It is clear that Democrats’ success in Virginia’s state elections earlier this month offers significant lessons for the national Democratic Party. By winning seven seats in the state legislature, Virginia Democrats flipped party control of both houses; with their Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, they now have control of every statewide office for the first time in more than two decades. Journalists have mined the backstory to try to understand how a formerly red (or, at best, purple) state is now completely controlled by Democrats; The New York Times attributed the outcomes to 30 years of demographic shifts, including a major increase in South Asian residents. It’s a significant change: People of color went from making up 24 percent of the state’s population in 1990 to close to 40 percent today.
Tram Nguyen, the co-executive director of the voter-mobilization and power-building organization New Virginia Majority, is one of the key architects of the change in the state over the past decade. In a recent op-ed, she identified three factors that were essential to their success: sustained, multiyear, paid political organizing; staff who can talk to and organize their neighbors year-round; and the concentration of resources in communities of color, in order to turn population shifts into political power. The article was headlined, “Democrats Could Learn a Lot From What Happened In Virginia”—which raises the question: Which Democrats are responsible for learning those lessons?
Too often the amorphous moniker “Democratic Party” obscures the specific roles of the particular people responsible for creating the kinds of changes we saw in Virginia. At the national level, what we know as the Democratic Party is essentially run by four main entities: the Democratic National Committee, focused specifically on presidential elections; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which helps win elections for the US Senate; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is similar to the DSCC, but for the House of Representatives; and the Democratic Governors Association, which supports gubernatorial candidates. Collectively, these groups controlled and spent about $1 billion during the 2015–16 election cycle and are on track to spend even more money for 2020. If progressives want to win, they must insist on a greater level of specificity, transparency, and accountability from these entities.
Nguyen points out in her article that one secret of their success in Virginia was early and sustained investment in voter registration in communities of color—the populations responsible for the transformation of the state’s electorate and political leadership. At the national level, Democratic groups have made these populations a low priority. Common sense would suggest that you would try to maximize the participation of your strongest supporters. According to presidential exit polling data, 90 percent of African Americans, and 75 percent of people of color overall, consistently vote Democratic—but in 2016, Democratic super PACs allocated $0 of their first $200 million in spending to African American voter mobilization. (By my calculation, they did finally spend close to $30 million—less than 10 percent of their total spending—targeting black voters, but not until six weeks before the election.)
Key decisions need to be made soon about how Democrats and their progressive allies should invest their massive amounts of money in 2020. Between 2016 and next November, 14 million young people will have turned 18, half of whom are people of color. How much money is going to make sure they are registered to vote and will turn out at the polls? Black voter turnout fell off a cliff in 2016, resulting in the slim defeats in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. How much money is going to encouraging massive African American voter-turnout effort?
The silence is deafening. Civic engagement organizations with deep roots and solid track records, such as Nguyen’s New Virginia Majority, played a critical role in that state, but they still had to scrimp and scrounge to put their budget together. Comparable groups and leaders exist in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado. When will the people who run and fund Democratic campaigns move money to these groups?
The reason that many millions of dollars are spent in this unaligned, unintelligent, and unaccountable fashion is because party committees, and especially the large super PACs, don’t have to answer to a board or the public. (I know, because I’ve created and run super PACs myself.) In 2016, virtually all of the Democratic Party’s money was controlled by whites in a party that exit polls show is widely supported by people of color. The demographic complexion of the party apparatus is significantly better now, with people of color serving on the leadership teams for the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC, but the necessary changes must be more than skin-deep. The party must do more than diversify the melanin of its individual leaders, and move on to transforming their organizational cultural competence. What are the backgrounds and expertise of the people making funding decisions? What is their understanding of the psychology and motivations of all stripes of the rainbow? Is the leadership applying the proven best practices from other fields and disciplines?
Medical breakthroughs aren’t tried out on real patients until theories have been subjected to rigorous peer review. That kind of salutary public testing and confirmation and engagement is largely missing from Democratic politics. The leaders of the party need to communicate with their stakeholders in a clear and concise fashion that explains how their spending and strategies are data-driven, empirically sound, and likely to succeed.
The DNC alone, led by Tom Perez, spent $350 million during the 2016 presidential election cycle. Last year, in 2018, it spent $151 million. Meanwhile, the DCCC, under Cheri Bustos, spends close to $300 million (its 2018 expenditures came in at $296 million); the budget for DSCC, led by Catherine Cortez Masto, approaches $150 million ($145 million for 2018). The DGA, whose chair is Gina Raimondo, raised more than $103 million in 2018. (The DGA self-reported only money raised, not spent.) And then there are the super PACs: Senate Majority PAC, which focuses on Senate races and whose president is JB Poersch, spent $164 million last year, while the House Majority PAC, now run by Robby Mook, spent nearly $96 million last year.
Turning around the Democratic ship won’t be easy. Implicit bias runs deep, and old habits die hard. On the night of the Virginia victories, Guy Cecil of Priorities USA—the country’s largest super PAC, which spent nearly $200 million in 2016—used his prominence and platform to shine a spotlight on two white-run groups in Virginia, completely overlooking New Virginia Majority and other organizations that have been in the trenches with communities of color for a decade. Priorities USA has pledged to spend $100 million on the 2020 primaries; it should be working in battleground states across the country to fully fund the kinds of voter-turnout organizations that made the difference in Virginia.
Virginia has shown the Democrats a path forward, but the stakes are high. In January, the party entities will report on their 2019 spending and their 2020 cash on hand, shedding light on their priorities and plans. We will soon see if the right people are paying attention—adjusting their behavior, and their budgets, accordingly.