One year into Tom Perez’s project to save the Democratic National Committee from complete collapse, officials are beginning to dig out of the hole left by Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s mismanagement, Barack Obama’s indifference, Russian hacking and the bitter rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders capped by accusations of election rigging.
But going into a midterm election that should be the Democrats’ to lose, the DNC is still struggling to bring its factions together and assert itself. Throw into the mix powerful super PACs, the much-better-funded party committees focused on Congress and governors, and more independent voters than ever, and many wonder whether the DNC has a place at all anymore.
“I knew it was a turnaround job when I ran, but I undeniably underestimated the depth of the turnaround job. We had to rebuild almost every facet of the organization, and equally importantly, we had to rebuild trust,” Perez said in a recent interview at party headquarters. “Not just people who had invested in the DNC, but others — they just felt the party had let them down.”
It’s hard to overstate the scale of his task. The DNC has become every frustrated Democrat’s favorite piñata, and a symbol of everything that went wrong in 2016. Sanders-Clinton hostilities have taken on a new form: The tension now is over whether Sanders should hand over his massive voter list to the committee, as Perez has asked, and whether the committee has gone far enough to overhaul internal rules that Sanders forces are convinced rigged the nomination for Clinton. Neither side is satisfied, and words like “crazy,” “still doesn’t get it” and, in one case, “Judas” are tossed around to describe people in the opposite camp.
The relationship between Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the former rival whom Perez named deputy chair in an attempt to ease tribal infighting, remains chilly, with periodic explosive fights over party strategy and appointments. “Functioning unity is something we’ve got to build back over time,” Ellison said, after praising Perez.
But there are glimpses of progress, and a sense of tempered optimism.
Most of the DNC’s officers and members have coalesced behind Perez. Fundraising, while still trailing far behind the Republican National Committee, is on the uptick, boosted by a major donor program Perez has nurtured and checks that picked up after Democrats won high-profile races last fall in Virginia and Alabama. State party chairs say they’re being listened to again. And a tech operation that had atrophied to the point of near collapse under the previous leadership is being rebuilt.
“People understandably, because of [President Donald] Trump and what’s going on, want things to be moving quickly,” said Michael Blake, a DNC vice chair. “But because it’s not moving fast, that does not mean it’s not moving well.”
The DNC’s 2018 will be about tailored expectations: adapting its 2017 strategy of targeted, under-the-radar field and infrastructure investments to a much bigger map of races and a much smaller pool of money than it would like to have.
Officials say it'll stay off TV — in part because it won’t have the money — but will fund staff on the ground, new voter turnout initiatives driven by new technology, and constituency-specific mailers and outreach by phone and text message.
As it did in a host of down-ballot races last year, the DNC will also deploy staff to competitive elections as well as people to train campaign aides and volunteers.
The committee will make some donations to campaigns and the committees for House and Senate races, as well as $10,000 per month to each state party. And it’s rushing to bank money for a promised $10 million “innovation fund” that state parties will compete for.
But aware of just how tarnished the party’s national brand is, not to mention the DNC’s own tattered reputation, most of this will happen under the radar. The committee put $1 million into Alabama’s special election last month for voter turnout efforts targeting millennials and African-American voters, but kept mostly quiet about it.
“They provided the support that we needed. They were always there to give us advice and understood that we wanted to keep this race local,” Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), the upset winner, said in a statement. “Chairman Perez understood we had a message that was consistent with the party, but it was also a message that he felt like, and we felt like, would be consistent with folks in the state of Alabama.”
The committee is trying to forge ahead even as it remains saddled by factionalism. The war between Sanders and Clinton has morphed into a battle between people who believe the Vermont senator needs to actively participate in an institution that's changing to accommodate his demands — and those who believe the DNC should just be grateful Sanders and his allies are helping it change.
The dispute largely revolves around Sanders’ massive email list:The DNC wants it, but Sanders has no intention of handing it over. The Sanders line is clear: No way will he be providing his list or any other information to the DNC, as Perez has asked, or pitch in otherwise to an organization that he is demanding be reshaped. To the Sanders orbit, it’s not nearly enough that Perez backed the recommendations of a yearlong Unity Commission set up to revise internal rules that Sanders supporters argued disenfranchised the base.
“We still have a long way to go. We’ve made big steps forward in opening up the party and making the nominating process more democratic,” said Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for the 2016 Sanders campaign and a leader of the efforts on his behalf in the Unity Commission. “We’ve also got to make sure that all the different factions of the party are represented at the DNC. Tom can do a little bit more to bring in some other voices.”
Weaver said, though, that there won’t ever be a point when Sanders gives the DNC access to his voter data.
“I don’t think you should expect that to happen. If people think the Sanders list is just an ATM, they’re sadly mistaken,” he said. “It’s a list of millions of people who are motivated by a certain policy agenda. If they think it can be easily transferred, I think it’s a fantasy.”
Blake, a New York Assembly member who’s focused on local candidate training, called that “a missed opportunity.”
“Not everyone is going to be Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but for the local candidate for statehouse and the local candidate for city council, having more data gives them more opportunities,” he said.
The fight boils down to one between people who say there’s no time for infighting as they confront an existential threat in Trump — and those who argue that the insistence on conformity with party leadership is exactly what led to the Democrats' destruction.
Either way, the sniping is exhausting to many in the party.
“We have a great opportunity in 2018 and let’s not screw it up by fighting over things that aren’t going to have much of an impact,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon, whose attention is on trying to win races for governor and Senate in a state Trump flipped. “The fundamentals are what’s going to be important, not whether we have Bernie’s email list or not.”
Perez has spent the past year reaching out to disaffected outside allies, both committee officers that he’s been trying to keep united and key players in the Sanders axis. He has focused on fundraising, introducing himself to donors who didn’t know him or didn’t see the point in giving to the DNC.
Perez’s unlikely inspiration was Reince Priebus, who ran the RNC for six years before becoming Trump’s first chief of staff.
“To the extent that a person is tempted to say parties don’t matter anymore — it is a new world order, without a doubt — I would say, look at what the RNC did,” Perez said.
He cited the RNC’s investments in expanding its voter file, building technology and funding field offices well ahead of the last presidential election. “If we don’t understand as Democrats how they were able to leapfrog us, then we will not succeed in leapfrogging them and sustaining our own success,” Perez said.
Perez said the DNC’s fundraising woes are overblown, noting that it raised more in the second half of 2017 than in the same period in 2015 or 2013, without an incumbent president to help. (Obama did just one DNC fundraising event last year but has plans to do several more in the months ahead.) Downplaying the importance of the GOP's money advantage, Perez noted that the RNC outraised the DNC by about $30 million in 2005, ahead of the 2006 Democratic wave election.
“If you want to write a story that says RNC outraises DNC, that is the quintessential dog bites man story, and has been for some time. They’ve got a lot more wealthy people,” Perez said. “Am I content with that? Absolutely not. We have a size 12 vision that can enable us to win everywhere, and we currently have a size 9 budget.”
Ellison, meanwhile, continues to push the committee to do more to tap into grass-roots anti-Trump energy, championing Resistance Summer activist events last year and proposing to expand Facebook Live events with DNC leaders talking directly to supporters.
“You can win a race here and there. You can get a wave. You can get a backlash election to a particularly bad candidate,” Ellison said. “But if you want to replicate long-term success, you have got to have a wide-awake, well-trained, well-connected Democratic base. That’s the DNC’s job.”
All of these efforts come amid deeply ingrained antipathy toward the DNC within the party. But winning does help.
Grace Meng, the New York congresswoman and DNC vice chair, was so frustrated with how little credit the committee was getting for the party's progress last year that she started printing her own newsletter of accomplishments for her House colleagues. For months, most of them refused to take it, she said. But Meng said she’s had more luck since the party’s wins in Virginia and Alabama.
“Now,” Meng said, “some people even say, ‘Thank you.’”