with them.
Building an Army
By the time Thanksgiving came around in 2016, liberals had largely moved on from their election shock to organizing mode. Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, former Hill staffers working for progressive nonprofits, were visiting family over the holiday when they met up with a friend from college at a bar in Austin, Texas.
The friend told them about a Facebook group she was running dedicated to resisting Trump. Dumbledore’s Army had 3,000 fired-up members, but no clear direction, the friend relayed. “They were showing up for protests and they were sending postcards to Paul Ryan and they were calling the electors” — the folks in the Electoral College — “and they kind of all felt like they were throwing stuff at a wall,” Levin told The Intercept.
Levin and Greenberg explained to their friend exactly how tea party protesters had shaken up Congress in 2009 and 2010, spelling out what works to pressure a member of Congress and, importantly, what doesn’t — such as sending postcards to the House speaker. Their friend was transfixed; this was precisely what she and her group needed to know.
At the time, countless guides to resisting fascism were floating around, but none were practically oriented for people looking to do something on a daily or near-daily basis.
Levin and Greenberg, husband and wife, put their thoughts down into a Google Doc and shared it with politically savvy friends back in Washington, refining the guide along the way. But when it came time to publish the document, no one in the group wanted their name on it.
They were, after all, Democratic staffers, and the contents of the guide were unlikely to go over well with their bosses. Half of the problem for activists, the guide advised, was the Democratic Party, which could not be assumed to be part of the resistance to Trump, but needed to be pushed and prodded into action.
The document, which they called the Indivisible Guide, was made public in December 2016. Soon after, Indivisible chapters began popping up around the country. The Democratic Socialists of America, meanwhile, attracted supporters of America’s most prominent self-described democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and saw its rolls exploding. A group called Our Revolution was born from the ashes of the Sanders presidential campaign. In some areas, grassroots activists started their own organizations, like Lancaster Stands Up in Weaver’s home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Word had been spreading on Facebook and in the national media about a Women’s March on Washington, D.C. the day after Trump’s inauguration. Weaver resolved to make the trip from Pennsylvania, even if she had to go alone. Brandi Calvert, emerging from her post-election funk, also planned to attend, but then had a second thought: Why not organize one in Wichita?
She had never organized anything beyond a field trip, she said, but she figured she knew enough to put it together. Among the estimated 5 million people who marched in towns and cities across the U.S. on January 21, 2017, some 3,000 marchers were in the streets of Wichita.
James Thompson, a military veteran and civil rights attorney, was among them, and the size of the crowd gave him his own idea: The local congressional representative, Mike Pompeo, had just been named director of the CIA, meaning there would be a special election to replace him. Why not run?
The surge of energy translated into thousands of people looking to run for office, and thousands more looking to join a moribund Democratic Party.
The surge of energy translated into thousands of people looking to run for office, and thousands more looking to join a moribund Democratic Party. “I’m as busy this year as I was at any time last year in the heat of a huge election,” Mark Fraley, chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party in Indiana, told me early last year, as local parties across the country began booking larger venues for once-sleepy meetings that were now spilling out the doors. “What’s very different is that it’s made the party younger,” he said. “Young people never really wanted to have as much of a meaningful part in the Democratic Party infrastructure. Now that doesn’t seem true anymore.”
Running for Office
As soon as Thompson announced his candidacy for the special election in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District, the local Indivisible chapter, started by Calvert’s friend, jumped into organizing for him. Though Trump had carried the district by nearly 30 points, Thompson’s grassroots army made a race of it, stunning the commentariat by losing by just 7 points. (He immediately announced that he’d be running again for the seat in November 2018.)
The special election season kicked off in December 2017. Delaware Democrats had nominated Stephanie Hansen to run in a February special election for a state Senate seat that would decide control of the chamber. The Republican nominee, a retired cop from New York, had run in 2014 and lost by just 2 points.
As Hansen campaigned door to door, she had a front-row seat to a historic awakening. “What I saw on the ground, beginning in December, was that the Democrats in the community were very depressed, very sad. There was a lot of anguish, from December 21 till right about the inauguration,” she told me at the time.
“As soon as the inauguration and the Women’s Marches [happened], Democrats and those who are likeminded became very angry,” she said, recalling the outrage at the Muslim travel ban and other executive orders flying from then-White House adviser Steve Bannon’s desk. “I watched that whole process happen. That anger turned into something different. It turned into determination.”
Volunteers and small donations flooded in from across the country, and Hansen trounced her opponent by 16 points. When I talked to her nearly two years later, she told me that the energy she feels on the ground has, if anything, only increased since then. She still sees bumps of small dollars come in, she said, and can tell by her ActBlue fundraising page when Trump has done something particularly horrific.
Grassroots donors, driven by the need to “do something,” poured millions into the race, effectively nudging the party in.
Naureen Akhter, a young mom in New York City, was shaken into action by Trump’s election, and her first phone-banking ever was for Democrat Jon Ossoff in an April 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s organ in charge of winning elections, hadn’t wanted to compete there, worried that a Democrat had little chance of winning, even though Trump had won the district by a mere 1.5 points. But grassroots donors, driven by the need to “do something,” poured millions into the race, effectively nudging the party in.
Akhter was disappointed when Ossoff fell just short of 50 percent in the first round of voting and lost in a runoff, but she still wanted to join her local Democratic Party. It proved difficult, as details of the when and where of the party’s meetings were closely guarded, and party officials never let her know when they were happening, despite promising to do so over email. She finally found an event being put together by a local state senator. She went and learned that he had been a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats who caucused with Republicans. (The IDC was formally dissolved in 2018.) None of it was inspiring.
By chance, she stumbled upon a different candidate’s campaign event. The young woman’s name was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, running a quixotic bid against Rep. Joe Crowley, the member of Congress presumed to be next in line for speaker of the House after a Democratic takeover. Akhter decided that if she couldn’t join the party, she would beat it. She became one of Ocasio-Cortez’s top volunteers and now, as 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez is poised to become the youngest woman elected to Congress, Akhter is her director of organizing.
Thank you! ??
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 10, 2018
Organizing Pays Off
All this ground-up energy ran headfirst into an official Democratic Party structure that was unprepared and, in some cases, unwilling to receive it. The party, run from the top down by leaders in Washington, reviewed its performance, and kept all of the same leadership in place, even giving Rep. Ben Ray Luján a second term as chair of the DCCC.
Meanwhile, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a conservative Democrat from New York, was tasked with conducting an autopsy of what went wrong for House Democrats. He produced his report in the spring of 2017 and it was immediately buried, yet to be publicly released.
With a strategy in hand — recruit centrist candidates with an ability to raise money from big donors — national party leaders ignored or rejected advice from anyone whose approach to combating Trump involved embracing a strong progressive alternative, whether it came from Indivisible chapters, Lancaster Stands Up, the local Democratic Party, Swing Left, or DSA.
Having to battle the official Democratic Party was disorienting, but the Indivisible Guide had prepared millions, and the 50,000 (and growing) card-carrying members of DSA were ready from the jump. Through brute force, they broke through in primaries across the country, winning some outright and pulling candidates their way in others.
National party leaders ignored or rejected advice from anyone whose approach to combating Trump involved embracing a strong progressive alternative.
The act of organizing, of fighting for something, became therapeutic. Rather than dissipating, the energy fed itself, making and strengthening connections. There has been a fundamental transformation on the left as millions of people have recognized that organizing and activism are not necessarily a burden, that these acts are not strictly selfless, but can have a rejuvenating effect and help one find meaning in a darkening world. This past weekend, volunteers with Swing Left, which was founded after the 2016 election, contacted some 2 million people through door knocks and phone calls in 84 districts. A spokesperson said that roughly 4 in 10 of the most active volunteers had done zero political organizing before the 2018 election. Of those, three-quarters were women.
According to nearly every poll, as well as interviews with voters across the country, whatever Trump’s racist diatribes are doing for his supporters — ratcheting their anger up from 11 to 12, perhaps — they are having the opposite effect on college-educated voters in the suburbs and rural areas, particularly women.
Indivisible chapters that were largely organized by college-educated women now had newly persuadable voters to woo to their side. The conversations taking place on Facebook and during get-togethers have collectively added up to a mass exodus of those women from the GOP. College-educated white women voted comfortably for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, but switched to Clinton by single digits in 2016. In 2018, they are poised to vote Democratic by at least 15 points.
Exit polls found that in 2016, Trump won 52 percent of white women’s votes, a figure that has contributed to an intense demonization of white women across the spectrum. But it ignores a critical distinction — religion — and has been used to produce a narrative that is deeply misleading. White evangelicals made up a fifth of voters in 2016, and Trump won a staggering 80 percent of their votes. According to Pew, some three-quarters of evangelicals do not have a college degree, which means that if you are looking at white women who are not evangelical, they voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, whether they have college degrees or not. That group of women is poised to break even harder for Democrats in 2018, though the significance of the realignment has been lost on those who lump all white women together and zero in on the 52 percent stat.
At minimum, this realignment stands to give Democrats control not just of the nation’s growing urban areas, but its tonier suburbs too, leaving Republicans only with rural areas and the exurbs — working-class precincts with long commutes to the city, no organic identity, OK-but-not-great public schools, and growing immigrant populations.
But even that last redoubt is threatened, as Democratic activists and candidates who refused to take the national party’s advice that rural regions were unwinnable will likely make major gains on Tuesday.
The DCCC may have buried Maloney’s autopsy, but he previewed some of it for the Washington Post. His analysis, he said, was that Democrats simply couldn’t win in some rural districts, though some suburban ones were becoming pickup opportunities. That latter point was an extension of the 2016 conventional wisdom and has borne out as accurate this cycle. But the former was a flop. The two rural districts he gave as examples were Minnesota’s 2nd and Iowa’s 1st. In both, the DCCC did end up investing resources and wisely so: Democrats are polling far ahead in both once-unwinnable districts.
Thompson, in Kansas’s 4th District, is not favored to win, but his candidacy has had ancillary benefits. A woman who volunteered in his original campaign is making a run for the state House, another is running for county commissioner, and voter registration is surging. Those new people will be a boost to Democrat Laura Kelly, who has a real shot at being elected governor against outgoing Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Democrats are even competitive in the race to replace Kobach, as Google Earth co-founder Brian McClendon runs for secretary of state. He has built a simple voter registration tool designed to expand the franchise, an attempt to undo Kobach’s legacy of voter suppression.
Thompson’s candidacy has had ancillary benefits.
Two other House seats, as well as the governor’s mansion, are within Democratic reach in Kansas, and in Oklahoma, Democrats used special elections to flip four state legislative seats in deeply red districts. In the wake of teacher strikes, they’re on the cusp of claiming the governorship.
In rural Iowa, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, progressive Democrats are making a run in deep-red districts long written off. The entire Rust Belt and Midwest is revolting against Trump, with Democrats threatening to seize every single Iowa House seat, as well as the governorship.
In Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Ohio, Democrats have a chance to retake the governor’s mansion from Republicans.
A defining feature of this burgeoning liberal activism is its approach to fundraising. Rather than courting wealthy donors, as the Democratic Party had long done, the candidates seeking to yank their state governments and Congress from GOP hands homed in on small-dollar donors — people who would contribute less than $200 to a single campaign. Donations in $3, $5, and $27 increments have become hallmarks of progressive campaigns across the country.
The party at large has embraced this fundraising strategy only through Washington consultants who bombard inboxes with debt-collection-looking emails. But despite largely turning down corporate PAC donations, Democratic House candidates raised a record $250 million in just the third quarter of 2018 alone. Over 60 candidates raised over $1 million for the quarter. When polling showed that white nationalist Rep. Steve King could go down in Iowa’s 4th District, grassroots activists sent former minor-league baseball pitcher J.D. Scholten $641,000 — in two days — even though he is not listed on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list.
In January, ActBlue, the Boston-based platform that collects and distributes small-dollar donations for Democratic candidates, celebrated hitting the $2 billion mark in total money raised since its founding back in 2004, when Howard Dean’s presidential campaign ushered in the era of small giving.
At the end of October, it hit the $3 billion mark.
Republicans have been baffled by this gold rush, intimating that it must be part of a nefarious plot. “Somehow the other side has arranged for people to send money to this group in Massachusetts, to send it all across the country,” said a confounded Pete Olson, a five-term GOP incumbent who’s struggling to hang on to his gerrymandered House seat in a rapidly changing district in the Houston suburbs.
Olson’s opponent, former foreign service official Sri Preston Kulkarni, is conducting phone banks in at least 13 languages, reaching out to Asian and African communities nestled in the district’s subdivisions. Kulkarni doesn’t have staff airlifted in from Massachusetts for this purpose — his phone bankers are all volunteers who combed through voter lists to categorize residents by ethnic origin and then reached out to them on their own terms, often in their own languages. “We find actual community leaders to be the organizing force for specific communities,” said Ali Hasanali, part of an army of younger organizers who is sharpening this technique in Kulkarni’s campaign. “You can’t have token representation. That never gets you community-based knowledge that someone in the community does.”
What Third Way?
If you listen to the gaggle of campaign operatives, media planners, strategists, and policy mandarins that holds down the centrist wing of the party, they’ll explain how they dominated the 2018 cycle, channeling anti-Trump energy into moderate, business-friendly candidates who will return Washington to a bipartisan equilibrium. In September, Third Way, the most vocal defender of the political center, released a primary score card, showing that candidates backed by the DCCC and the NewDemPAC, the political arm of the House centrist New Democrat Coalition, won an extraordinary number of races, while left-wing groups like Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, and Our Revolution had a much lower win rate. Jim Kessler, Third Way’s co-founder, has brandished these numbers like a weapon. He boasted “20 million Democrats can’t be wrong,” in a recent email sent to Democratic insiders and forwarded to The Intercept.
Delving into the numbers shows that those successes are largely exaggerated.
But delving into the numbers, as the Progressive Change Institute has done, shows that those successes are largely exaggerated. For example, Third Way statistics claim that 32 of the 37 NewDemPAC candidates put on the organization’s watch lists before the primaries won their races. But in eight of those races (AZ-09, KS-02, MN-02, NY-22, PA-06, UT-04, WA-05, and WI-06), the NewDem endorsee had no opponent in the primary. In another 17, the disparity in fundraising between the NewDem candidate and the alternative was so stark — $2.4 million to zero in one case — that they can be said to have been virtually uncontested. So in over three-quarters of the wins, the NewDem candidate had no real competition.
Using Third Way’s own list, that leaves 12 competitive primaries left to review.
But the NewDemPAC is also claiming as its own California candidates like Harley Rouda and Katie Hill, both of whom are so strongly in favor of a “Medicare for All” health care system that they have been endorsed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare for All PAC. This does not jibe with the NewDems’s mealy-mouthed call to “promote greater insurance coverage,” and Third Way’s repeated insistence that calling for the policy is a death wish for Democrats.
In Rouda’s case, he had the backing of local grassroots groups, including the district’s Indivisible chapters, who leaned on the DCCC to back him. Hilariously, NewDemPAC put both Rouda and his primary opponent Hans Keirstead on its watch list, guaranteeing success in that race. Two other races (AZ-02 and NJ-11) did not really feature a progressive alternative to the NewDem candidate.
That brings the Third Way list down to eight races.
When you narrow down to those races with an actual ideological battle between credible, well-funded candidates, the NewDemPAC lost five and won only two or three, depending on how you characterize the outcomes. Katie Porter, an Elizabeth Warren-backed foreclosure fraud expert, defeated NewDem-endorsed former Chuck Schumer staffer David Min in CA-45. R.D. Huffstetler, a NewDem endorsee, was so thoroughly beaten in local caucuses by Leslie Cockburn in VA-05 that he dropped out and endorsed her. Josh Butner (CA-50), Jay Hulings (TX-23), and former Rep. Brad Ashford (NE-02) also lost to more progressive opponents. Curiously missing from the NewDem list is the race in New York’s 14th District, where Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley, the chair of the New Democrat Coalition from 2009 to 2013.
Outside of the strict NewDem frame, progressives beat centrists in a number of important races in which the NewDemPAC didn’t specifically compete. Progressive Jahana Hayes beat Mary Glassman, who had the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the local party machinery, in Connecticut. Jess King in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was on the brink of beating her establishment opponent, Christina Hartman, when Hartman dropped out of the race and moved to a different district. Richard Ojeda’s establishment opponent in West Virginia, the mayor of Huntington, dropped out as Ojeda caught fire. Dana Balter beat the DCCC-backed Juanita Perez Williams in Syracuse. DCCC-backed Colin Allred did indeed win a runoff against progressive Lillian Salerno in Texas, but that was after the party’s original favorite, Hillary Clinton policy adviser Ed Meier, didn’t make it into that runoff.
Lauren Baer (who out-raised her opponent significantly in FL-18), Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (TX-07) managed to be victorious in a straight-up ideological fight — though Pannill Fletcher only won after the DCCC’s preferred candidate failed to make it into the runoff. Even there, NewDemPAC only endorsed Fletcher after the primary (when she obtained the most votes) and before the runoff in Texas with Laura Moser, who in 2017 became a hero of the Trump resistance movement as the creator of Daily Action, a text-messaging tool that channeled progressive anger into a single piece of activism per day. The DCCC smeared Moser with an opposition research dump before the primary, calling her a “Washington insider” (which is a bit discordant coming from a campaign operation based in Washington). And the centrist wing doesn’t boast about one of its more high-profile wins, when it pushed Donna Shalala through a primary in Miami over progressive opposition. The 77-year-old Clinton administration alum is now on the cusp of losing an extremely winnable race.
The ultimate problem with Third Way promoting its “win ratio” is the concept itself, which encourages fudging the numbers, but also avoiding competition in races where the outcome was less certain. If the group Justice Democrats was primarily concerned with its winning percentage, it would never have gone all in on a millennial candidate who couldn’t campaign full-time because she was still bartending four days a week.
Becoming a Party of the People, Funded by the People
Beyond the divisions at the top of the party, however, activists found that on the ground, people who had supported Hillary Clinton and those who’d backed Bernie Sanders largely wanted the same things: “Medicare for All,” a $15 an hour minimum wage, debt-free (or just free) college, a Green New Deal. Even the candidates presenting as moderate or centrist rallied to many of those causes.
The fatalism of the early days of the Trump era, coupled with talk of compromising with the president, was elbowed out last summer by the hope that with enough public pressure, the Affordable Care Act could be salvaged.
Even as liberals suffered blow after blow, their energy remained high because Trump’s assault on the dignity of the public never let up. Each time Trump felt cornered, he found new ways to rally the MAGA crowds. He never let up on his Muslim ban and eventually got a version of it past the Supreme Court. He announced an end to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that offered legal protections to Dreamers (though that termination has been stalled by the courts). He sparked a crisis on the Mexican border, separating parents from their children, and locking them all up.
Trump’s relentless demonizing of his perceived enemies fanned hatred, as emboldened white supremacists marched in Charlottesville and elsewhere, and far-right extremists launched and executed domestic terror plots. Just 10 days ago, 11 worshippers were massacred in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Right-wing ethno-nationalism with an authoritarian flavor is on the rise across the globe, but an energized left is pushing back, too.
The danger for the Republicans of embracing the Southern Strategy (of attracting white voters by appealing to racism against African-Americans) was always that it would constrain them to, well, the South. But their exploitation of racial animus has potency across the country, and it arguably brought them to the national dominance they now enjoy. Right-wing ethno-nationalism with an authoritarian flavor is on the rise across the globe, from Russia to India to Brazil. But an energized left is pushing back, too. Earlier this year. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, running on a populist-progressive platform, swept to power in Mexico; socialists took over in Spain; Jeremy Corbyn remains deeply popular in the United Kingdom.
The 1930s in Europe, and the 2010s in Brazil, showed that center-left movements without a popular base are incapable of meeting the challenge of fascism in times of economic crisis. The Democratic Party in 2017 and 2018 began its transition toward a party of its people, by becoming ever more reliant on grassroots donors and activists. More than 2 million people have gotten involved in Democratic organizing in the past two years.
On the morning of November 7, win or lose, they’ll wake up again.
Reporting for this story will be used in the forthcoming book by Ryan Grim, “We’ve Got People: Resistance and Rebellion, From Jim Crow to Donald Trump.” Sign up here to get an email when it’s published.