Politics & Government

Liberals target the Rust Belt: ‘Democrats should be able to win in all these places’

House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a plastics manufacturing firm Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 in New Berlin, Wisc. Liberal groups are going after established Republicans, including Ryan, in 2018, saying they think their progressive messages will resonate with voters even in Republican districts.
House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a plastics manufacturing firm Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 in New Berlin, Wisc. Liberal groups are going after established Republicans, including Ryan, in 2018, saying they think their progressive messages will resonate with voters even in Republican districts. AP

As the Democratic Party struggles to find its moorings after losing a handful of special House elections this spring, liberal activists say the party’s future in Washington, D.C., isn’t in moving centrist, but rather in moving left.

A trio of new political action committees – the People’s House Project, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats – are looking for ways to support candidates with economically progressive platforms and to challenge the party establishment, especially in rust-belt states where President Donald Trump saw much unexpected success last November.

The activists aren’t daunted by the odds.

“Democrats should be able to win in all these places,” said Krystal Ball, founder of the People’s House Project, which has endorsed its first candidate, Randy Bryce, an iron-worker with an attention-getting advertising schtick who is running for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.

The People House Project says it will run candidates in every Republican-held district in 2018, with an emphasis on Midwestern and Appalachian states. A central tenant of the organization’s platform is that candidates cannot receive donations from big money donors, who Ball said have distorted the party’s messaging and intentions.

Democrats were hopeful during Democrat Jon Ossof’s campaign to fill Health and Human Services Secretary’s Tom Price’s vacated seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

In the most expensive race in House history, Ossof raised more than $24 million but still fell short to Republican Karen Handel, an outcome that did not come as a surprise to Ball given previous special-election defeats in Kansas, South Carolina and Montana.

“We’ve tended to choose candidates based on the donor class,” said Ball, who ran her own campaign to represent Virginia’s 1st Congressional District in 2010 but lost to Republican incumbent Rob Wittman. She thinks that attitude might have hurt her own prospects. “I needed to trust my own instincts more; I knew more about that community than any consultant I could have brought in.”

Ball said the People’s House Project will use grassroots campaigning to gain traction with voters and raise money through small donations in a similar fashion to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ surprisingly competitive presidential bid for the Democratic nomination inspired the creation of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, which have a similar mission to the People’s House Project.

They’ve already begun gathering candidates, and they’re not just going after Republicans.

Frustrated with increased poverty and poor working conditions in her home state of West Virginia, environmental activist Paula Jean Swearengin launched a campaign with the help of Brand New Congress to challenge centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in 2018.

“It’s a disgrace as a coal miner’s daughter that I have to beg for clean water and clean air for my children,” she said. “He challenged us to primary him, so shame on Joe Manchin that a single mom of four is going after his seat.”

Since launching her campaign in early May, Swearengin said she has raised $81,000 through small donations from more than 5,000 people.

While she said it’s unlikely she could raise more donations than Manchin, who has the financial backing of the coal industry, Swearengin believes her progressive messaging could resonate with discouraged West Virginians.

Last year, Sanders won 51 percent of West Virginia’s Democrats in last year’s primary, easily defeating runner-up Hillary Clinton, who eight years before handily defeated then Sen. Barack Obama in the state’s Democratic primary.

“When you’re funded by the people, you serve the people,” Swearingin said recently. “I think people are ready to reach in their own pocketbooks and make sure our children have a future.”

Democratic Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has lent his support to the People’s House Project and the new progressive wave looking to redefine the Democratic Party. While he also believes a candidate doesn’t need obscene amounts of money to run a credible campaign, he said this effort will build past the 2018 midterms.

“They’re knitting the coalitions needed to build a solid Democratic Party over the long haul,” said Ryan, who last year tried to unseat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi from her leadership position. “They have an opportunity to galvanize in a year when so much of the mood of the country is going to be formed by what’s going on in Washington.”

Despite budding optimism among Democrats given the turmoil surrounding Trump’s presidency, Anson Kaye, media strategist for political communications firm GMMB, said Democrats should be weary of relying solely on negative perceptions of Trump’s presidency to translate into future campaign victories.

Gallup’s latest data has Trump’s approval rating at 37 percent, which could bode well for Democrats, since the midterms are often a referendum on a president’s performance. However, Trump’s approval among Republicans sits at 85 percent, only four points fewer than when he was inaugurated.

“Democrats need to be careful about getting ahead of ourselves,” said Kaye, who worked on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s media teams in 2016 and 2012, respectively. “It’s not enough to hope the president is going to alienate voters who supported him before.”

Katishi Maake: @KatishiMaake