The nation’s capital was plunged into chaos this week, beset by Paul Ryan’s retirement, Donald Trump’s threats, and a raid on the home and office of the president’s personal lawyer.
But removed from the tumult, a few hundred men and women were having a very different experience in a Washington hotel. Gathered for a candidate-training conference, these progressives were reveling in what they believe is the political moment that will vault the liberal movement into power not just in Washington but nationwide.
“What you are doing is making a political revolution,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told the crowd, which rewarded him with uproarious applause throughout his speech. Many of the candidates in attendance count Sanders as their political hero, crediting his unexpectedly effective primary against Hillary Clinton with inspiring their own candidacy.
The multi-day event, organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, drew 450 candidates – many of them running for office for the first time. Not surprisingly, with progressive energy sweeping the country, it was the largest such event the PCCC has ever held. (Last year’s gathering drew a then-record 300 candidates.)
Candidates – who hailed from states ranging as far apart politically as Kansas to California — received training on the basics of campaign trail life: learning to respond to reporter questions, giving speeches, and using social media.
Hollywood screenwriters offered training on how to tell a personal story, teaching candidates to identify and highlight compelling parts of their personal biographies.
At times the gathering felt more like a political rally than staid conference, especially when liberal icons Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Keith Ellison spoke. Each received repeated ovations and shouts of encouragement throughout speeches that encouraged progressives to recognize the progress they’ve made and keep fighting to earn even more.
“You can hear it when we were in there earlier, and I think that’s kind of indicative of the whole country,” said James Thompson, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District. “There’s this excitement building in the United States and across the country to change what’s going on, to change the narrative, to change the leadership.”
Democrats are confident about next year’s midterm elections, convinced that Trump’s historically low approval numbers -- the president’s approval rating was just 41 percent in Gallup’s weekly survey -- give them a strong opportunity to win the 23 seats necessary to control the House majority. They even think they can make gains in the Senate, possibly even win a majority there too, despite defending a litany of deep-red seats.
They’ve been aided in that effort by a boon in liberal enthusiasm since Trump’s election, one that has led to mass protests such as the “Women’s March” and a surge in candidate recruitment that The New York Times reports has given the party its biggest edge on the GOP in more than a decade.
But as much as progressives are keen to help win in November, they’re equally as excited by – in their view – the liberal turn Democratic Party has taken. Sanders ticked off an array of issues he said were once extreme positions for a Democrat but now rate as commonplace, including support for a single-payer health care system, $15 minimum wage and free college tuition.
“What was once considered radical is now mainstream,” said Sanders.
Liberals transformed the debate in America, he said, and “are winning that fight big time.”
The contrast between the ascension of a liberal agenda and Ryan’s announced retirement was also not lost on some of the progressives who attended the conference. Ryan, even more than Trump, is a longtime foe to progressive activists who are critical of his desire to change the social safety net and reduce taxes and regulations on businesses and wealthier people.
“The center of gravity in American politics is shifting in a bold, progressive economic populist direction,” said Adam Green, PCCC’s co-founder. “The Elizabeth Warren-style set of issues are on the rise and considered in the mainstream now. When many of these issues, such as debt-free college and expanding Social Security, weren’t even talked about just five or six years ago.”
Progressives at the event didn’t direct their ire just toward Republicans. On Thursday, the progressive candidates held a de-facto open mic session in a large conference room where, one at a time, Democratic leaders came up criticism over a perceived failure to sufficiently support progressives’ bids for office.
Many of these candidates said they were encouraged by party insiders to adopt more moderate positions, or they were opposed outright by the party because they refused to bend to the will of Democratic leaders.
Green, speaking to the whole room, singled out Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos from Illinois as the type of Democrat “who actively bashes progressive all the time and calls us silly for wanting to run on our values.”
“One thing that I see over and over again,” Green said, “is you don’t have to do that.”