How liberal activists took over the Democratic Party

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of N.Y., joined at rear by, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of N.Y., joined at rear by, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Only when Ilyse Hogue saw the spectacle with her own eyes did she realize the Democratic Party had a big problem.

Perched over an atrium one day in February, the president of the abortion rights group NARAL watched a mob of reporters – she would later call it a “paparazzi scrum” – move across the floor below her. They were giving the rock-star treatment to Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, who was making the rounds in the spacious Hart Senate Office Building.

“It was like Prince was walking through the building, risen from the dead,” said Hogue, who watched while standing next to a former co-worker.

The frustration building in the longtime liberal activist finally broke: She wanted to thwart Gorsuch’s nomination, but the federal judge – buffeted by good press and a sense of inevitability – was barely facing any resistance from Democratic senators. A recent story had even mentioned how much Gorsuch loved puppies, she quipped.

So Hogue went home and wrote an email to a set of trusted advisers. Titled “Gorsuch Free Pass,” it asked for a battle plan that could persuade Democratic senators to put up a fight.

The events put into motion that day worked better than Hogue – or any other liberal activists – could have hoped.

What once looked like an easy victory for Senate Republicans and Trump has become anything but, thanks to near-unanimous opposition from Senate Democrats. Members who praised the justice just a month earlier now say they not only won’t vote him, but they also won’t support a cloture vote to end a filibuster.

The credit or blame for that change sits squarely with Hogue and the Democrats’ liberal activist wing, which through one-on-one persuasion and grass-roots mobilization convinced party leaders that they needed to muster maximum resistance.

Gorsuch is still expected to be confirmed later this week, but not until the Senate GOP takes the unprecedented step of changing the rules to allow a simple majority of senators to confirm a justice.

Republicans will consider the confirmation of Gorsuch a major victory, no matter the method. But to activists like Hogue, getting Democrats to wage an all-out battle is a win in itself – a sign the party cares about its grass-roots supporters and will stoke their energy from now until next year’s midterm elections.

“This campaign has already been a success because we’re having a real conversation, rather than just sleepwalking through confirmation,” Hogue said.

The activist class’s increasingly direct management of the Democratic Party didn’t start with Gorsuch and it won’t end there, either. Democrats’ congressional leaders have looked to activists for guidance on everything from Cabinet confirmation fights to the GOP health care bill.

Even political decisions – like the party’s involvement in a U.S. House of Representatives special election in Georgia – have been spearheaded by activists, who first started raising gobs of money for the de facto Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff.

“I’ve never seen the Democratic Party as responsive to grass-roots activism as it is now,” said Ben Wikler, the political director for, a longtime hub of liberal advocacy.

Indeed, the party is doing what the base wants. But is that wise?

Turnaround job

Hogue worried that her quest had become hopeless when she hadn’t gained much traction against Gorsuch in the weeks after she saw him in person. But before she gave up, she circulated among liberal activist organizations a draft letter she wanted to send to Senate Democrats, asking them to step up their opposition to the judge.

She wasn’t sure it would receive support from progressives, who were focused on so many other fights with the president. But it did, scoring about a dozen co-sponsors, including, the Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union.

Hogue and others point to that letter as a turning point in how Democrats in the Senate viewed the fight.

“It started to register on them that they need to focus on this,” she said.

The campaign to change the senators’ minds focused on the inside game – one-on-one meetings with the lawmakers – and outside game – bringing public pressure to bear.

MoveOn organized rallies outside the Democrats’ district offices, Wikler said, either thanking them for opposing Gorsuch or pressuring them to do so.

NARAL, a political group formed to support pro-abortion-rights legislation and candidates, hand-delivered more than a million petitions to senators asking them to oppose Gorsuch, making sure the senators themselves received them. The group had help collect the signatures from another progressive group, CREDO Action, which organizes progressive activists. (Hogue joked that Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was surprised to learn that some people mailed in their petitions instead of just doing them online.)

The effort wasn’t easy: Men and women who worked on it describe lawmakers constantly distracted by other Trump-related controversies.

“The Trump administration is almost like an outrage machine,” said Josh Orton, a Democratic strategist who played a key role in the opposition effort. “Understandably, groups were divided not in terms of what was bad, there was just so much ground to cover.”

But in individual meetings, Hogue said, she kept telling lawmakers that the party’s base demanded all-out opposition to Gorsuch.

If it didn’t get a fight, the entire anti-Trump movement might dissipate – or worse, turn its anger on Democrats.

“I made this point to senators that I’m talking to: Five million people didn’t march in streets after the inauguration to wait for the next fight,” Hogue said. “Their hunger is palpable now, and they want to see their senator standing up for them now.”

Pressure from activists, of course, was not the only reason Senate Democrats decided to do almost all they could to block Gorsuch. Many of them remain angry at the way President Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, was denied entry into the nation’s highest court.

But Democratic leaders have gone out of their way to say it helped turn the tide.

“I’ve never seen such dedication and action in the grass-roots communities since the Vietnam War until this year,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on a conference call Sunday with “And you’re really helping us tremendously.”

Republicans might argue that the activist base is helping them tremendously, too. Unlike the fight over the Republican health care bill, polls find that the public is squarely behind Gorsuch’s confirmation.

Opposing him could make Democrats look like pure obstructionists, an especially damaging characterization for some Democrats in right-leaning states who want to prove they can work with Republicans on certain issues.

Hogue dismisses those concerns.

“I actually don’t think those polls are that relevant,” she said. “The Democratic Party needs to be where their most activated base is, because those are the people who do the hard work in elections. They’re the ones who make the phone calls; they’re the ones who make up the small-dollar donors.”

She also doesn’t agree with the argument, pushed by some Democratic strategists, that the party needs to pick its spots, lest it exhaust opposition to Trump on the wrong things.

“Resistance is not finite,” Hogue said, batting down strategists’ concerns. It builds momentum.

How far is too far?

But there might be a larger danger in letting the activist base lead the party.

On Monday, about a dozen leaders of grass-roots progressive groups tried to deliver boxes of petitions to the Senate Democrats’ political arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, demanding that it stop funding three incumbent Democrats, each up for re-election next year, who said they would support Gorsuch’s nomination: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The activists tried to make the delivery to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, or its executive director, Mindy Myers. Instead, an unnamed aide came to the door, collected the boxes and eventually told them that no one was available to meet.

“Not right now, I’m so sorry,” the aide said, standing in the doorway of a building across the street from the Capitol. “Thank you guys so much.”

These kinds of maneuvers are driving the disquiet among Democratic strategists about the party’s empowered activist base. Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp each represent a deep red state that Trump won by at least 19 percentage points. In the estimation of just about every professional operative, these lawmakers are the party’s only chance to hold on to their seats – now and in the future.

But to the activists gathered outside the DSCC headquarters, the trio was committing what amounted to political treason.

“We absolutely have to stand up and fight and stop Gorsuch from being confirmed if we want to save our democracy,” said Claire Sandberg, a former operative for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and co-founder of #allofus, a group that has said it will back primary challengers to Democrats who work with Trump.

Last week, #allofus started raising money in hopes of finding and supporting a primary challenger to Manchin, the Democratic senator who has been most willing to support Trump.

Other progressive groups, like or Democracy for America, did not join the protest. Quietly, some of them dismissed it as unrealistic and counterproductive.

But the idea of cutting off Democratic senators who, acting in their own political interests, try to cooperate with Trump is not something Hogue would rule out.

“People come at this from all sorts of different angles,” she said. “Those groups are just representing their members, and I’m not going to tell their members if they’re right and wrong.”

Wikler, from MoveOn, added, "It’s critical for different folks across the progressive movement to employ a variety of strategies and tactics to encourage Democrats to show spine."

"And every Democrat should be on notice that if they side with Trump, there will be blowback," he said.

Activist Kai Newkirk, a co-founder of the small anti-government corruption group Democracy Spring at the protest, said he thought Democratic leaders were by and large listening to his concerns.

He compared the relationship to a game of tug-of-war between the establishment and activists.

Right now, he said, the activists are winning.

“If we keep pulling,” he said, “they’re going to have to keep moving.”

About 30 minutes after the protest ended, the media reported that Senate Democrats had the votes to force a cloture vote.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty