by ROBERT DRAPER · November 1, 2017
On Nov. 9, 2016, about 12 hours after Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, convened a conference call with her fellow House Democrats. Most of them were still back home in their respective districts and still in shock. Not only would Trump be president, but the Senate remained in G.O.P. control, and — despite rosy predictions from Pelosi and her party’s pollsters — so did the House.
Several members on the call later told me they expected their leader to offer some show of contrition, an inventory of mistakes made or, at minimum, an acknowledgment that responsibility for the previous night’s disaster began at the top. Already, Trump’s sweep of what had for years been Democratic strongholds in the Rust Belt had led to a fast-congealing belief that the party had lost touch with white working-class voters.
But Pelosi sounded downright peppy on the call, noting a few vulnerable House seats that the Democrats had managed to hang onto. As for those working-class voters, “To say we don’t care about them is hard to believe,” Pelosi insisted, according to a transcript of the call I obtained. “I have to take issue and say I don’t think anybody was unaware of the anger.” The Democrats weren’t out of touch, she said. They just hadn’t made their case clearly enough to voters — or as she put it, “We have to get out there and say it in a different way.”
“It reminded me of that scene at the end of ‘Animal House,’ where Kevin Bacon is standing in the middle of all this chaos, screaming: ‘Remain calm! All is well!’ ” Scott Peters, a congressman from California who was on the call, told me. “After telling us before that we were going to pick up 20 seats, and we end up with six, underlaid with Clinton losing, I had no use for that kind of happy talk.” During and after Pelosi’s monologue, Democratic representatives who were listening texted and called one another incredulously, but Peters was one of the few who spoke up on the line. “I think we’re missing something,” he told Pelosi. “We’re just not hearing what’s on people’s minds.”
The discontent was palpable enough that two days after the conference call, Pelosi announced that leadership elections would be taking place less than a week later — leaving little time for a revolt to build, which some members I spoke to suspected was the point. By that time, one of Pelosi’s House allies, Doris Matsui of California, had already sent out an email to all the women in the Democratic House caucus, urging them to sign on to a letter of support for Pelosi as leader. Three second-term Democrats — Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Kathleen Rice of New York and Ruben Gallego of Arizona — wrote to Pelosi, urging her to delay the elections. Rice would later tell her colleagues in a closed-door meeting, according to notes that were taken by a participant: “Look, I know from losing the state attorney general race in 2010: Losing sucks. But you have to get up the next day and take responsibility for it, take a hard look at every decision your team made, figure out what went wrong and learn from it.”
Pelosi eventually acquiesced and rescheduled the election for Nov. 30. In the end, her only opponent was Tim Ryan, a young congressman and former high school quarterback star from Ohio’s 13th District, the ailing industrial region surrounding Youngstown and Akron. Ryan offered a splash-of-cold-water speech just before the vote: “We got wiped out,” he said, according to a recording of his remarks. “We’re toxic in the Midwest, and we’re toxic in the South.”
Pelosi won easily, but fully a third of the Democratic caucus voted against their leader, and Ryan’s insurrection seemed to have left a mark: After the election, three well-liked and nonrebellious members — Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — were chosen by the caucus to help manage the rebranding of the party. The three of them spent the first half of 2017 dutifully interviewing nearly every member of the caucus and conducting more than a dozen listening sessions with authors, pollsters and former Obama cabinet secretaries. They hosted a dinner at which the party’s various factions — the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the conservative Blue Dogs and the New Democrats, among others — mingled as if meeting for the first time.
In late July, Pelosi, Bustos, Jeffries and Cicilline stood on a stage with six other Democrats under a wiltingly hot summer sky in the city park of Berryville, Va. — a town of 4,306 residents in a purple district within easy driving distance of Washington — and unveiled their new agenda, titled “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” The phrase, which had been poll-tested by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was an intentional echo of F.D.R.’s New Deal — and, less intentionally, of a Papa John’s pizza slogan. But its biggest debt was to the author of “The Art of the Deal,” and to his crimson-jowled populism.
“A Better Deal” called for retraining in America’s fading manufacturing sector, renegotiating trade deals, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and fighting the corporate consolidation that had affected the prices of everything from eyeglasses to beer. None of the 10 speakers invoked President Barack Obama. In fact, one of the key provisions in “A Better Deal” — renegotiating drug prices for Medicare recipients — was an implicit rebuke of the former president, who had agreed with the pharmaceutical industry to freeze Medicare drug prices in exchange for its support of the Affordable Care Act.
But even before the rollout, Pelosi diminished the substance of “A Better Deal” in an interview with The Washington Post, clarifying that it was not “a course correction, but it’s a presentation correction.” A Quinnipiac poll in August found that only 33 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of independents had a favorable opinion of the new Democratic agenda. The self-consciousness of the rebranding, one congressman mused to me at the time, “seems like what you would do in a different era.”
There was a stiff-jointedness to the whole spectacle, a sense of the Democrats’ trying to regain the use of muscles they had let atrophy over the previous eight years. Obama, after all, used to make this sort of thing look easy. Conflating the American story with his own — “This is who we are” — the president conveyed, even in policy irresolution, an unshakable sense of his and America’s place in the world. “I love the guy, I miss him,” Scott Peters said of Obama. “But organizationally, the party is in disarray. We’re at the lowest level of elected officeholders since Hoover. We got a bit lazy and found ourselves relying on Barack Obama’s charisma, and it left us in bad shape.”
Barring seismic developments, the G.O.P. is still likely to control both the White House and the Senate until at least January 2021. But nine months into Trump’s presidency, the chances of the Democrats’ retaking the House are much better. Multiple polls in recent months have shown generic Democratic candidates beating generic Republicans by as many as 15 points — a spread that, in past elections, correlated with winning more than enough seats for the Democrats to gain a House majority next year. And if they do, the consequences will be enormous. A Democrat-controlled House in 2019 would very likely derail the Republican legislative agenda. It could also conceivably set the stage for impeachment proceedings against the president — a move that many Democrats have openly proposed for months now.
But the Democrats’ path back from the wilderness is not a short one. No president since Ronald Reagan has won the presidency as convincingly, twice over, as Obama did — but those victories papered over an extraordinary decline in his party that became suddenly unignorable on Nov. 9, 2016. The Democratic National Committee today is an understaffed, demoralized bureaucracy. It has raised less than half of what its Republican counterpart has taken in so far this year. (Other party organizations — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — are faring better.)
Democratic presidents have generally been less than attentive to the financial and electoral health of their party, during and after their presidencies. The Northwestern political-science professor Daniel J. Galvin writes in his 2010 book, “Presidential Party Building,” that since John F. Kennedy, each of them “neglected, exploited or undercut his party’s organizational capacities.” Galvin found that this maltreatment was because such presidents had operated with “deep and durable majorities” in Congress. After the Democrats lost theirs in 1994, President Bill Clinton awakened to the virtues of party-building. Galvin predicted that Obama would most likely have sufficient reason to do the same.
Instead, Obama was every bit as indifferent as his predecessors. After he took office, his campaign’s formidable grass-roots organization, rechristened Organizing for America, became what some party leaders complained was a “shadow organization” that drained resources from the D.N.C. while championing the president rather than the Democratic Party as a whole. The president did not have anywhere near the kind of close relationship with the last D.N.C. chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, that George W. Bush had with the Republican National Committee chairmen Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman.
In 2012, Obama’s campaign chose not to contribute any money to the D.S.C.C. during that cycle — and then, emerging from its victory that year with a $20 million debt, the campaign promptly offloaded it onto the D.N.C. In early 2014, Obama assured Senate Democrats that keeping the Senate majority was his “No. 1 priority.” Months passed without any further action. Finally, two months before the midterms, Obama informed Harry Reid by phone that he was authorizing a $5 million transfer of D.N.C. funds to Senate election efforts. Reid tersely replied, “It shouldn’t have been this hard.”
Few of the Obama campaigns’ innovations have meaningfully outlasted his presidency. Their once-pioneering digital-organizing operation, for example, went largely to ground in 2016, while the party failed to fully grasp even the basics, like the usefulness of digital advertising. “What I can tell you,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who oversaw an analysis of the party’s shortcomings in the last election cycle, “is that our candidates and their staff told us that the Republicans did much better digitally than we did. And they spent more than us on digital.” (Teddy Goff, Obama’s former digital director, says: “I sincerely wish the technology built in the two Obama campaigns had been put to better use for 2016 and races down the ballot.”)
State Democratic Party leaders complain about O.F.A. — rebranded again recently as Organizing for Action — hoarding campaign resources to little end. And Priorities USA, the extravagantly funded super PAC that was started to support Obama’s 2012 campaign, never built the kind of entrenched ground-level presence maintained by its analogues on the right. In contrast, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative network financed by David and Charles Koch, spent the Obama years establishing a network of more than three million activists in 36 states and mobilizing them to protest against Obamacare, environmental regulations and tax increases — becoming what the group’s president, Tim Phillips, described to me as “a state-based long-game organization that would always be there.” The current chairman of Priorities USA, Guy Cecil, acknowledges the disparity: “Most of our activities, most of our structures, are built around individual fights, or individual candidates, or individual organizations, and I think that’s put us at a disadvantage.”
Organizational and technological lapses do not fully account for the Democratic Party’s travails. “All that stuff is like the field-goal team,” the Obama strategist David Axelrod told me. “None of it will help you if you haven’t already moved 80 yards down the field. Being technologically proficient wouldn’t have saved Obama if he didn’t also have a consistent, compelling message.”
But that message had grown threadbare by 2016. No longer was it sufficient to campaign on hope and change, or even on the president’s successful efforts in 2009 to stave off a deep recession. The uneven economic recovery raised questions about the party’s obliviousness to the impunity of Wall Street and the gap between the megawealthy and everyone else. Hakeem Jeffries, the New York congressman who was an author of “A Better Deal,” admits, “We developed a blind spot for the economic challenges that still remained unmet.”
By the end of Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party had lost nearly a thousand seats in state legislatures across America. It had forfeited its majority in both the House and the Senate. A mere 16 of the nation’s 50 governors were Democrats — and that number dwindled to 15 in August, when Jim Justice of West Virginia announced with a grinning Donald Trump at his side that he, too, had decided to become a Republican.
Clockwise from top left: The congressional candidates Randy Bryce, Kelly Mazeski, Jared Golden, Dave Min, Boyd Melson and Matt Longjohn. Illustration by Matt Dorfman. All photographs from candidates’ campaigns.
A few days after the election, Ian Russell quit his job as the deputy executive director of the D.C.C.C. and cashed in his frequent-flier miles on a trip to Ireland. He watched Trump’s swearing-in on his phone in a Dublin pub over a pint of Guinness, and then a few more. The following morning, he threw his bags in a rental car and began a sort of weeklong post-traumatic odyssey, rambling westward to the coast.
Russell, now 33, had spent the past six years at the D.C.C.C. trying to help the Democrats regain the House majority that they lost to the Republicans in the 2010 midterm election. During every election cycle, political journalists and donors would file into one of the drab conference rooms inside the D.N.C. headquarters near the Capitol and watch as D.C.C.C. officials like Russell unveiled maps and polling data in support of the claim that this election cycle — unlike the last one — was going to break for the Democrats. Each time, Russell maybe half-believed it.
But election night left him reeling. It wasn’t just that Trump had upset Clinton — including in Russell’s home state, Michigan — or that the Democrats emerged 24 seats short of a House majority. What gnawed at him was a fear that Trump might actually win over Democratic voters more lastingly. Benton Harbor, a few miles down the road from Russell’s hometown in the western part of the state, lost its last Whirlpool manufacturing facility years ago. The childhood friends of his who remained in the area had renounced the Democrats and were now Trump voters. “Trump could transform American politics,” he remembers thinking at the time. “He could truly scramble things.”
But Russell’s fears of a unifying, postpartisan pragmatist in chief swiftly proved unjustified. Rather than focusing on jobs and infrastructure projects, Trump immediately set in motion an attempt to repeal Obamacare and ordered a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, which was met with demonstrations at airports across the country. On Jan. 30, the nonpartisan Hill analyst Stuart Rothenberg published a column headlined “Trump’s Fast Start Likely Puts the House in Play in 2018.” Rothenberg reasoned that overly aggressive new presidents tended to be judged harshly by the electorate in the middle of their first term. “The House map favors Republicans, but the midterm dynamic could well prove more powerful,” he wrote, listing 20 Republican seats — out of 24 the Democrats would need to flip the House — that, if typical midterm election patterns held, would most likely be imperiled. “Nothing is yet guaranteed, but don’t be surprised if the House is up for grabs in the fall of 2018.”
Late on his last evening in Ireland, Russell was drinking a final Guinness and listening to a passable folk band at the Palace Bar in Dublin while halfheartedly scrolling through the news back home on his phone when he came across Rothenberg’s column. He read through to the end with an accelerating heartbeat. It seemed big news to him that Rothenberg, a dispassionate prognosticator, had confidently issued such a prediction just 10 days into Trump’s presidency.
Back in Washington, Russell joined a relatively new political media consulting firm, Beacon Media, and started hunting for prospective 2018 House candidates. In early March, he traveled to California’s Orange County — historically a G.O.P. stronghold, though its wealthy population included growing numbers of Asian-Americans who tended to vote Democratic. In Irvine he met with Dave Min, a wry 41-year-old law professor who had worked on the Hill as a senior policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, and at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
Min, the father of three young children, had never considered running for political office before. But he was also a son of Korean immigrants and was appalled by the Trump administration’s attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The incumbent congresswoman of California’s 45th District, Mimi Walters, was a little-known two-term Republican who had never faced serious opposition. She had won by nearly 18 points in 2016, but Clinton beat Trump in the district by more than five points. A strong anti-Trump sentiment in 2018 could work to Min’s benefit. In April, he told Russell that he was in.
Russell then traveled to the Illinois suburbs just west of Chicago. Like California’s 45th District, the Sixth District of Illinois had been reliably Republican for decades. But Clinton beat Trump there by seven points, and already its six-term congressman, Peter Roskam, was avoiding public appearances lest he be called upon to answer for the president. The progressive women’s group Emily’s List had referred Russell to Kelly Mazeski, a longtime public servant on local boards and commissions who had already decided to challenge Roskam. Mazeski was a breast-cancer survivor whose platform, she told me recently, was “health care, health care, health care.” Russell helped Mazeski time her announcement for May 4, the day Roskam and his fellow House Republicans voted for a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Scores of candidates were announcing their intentions in terrain recently considered inhospitable to Democrats: West Virginia, Texas, Kansas. Some aspirants Russell met lacked the talent to match their enthusiasm. Others were hot property and elected to go with one of Beacon Media’s competitors. But by Labor Day, Russell and his firm had picked up 10 Democratic challengers. Among them were a few beguiling dark horses, like a 46-year-old physician and former Y.M.C.A. national health officer from Portage, Mich., named Matt Longjohn. Undeterred by his lack of political experience, Longjohn was challenging Fred Upton, a Republican who had represented Michigan’s Sixth District for three decades.
Russell himself grew up in the Sixth District and cast his first ballot as a registered voter against Upton in 2002. Back then, the incumbent seemed invincible. But now, after leading the committee that wrote the legislation seeking to eviscerate Obamacare, Upton was avoiding town halls and any other public events.
Still, when I met Russell recently, his optimism was tempered by previous electoral disappointments. The Democratic Party now has more candidates than it can support, and next spring is likely to be a season of what national Democratic officials tactfully refer to as “messy primaries.” And even with Trump as a foil, Russell’s candidates were struggling to make a case for themselves. “Right now it’s such a target-rich environment for us,” he told me. But “we’re having trouble explaining why we’re the heroes and the Republicans are the villains. At some point, our narrative will have to become more coherent than it is now.”
In pursuit of the 24 seats Democrats need to win the House, the D.C.C.C. intends to target 80 Republican-held districts — a dozen more than the party went after in its 2006 bonanza year, when it captured a majority after gaining 31 seats. Many of next year’s seem to be fanciful propositions, or strategic plays designed to force the G.O.P. to spend resources where it would rather not. In other cases, the D.C.C.C. is counting districts held by controversial Republicans — Chris Collins of New York, with his aggressive advocacy of a biotech firm in which he held substantial investments; Duncan D. Hunter of California, with the possibility of a federal indictment for supposed campaign fund malfeasances hanging over his head — who nonetheless appear safe, at least for the moment. But four Republican representatives in potential swing districts — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dave Reichert, Charlie Dent and Pat Tiberi — have already announced their retirement in advance of 2018, and more are expected to follow before the end of the year.
Only two times in the last century (during the Great Depression and after the Sept. 11 attacks) has a president’s party not suffered electoral losses midway into his first term. Those losses — an average of 32 House seats in each such midterm since 1862 — increase to 36 when the president’s approval rating is under 50. President Trump’s polling average has never once exceeded a favorability rating of 48 percent, and it now hovers at about 37 percent.
“I think the best thing the Democrats can do,” Zac Petkanas, formerly the director of rapid response for the Clinton campaign, told me, “is find as many people with a pulse, with a D next to their names, in as many districts as possible, and run on Obamacare and standing up to Trump.” But so much of the politics, and political mood, of Trump’s presidency is off the map of previous experience that other Democrats have seemed at times at a loss for how to respond. What to make of the late August NBC poll, for instance, that showed Democrats being viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of those surveyed, which was better than Republicans (61) and Trump (61), but also Pelosi (64)? Was that good news or bad news? And what about the D.C.C.C. focus groups and polls yielding the conclusion that voters broadly dislike Trump but are also put off by candidates who profess to be “standing up to Trump,” on the grounds that such resistance will only guarantee more dysfunction in Washington?
Republicans are hopeful that, Trump being the exception to almost every political rule, the historical trends of wave elections will also not apply to him. “Clinton came up against a wave in 1994 because he had campaigned as a centrist but then led with gays in the military and Hillarycare,” Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, told me. “The 2006 election was a wave because Republicans were defending the Iraq war and crippled by a late-breaking ethics scandal. Democrats faced a wave in 2010 because of Obamacare. So it’s been issues that have driven wave elections. This time around, I think it’s more a personal antagonism to Trump. And the question is, how critical will that be in shaping the attitudes of swing voters?”
But by Rove’s own analysis, two of the last three wave elections were triggered by health care policies that did not approach the deep unpopularity of the G.O.P.’s attempts this year to repeal or otherwise roll back Obamacare. And Trump’s base cannot be counted on to prevent a wave in 2018, because a key constituency — less-educated white voters — is a group that tends not to show up during midterms. They may have even less motivation to do so next year, considering Trump’s periodic denunciations of the Republican lawmakers who will need their votes.
But in four special elections to fill seats vacated by House Republican incumbents this year, the Democrats fell short — and in the case of Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, lost by four points even after raising an unheard-of $23 million. His was the most expensive House race ever, and the fact that Democratic donors spent so heavily on a loss may help explain why the party’s fund-raising has diminished since then. The Democrats’ base — young and nonwhite voters — is no better than Trump’s at showing up for midterm elections and is unhelpfully clustered in urban districts. Many suburban and rural districts were artfully gerrymandered by Republican state legislators after the 2010 census and have proved impenetrable since then; they aren’t likely to change hands without a healthy number of recent Republican voters being persuaded to vote Democratic.
There is also a less quantifiable problem, the one that vexed Pelosi’s team in the months after the election: the Democratic Party’s chronic difficulty explaining just what it stands for. “There’s a deep worldview among conservative intellectuals that moved its way through a fear of fascism in the 1940s, through think tanks and campaigns and the California tax revolt of the 1970s,” Felicia Wong, president of the progressive Roosevelt Institute, says. “And basically the Democrats don’t have that. The New Deal was one thing, and the Great Society was another thing. The party never fully recognized that Jim Crow and segregation were economic decisions. That left Democrats with an incoherent economic argument. The result is that they lack a historical vocabulary.”
Questions about the interplay of race and economics, of course, aren’t just historical after the 2016 election — as much as politicians and operatives might want them to be. Plenty of progressives hold the view, as the MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid has argued on Twitter, that white working-class voters “resent the changes that racial and religious multiculturalism have brought to societies where people like them have been the majority.” But a former colleague of Reid’s at MSNBC, Krystal Ball, now president of the People’s House Project — which seeks to elect Democratic congressional candidates in G.O.P. districts — insists that the primary motivation of these voters is economic. “People who are holding onto their livelihoods by their fingernails thought that at least Trump gave a crap,” she says. “Maybe it was a pack of lies he was selling them, but at least he didn’t hold them in contempt. And frankly there’s a lot of contempt from certain corners of our party. And a billion dollars’ worth of ads saying we’re not elitists won’t change that.”
Early on the morning of July 27, a group of House Democrats held a private gathering in the Capitol basement with a special guest: Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff, who over a decade ago, when he was an Illinois congressman, served as chairman of the D.C.C.C. Looking ahead to 2018, Emanuel offered a broad-brushstroke plan of attack: “Find the specific issues that resonate in your district,” he said, according to one meeting participant’s notes. “We want to appeal to Trump voters who are already pulling away from him.” In particular, “Suburbs are our best opportunities.” On the matter of ideological purity, he was blunt: “It’s not a question of left versus center — it’s forward versus backward.”
If this advice sounded familiar, it was because Emanuel advocated the same strategy a dozen years earlier, when he was trying to lift his party out of the trough it had occupied since the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of the House by the Republicans in 1994. Emanuel focused on recruiting more centrist candidates who were well liked in their districts rather than on ideological darlings of the national party. “The people who criticized me back in 2006 were from my own party,” he told me recently. “When I was recruiting candidates, I’d get yelled at: ‘Why is he getting all these sheriffs and military guys?’ It’s because they were running in red districts!”
Photo illustration by Jamie Chung. Obama photo: F Scott Schafer.
The election cemented Emanuel’s legend as a tactician — none of the Democrats attending the July 27 meeting expressed skepticism about his advice — but his strategy has never sat well with the party’s progressive activists. “I would just point to the fact that Rahm Emanuel’s Democrats who won in 2006 couldn’t hold those seats,” Stephanie Taylor, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (P.C.C.C.), which supports, trains and funds candidates, told me.
She was referring to the nearly a dozen Democrats who rode the 2006 wave into Congress, only to wash back out of it with the Tea Party wave four years later. (Three more had lost in 2008.) “I would suggest a counterfactual,” she went on: “If we had true economic populist champions who made the case to the American people about fighting for a strong economic agenda, we might have had more lasting success.” Or as the P.C.C.C.’s other founder, Adam Green, put it to me: “If there’s a Democratic wave in 2018, progressives won’t just ride that wave — we will cause that wave.”
Of course, activists like Green and Taylor also vowed to be the tip of the party’s spear in the previous cycle, with not much to show for it. Indeed, the Breitbart chairman and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon scornfully likens the Democrats’ ideological tussles to a “pillow fight,” further charging that progressives will never accomplish their goals “until they have a Breitbart on the left,” he told me. “Our stock in trade is going after the Republican establishment. There’s no one like that on the other side.”
Most if not all Democrats are more than happy to watch Bannon’s kamikaze antics wreak havoc on the opposition. Still, some in the party rue the lack of pugnacity on their own side. “There are two types of Democrats,” David Krone, Harry Reid’s former chief of staff, told me one afternoon this summer in the Midtown Manhattan office where he now works as a consultant for an investment firm. “There are killers, and there are whiners. Unfortunately, we have too many of the latter and not enough of the former.”
Krone considers piety an obstacle to progressive policies. “Democrats are not that pure,” he told me, with a biting smile. “All those guys have a transactional component to them.” Under Reid’s leadership, the Democrats managed to pass important legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act while also thwarting a stream of conservative bills generated by the Republican-controlled House. But it was also Reid who held his colleagues to the deal that garnered the pharmaceutical industry’s support for Obamacare by agreeing to take Medicare drug prices off the table. When the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 opened the floodgates for outside-group contributions, Reid did not join the chorus of bemoaners. Instead, he ordered up a super PAC, called the Senate Majority PAC, to help keep the Senate in Democratic hands during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “Reid just never pretended to be something he wasn’t,” Krone said. “You don’t want to pass health care? Fine. Don’t make deals. Keep losing.”
In the Democratic Killers Hall of Fame, Krone places Emanuel and Pelosi. But lately, Krone observed, the party seemed to be tilting toward the whiners — beginning with the excuses offered for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. “It’s insane,” he said. “They freaking lost! They can blame anyone they want to, but they fail to look in the mirror.”
The 2018 cycle, Krone argued, was no time for squeamishness. Again he cited the example of his former boss Reid, who, like many Democrats in 2010, was a heavy underdog going into his final Senate race. Rather than be cowed by a Republican field that, at the peak of the Tea Party movement, had been infiltrated by the party’s fringe, Reid turned that to his advantage. His campaign waded into the Republican primary, targeting the most formidable G.O.P. opponents one by one until the only one left standing was Sharron Angle: a Tea Party favorite who once crusaded against water fluoridation and claimed multiple American cities were under the rule of Shariah law. Reid beat her easily.
By way of contrast, Krone pointed to Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin senator who, with John McCain, was a standard-bearer for campaign-finance reform, as well as a crusader for civil liberties during the Bush years. Feingold lacked Reid’s appetite for the jugular, losing to Ron Johnson in 2010 and then again in 2016. “He had his foot on Johnson’s neck, and then he let up, because he was up in the polls,” Krone lamented. “They don’t hand out participation trophies in politics.” If the party limited itself to high-minded campaigning and legislating, “We’ll lose again, and Kennedy” — the Supreme Court justice — “will retire, and Trump will get to appoint another conservative crazy, and the Democrats will wonder how things got to be so horrible.”
Still, the party faces a conundrum in its pursuit of Trump voters whose anxieties aren’t just economic but cultural as well. Prevailing in some red districts may require, at minimum, tempering the party’s progressivism on social issues. “When anybody talks about a so-called litmus test for candidates, that upsets me,” Representative Cheri Bustos told me. “I’m from Illinois, where I’m the only downstate Democrat in our entire delegation. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life, and my core values are very much in line with what hard-core Democrats believe. I don’t ever lie about my views. However, I also don’t talk about issues that are by their very nature divisive. If asked, I’ll answer I’m pro-choice. But then I’ll get back to the economy.”
But a week after Bustos and I spoke, the D.C.C.C.’s chairman, Ben Ray Luján, enraged liberal groups by saying that his organization would not oppose House candidates in favor of restricting abortion. Seeking to douse the fire, Meredith Kelly, the D.C.C.C. communications director, released a statement clarifying that the D.C.C.C. listed abortion rights as among the “fundamental tenets of the Democratic Party” and that the recruits it was backing “represent the values of the party.”
Adam Green of the P.C.C.C. was adamant on the prospect of anti-abortion recruits: “We wouldn’t welcome candidates who are pushing anti-choice policies into the big tent any more than we would welcome racists and people who want to deregulate Wall Street.” Green wasn’t buying the implication by Bustos and other moderates that the Democratic Party will regain a majority only if it backs away from progressive ideals. He urged me to talk to Rick Nolan, a progressive rural Minnesota congressman who, he said, “wins the right way.”
Nolan is a folksy 73-year-old journeyman politician and businessman who has long advocated a single-payer health system. He also hunts, fishes, makes his own maple syrup and in other ways stays attuned to the culture of Minnesota’s Eighth District. Taking Green’s advice, I asked Nolan whether he would welcome an anti-abortion candidate into the Democratic caucus. “Wholeheartedly,” he said. “If there’s a fault today among Democrats, it’s that they’ve got the worst litmus test known to humankind. If we want to achieve the goals progressives want, we’ve got to get back into the majority. Democrats are damned fools if they don’t see that.”
There was one thing on which the Democrats I interviewed, across the spectrum — Adam Green, David Krone, Krystal Ball, Meredith Kelly — agreed: that I should watch a YouTube ad that was posted in June on behalf of a 52-year-old Wisconsin ironworker named Randy Bryce. Bryce, whose prodigious mustache has earned him the nickname Ironstache, is aiming to unseat the current officeholder of Wisconsin’s First District, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. The emotionally charged ad announcing his campaign culminates in a challenge: “Let’s trade places. Paul Ryan, you can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”
One rainy late summer afternoon, I met up with the ad’s creator, a 42-year-old Army veteran named Bill Hyers, in a Washington hotel bar overcrowded with well-dressed young professionals. Hyers was sipping an old-fashioned when I arrived. He was dressed in a T-shirt and khaki shorts, his preferred business attire. Hyers has successfully managed the campaigns of well-established Democratic politicians like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, and his own politics are straightforwardly liberal. At the same time, he harbors a Holden Caulfield-esque disdain of insincerity and believes that this quality, more than whining or ideological perfectionism, explains his party’s state of decline.
“What’s terrible about Democrats like Rahm Emanuel,” Hyers said, “is that it matters more to them if you’re a candidate who can raise money from very wealthy people than if you have an argument to make. They look at everything through the old Clinton triangulation strategy. Put out very carefully prepared statements. Don’t let anyone get to your right. Deny and ignore. Never have an honest dialogue. It was a bad strategy back in the ’90s. But it’s even worse today, because we can now have 24-7 access to candidates, and people can see when they’re not being authentic. Everything Hillary Clinton did was carefully scripted — they could see that.”
Hyers’s client Bryce has been the undisputed breakout star of the 2018 cycle so far; the announcement ad has attracted millions of views. (Such enthusiasm, it should be said, does not yet make Bryce any less of a long shot: The D.C.C.C. does not currently include Wisconsin’s First District among its 80 targeted seats.) The afternoon we met, Hyers showed me a rough cut of an ad for his newest client, a former Army champion boxer and ex-opioid addict from Staten Island named Boyd Melson — known in the ring as the Rainmaker — who is running for New York’s 11th District. Melson’s YouTube rollout, like Bryce’s, is replete with stirring proletarian imagery: neighborhoods festooned with American flags, an aloof Republican incumbent dodging town halls, Melson alone in the ring pummeling the air with slow-motion jabs. It suggests a trailer for “Rocky Goes to Washington.”
“I can only take a little credit for them,” Hyers admitted after the two-and-a-half-minute ad came to an end. Bryce’s and Melson’s ads, he told me, had a co-producer: Matt McLaughlin, a veteran of TV advertising who “didn’t know campaigns and politics, but he knows art.” Hyers did not think the party’s need for “authentic candidates” and a little theatrical verve were incompatible. If anything, the role the confluence of those two perceived assets played in Trump’s victory is one of the few inarguable lessons of the 2016 election.
This lesson, however unacknowledged, is playing out across the 2018 electoral landscape. In Kentucky, a former Marine fighter pilot named Amy McGrath appears in a bomber jacket, declaring that her “new mission” is to “take on a Congress full of career politicians.” Assessing her candidacy’s apparent long odds, she says, with a cockeyed grin, “We’ll see about that.” Another web ad shows a dashing scientist in a white lab coat: Hans Keirstead, a pioneering stem-cell researcher now running to represent California’s 48th District and billing himself as the very definition of a “problem solver.”
In mid-August, I spoke to Ian Russell’s latest client, a telegenic Marine veteran and two-term state representative from Lewiston, Me., named Jared Golden. Lewiston today is a hollowed-out exoskeleton of a textile mill town. “Our way of life is under attack here,” Golden said. “We’re a classic case of the America that’s being left behind. The social-identity issues that have been emphasized in Portland don’t resonate in rural Maine. It’s damaged the Democratic brand here, to be honest. We’re a community of hard-working people who may not be highly educated, but that doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent. The majority of the folks here voted for Donald Trump, and I can tell you that the description of them as a basket of deplorables is just dead wrong.”
Golden told me that his neighbors had until recently thought of themselves as Democrats. Golden himself still is. When we spoke, he had just decided to run in Maine’s Second District against the Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin. Golden would be the fifth Democrat to enter the race. He seemed to have little use for the national party’s “A Better Deal” pitch, telling me, “It’s going to take more than a glossy new policy document to take back the U.S. House.”
What, then, would it take? A few days after I spoke with Golden, Ian Russell traveled to Lewiston and shot his candidate’s announcement ad. It mixes twilit images of small-town Maine with footage of the candidate in combat fatigues; later, he jogs down a country road wearing a T-shirt that says, “Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body.” The ad excoriates the Republican incumbent but also bipartisan trade deals and unnamed political leaders who push “issues that don’t impact your life.”
The word “Trump” is not mentioned in the two-minute ad. Nor is the word “Democrat.”