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Grassroots Have Grown Deeper Since Trump. Now Comes the Hard Part

It hasn’t been all roses, sunshine and lollipops

Protesters descend on Washington on Jan. 20, 2018, as they arrive for the Women's March one year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Protesters descend on Washington on Jan. 20, 2018, as they arrive for the Women's March one year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

First there was the shock of Donald Trump’s election. Then came the marches and protests. Next came the outraged phone calls to Congress.

Now comes the hard part: Getting people elected.

For many liberal activist groups that have come on the scene in the last two years, this final hurdle is no small thing. After all, even in the best of times, Democrats have struggled in nonpresidential years to turn out voters or raise money for candidates. But in the last few months, groups like Indivisible, Swing Left and Flippable, among a host of others, have sought to change that, and are now coordinating efforts to put Democrats in control of Congress.

In the case of Indivisible, a loosely organized group with thousands of chapters, an all-out effort is underway to get out the vote, which means door-to-door efforts, texting and phone-banking.  

“Canvassing is the gold standard,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the group. “We push people to canvass as much as possible.” Hundreds of volunteers have been making calls for candidates like Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Senate candidate, and Andrew Gillum, the Democrat running for governor in Florida.  

Moreover, Indivisible is joining nearly 70 like-minded groups in a coordinated effort this fall in what has been dubbed “The Last Weekend” — a final push to turn out Democratic voters just before the election. “If these other groups are offering tools or resources, more power to them,” he said. “We really don’t think this is the time to be territorial about ‘What your turf is, what the other turf is.’”

“They’re really being key players,” said Ian Russell, a consultant at Beacon Media and a former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is advising several candidates who have benefited from the new groups, including one in a competitive race. (He did not name the candidate due to skittishness over finances.) “The main ones have been good about acting smartly,” he said. 

As an example, he said that Swing Left, the progressive group, placed one of his candidates on an “Immediate Impact” target list earlier this month. Russell said he had no idea what this was until the candidate’s campaign manager told him about it. The campaign raised thousands of dollars via ActBlue in the first few hours of the candidate’s appearance on the list.

“Swing Left has proven to be a powerful fundraiser, and beyond,” said Burdett A. Loomis, a professor at the University of Kansas who has long studied interest groups. In his state he’s seen first-hand the impact of Swing Left for Sharice Davids, a Democrat who came out of nowhere and is now seen as a favorite to unseat GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder. “You’re looking at a complete political neophyte who won an upset primary victory, who has certainly got legions of people wanting to work for her, but it strikes me that the Swing Left, Indivisible and some local groups … are really helping her campaign a lot to scale up,” he said.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and lollipops. Some of the new groups that have cropped up in the last few years have clashed with establishment Democrats, especially during primary season. There was the now-infamous Laura Moser incident, in which the DCCC publicly unleashed opposition research against the Texas liberal. Our Revolution, a group formed by alums of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has struggled with fundraising and has faced questions over its leadership. Some more entrenched left-wing groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have attempted to unseat moderate incumbents like Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, creating rifts within the party. 

There are other groups like the Great Slate — which was started by tech workers in the San Francisco area — with a noble but perhaps misbegotten venture: support Democratic candidates in mostly rural districts and challenge entrenched Republicans like Reps. Don Young of Alaska and Ken Buck of Colorado. Despite raising nearly $1.2 million for 13 candidates in the third quarter, and in many cases outraising the Republican in those races, the effort will likely end with few wins.

Still, they’ll be successful on one front: funding candidates via small donations in an effort to encourage Democrats to shun contributions from registered lobbyists and corporate PACs.

Women power

Perhaps the most forceful activist group that came together after the 2016 election is the Women’s March, which grew from a suggestion for a march on Washington by a couple of women on Facebook into the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history. On Jan. 21, 2017 — the day after Trump’s inauguration — about a million people, mostly women, converged on the National Mall while millions more joined at least 400 similar events around the nation and the world.

“What happened was the night of Trump’s election, I think the whole country was just in shock,” said Rachel Carmona, a management consultant in New York who is now chief operating officer for the organization known simply as the Women’s March. “And specifically women who went from thinking we were going to see the first woman president to, ‘We’re going to see the first openly misogynist and openly white-supremacist president.’”

Though she wasn’t one of the organizers at the time, Carmona and some friends left New York for the march on Inauguration Day and were overwhelmed almost as soon as they hit the New Jersey Turnpike. 

“I remember there being traffic from as far back as the first rest stop in Jersey,” she says. “It just continued, and someone in the car with me said it was the Women’s March. I said, ‘No way that traffic is backed up from Washington to New Jersey.’ Well, guess what. There were probably more people in traffic than were at Donald Trump’s inauguration.”

Massive, Loud and Passionate Anti-Kavanaugh Protest Takes Over Hart Building

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Organizers followed up in January with another march centered in Las Vegas; they orchestrated a student walkout after the Parkland, Florida, high school massacre in February; they joined the Parkland students in the nationwide March for Our Lives the next month; they led protests against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in September; and planning is underway for a third Women’s March on Jan. 21.

The massive displays of opposition may not have influenced the Trump administration’s policies, but Carmona believes the results will start showing up in the midterms.

“I do believe we are heading to a women’s wave in November just in the unprecedented number of women who are running and winning in the primaries — I think we’re going to see them winning in the general election — and it’s going to sort of kick off a turn of the tide for us,” she said.

They deliver

On a smaller scale, some concerned Washington residents formed a group last year called Herd on the Hill, which personally delivers to lawmakers messages written by people from across the country.

“Many of our volunteers are D.C. residents, with no voting representation in Congress,” said the group’s operations director, Karen Williams. “Delivering letters from constituents in other states gives them a voice through their advocacy.”

Herd on the Hill started with a few people ferrying letters to the Capitol for relatives or friends. It snowballed from there. During Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, volunteers delivered around 6,700 letters, including 1,300 from Maine addressed to Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

“We know how valuable personal stories are,” Williams said. “Communicating your views to your legislators is valuable, but it is these human voices, connecting an issue to the personal impact, that are the sort that get read on the Senate floor.”

Since congressional staffers get bombarded with constituent messages from all sides, a personal touch can break through the noise, she said.

During the Kavanaugh fight, Herd on the Hill corralled more than 100 volunteers, including tourists and people who came on their lunch hours. All received brief training. 

Williams, like so many of the volunteers, started delivering letters because she “didn’t like the direction that I saw our country headed. After the bitterly fought presidential election, I needed something empowering to do to channel my dissatisfaction.”

Will they last?

Loomis, the University of Kansas professor, wonders whether these groups will have staying power. Could they be the liberal version of the Club for Growth, which serves to enforce conservative orthodoxy? One need only look back on 2008, he noted, when it seemed Barack Obama had built something viable, but which came to nothing. 

“It’s still early days,” he said. “Can these organizations maintain an identity, be linked to the Democratic Party without necessarily be swallowed up by it?” 

Alex Gangitano contributed to this story.

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