Black Democrats on Capitol Hill are finally feeling elated — and validated — as they look ahead in the aftermath of the Alabama Senate race.
After years of griping that national party leaders aren’t taking their advice on how to win elections across the South, African-American lawmakers Wednesday saw the story of the Doug Jones campaign as a case study in what happens when people listen to them. The message: Go local. Become intimately familiar with the constituents. Go early to the churches and the neighborhood gathering spots.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Assistant House Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, among others, have long argued that more often than not, the Democratic Party campaign apparatus makes an aggressive pitch to black voters in the closing weeks before an election instead of making a sustained voter engagement effort throughout a campaign.
What gives Democrats new optimism is that the structure and strategy in the Jones campaign can be used as a model elsewhere.
Jones on Tuesday defeated Republican Roy Moore, the first time in 25 years Alabama has elected a Democratic senator. Many of his campaign’s key strategic decisions were based in large part on a special election race that came before it in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District.
“It was pretty much an exact model,” Clyburn said.
On June 20, Democrat Archie Parnell, a Sumter, S.C., tax attorney, came within 3 percentage points of beating conservative firebrand Ralph Norman to replace ex-GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney in Congress.
Political strategists noticed Parnell’s strong performance in a bright red district. Those looking to win in places favorable to Donald Trump were asking what the Parnell campaign did right.
The answer, said Kendall Corley, Parnell’s special election campaign strategist, was to employ a hyper-local, grassroots approach to engaging voters, particularly in the black community, where southern Democratic strongholds are often strongest.
Appealing to people at the most granular levels of civic life is what works in elections for the school board or county council, Corley explained to McClatchy on Wednesday morning. Rarely, until recently, has this philosophy been applied to federal elections.
At some point during the Jones campaign, the Democratic National Committee — led by Jaime Harrison, the former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman now in DNC leadership — asked Corley to help implement a similar ground game in Alabama.
“We put a point of contact in each county, and people in churches, where a lot of African-Americans still receive information and knowledge,” said Corley.
“We set up what we call ‘Adopt a Precinct,’ in which certain civic groups like fraternities and sororities, churches, barber shops, adopt a precinct they are in, or is contiguous to their organization building, and they are responsible for the turnout in that precinct. We gave them maybe a list and any other resources that they needed to run the vote out.”
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who helped coordinate voter outreach in black churches for the Parnell campaign, was also brought in to help ensure the Jones operation maintained a similarly consistent and productive presence in the pews.
“The big difference in this race is that they had an African-American plan,” said Richmond.
According to exit polling, Jones ended up winning the black vote with 96 percent.
Rep. Terri Sewell, currently the only Alabama Democrat in Congress and the first black woman ever elected to represent the state, said as in the Parnell race, the Jones campaign worked hard not to nationalize its campaign.
“I can tell you that the DNC came in and listened to the elected officials on the ground who said, ‘We don’t need any more media money, we need (get out the vote) money, and we need it in these areas,’” said Sewell.
She said that Harrison, DNC Chairman Tom Perez and Deputy DNC Chairman Keith Ellison also came and “literally asked me for names. Not just asked me for a strategy but, like, who would you hire in this neighborhood, this town.”
Sewell, who stood on stage beside Jones at his victory part yon Tuesday night, returned to Washington on Wednesday as a mini-celebrity. In a marked departure from the somber tone after previous post-election mornings, when black Democrats complained that the party spent too little time and too little money courting the African-American vote, black caucus members showered Sewell with hugs and high-fives.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who is routinely asked to pose for pictures from fans, sought out Sewell and took a selfie with her.
Democrats are well aware that their ability to maintain this momentum depends on some unknowns. Jones won in large part because of Moore’s record of alleged sexual misconduct involving girls as young as 14.
At the DNC, Harrison has been working to lay the groundwork in other states. He plans to roll out a “Dems for You” program in all 50 states modeled after an initiative he started in South Carolina which will encourage state Democratic parties to organize community services events — from school supply drives to resume-writing workshops — as a way to gain visibility in their communities.
“It’s a sustained effort that does not go away after an election and does not arrive because of it,” Harrison explained.
The DNC also needs to provide money and resources targeted at promising places. A complaint in the South Carolina congressional race was that these resources didn’t come soon enough. The national party has also made promises in the past to make wiser choices about where and how to compete in red states, but often left Democrats feeling disappointed or neglected.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico acknowledged that “my colleagues aren’t wrong” in some of their grievances, but the party’s House fundraising arm was learning lessons and applying them, including working with CBC members.
Seawright said something different was clearly starting to happen.
“No way in hell did anybody think the Democratic National Committee or anybody else would invest at the level they did in a state like Alabama, a red state,” he said. “And guess what? It paid.”