The three dozen liberal activists who gathered in this church basement situated squarely in a 2017 battleground state had one thing on their minds: How do we help the Democratic Party win elections?
In a party ostensibly rife with divisions, the liberal movement’s newly energized base is often blamed for picking damaging internal fights. But on a recent Saturday in August, a fleet of new grassroots groups formed since Donald Trump’s election focused on anything but disagreements over single-payer health care or abortion rights.
Instead, they wanted to know what they could do to help Democratic candidates win the House of Delegates in Virginia through a series of races that political analysts see as an important dress rehearsal for the 2018 congressional election. One by one, the participants stood up and offered their compatriots help with complying with PAC rules, filming campaign videos, or even babysitting young children while their parents knock on doors of prospective voters.
“We realize we have to work with the party,” said Luisa Boyarksi, the emcee of Saturday’s activist gathering who belongs to her own grassroots group, Together We Will. She said the upcoming election is so important that liberals shouldn’t be “nitpicky” about individual issues.
Trump’s election has sparked a new wave of progressive activism this year, a push that began with the Women’s March in January and is now expressed through the creation of thousands of grassroots organizations known among Democrats as “pop-up groups.”
The surge of activism has drawn comparisons to the conservative “tea party” movement created after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, and many Democrats have worried that the wellspring of grassroots energy might — as the tea party often did with the GOP — fight the party’s political establishment.
But in Virginia, local Democratic officials say this surge of new progressive groups have given their candidates a critical boost of energy, volunteers, and even financial aid. And national Democrats say they hope the cooperative spirit will continue into next year’s midterm elections, where they’re optimistic that grassroots organizations will work with, and not against, the party.
Hours before the gathering at the church, about 10 campaign volunteers were munching on pizza in makeshift campaign offices for David Reid, a Democratic candidate for the Virginia assembly. The volunteers were about to fan out to talk to voters across the legislative district, a battleground held by a Republican incumbent. But many of them weren’t actually from the campaign — three were members of the group Turn It Blue, while one other person belonged to Turnout Blue Virginia.
Both are among the roughly 20 progressive groups that have helped the campaign this year, according to Kathryn Sorenson, Reid’s campaign manager, who keeps track of them on a pile of printed spreadsheets she taped together.
The assistance each provides can vary greatly: Sorenson said outside groups built the campaign’s website, organized small fundraisers on Skype, and pulled together phone banks. Others, like Turn It Blue and Turnout Blue Virginia, focused on in-person voter contacts.
The influx of aid is deeply unusual for state legislative campaigns, most of which are relatively low-profile contests that normally struggle to attract volunteers. Now, Reid’s campaign has had a larger pool of volunteers this summer than even Clinton’s presidential campaign in the area last year, said Hannah Arrighi, Reid’s field director who previously worked as an organizer for the Democratic presidential nominee.
“Now the challenge isn’t getting people to come out,” Sorenson said. “It’s keeping track of the names.”
Virginia Democrats say the support Reid’s campaign has received is emblematic of the assistance their House delegate candidates are receiving across the commonwealth.
“Grassroots groups like those helping David Reid are indispensable to the efforts of most of our campaigns,” said House Democratic Leader David J. Toscano and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, in a statement. “We have an unprecedented number of candidates this year, and grassroots groups have greatly expanded our capacity to communicate with voters in the most effective form possible: at their doors.”
The cooperation in Virginia won’t necessarily be easy for Democrats to replicate in next year’s federal races. For one, Virginia has rules that allow outside groups and state-level campaigns to coordinate in ways not allowed at the federal level.
And the party does face potentially deep divisions over the agenda and rhetoric its candidates should embrace. Single-payer health care, for one, has already sparked a big fight among Democrats in California this year and could spill over into the party’s many upcoming House primaries. In just the last month, groups that support abortion rights have criticized the political arm of House Democrats over the suggestion from its chairman that it would back candidates who identify as “pro-life.”
But at the national level, groups considered part of the Democratic Party establishment have time and again worked cooperatively with these new progressive organizations. Center for American Progress, the party’s most influential think tank, has partnered with groups to teach and encourage best practices at a summit in California. Priorities USA, which last year was Clinton’s super PAC, has launched ads in conjunction with Indivisible to help activists locate town halls from GOP congressmen.
Two other groups, Daily Kos Elections and Swing Left, have even helped set up escrow accounts for the eventual Democratic nominee in some House districts, giving them a pot of cash to tap into just as they enter the general election.
It’s the kind of cooperation with the establishment, Democrats say, that the tea party often avoided. And they say it’s proof that the party won’t split apart because of ideological differences.
“Even in the primary, there wasn’t this kind of intra-fighting a lot of people see on Twitter,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a group that encouraged young men and women to run for office. “Because the people actually doing the work don’t have the time.”
Sorenson, Reid’s campaign manager, said many of the groups don’t take direction from the campaign as much as tell the campaign how they’d like to help. But as long as the efforts are organized, she said she’s happy to have the help any way she can get it.
Talk of division, she added, is overblown.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about us being splintered,” said Liz Enagonio, a member of Turn It Blue who knocked on doors that Saturday for Reid. “Meanwhile, we’re out there putting our nose to the grindstone, doing what needs to be done.”
“As you see today, we can come together.”