North Wilkesboro, North Carolina
What on God’s green earth has gotten into the Wilkes County Democrats? Here it is, the first pretty April Saturday of a snowy, blowy spring. There’s yards to mow, balls to toss, plants to plant, Blue Ridge Mountains to hike–all of which you’d think would be mighty tempting on Democratic convention day in a place where Republicans have a damn near two-to-one edge. “Welcome to red-hot Republican territory,” says Dick Sloop, a career-military retiree turned antiwar protester who’s the new county Democratic chair. “We’ve been like the homeless around here: silent and invisible. The best we ever did in my lifetime, we had two Democrats once on a five-seat county commission.” Even here in western North Carolina, where Republicans have proliferated since the Civil War (when the woods were full of Union sympathizers rather than pro-lifers), Wilkes County–Bible-thumping, economically slumping–has stood out for its fire-and-brimstone conservatism. It’s been a stiff challenge to find folks willing to run against the Republicans. Hell, it’s been rare to hear anybody publicly admit to being a Democrat. “You’ve got a lot of people in this county who probably couldn’t tell you if they’ve ever met one,” Sloop says.
But in a scene playing out this year all across “red America,” from these lush hills to the craggy outcroppings of the Mountain West, previously unfathomable crowds of Democrats are streaming up the steps of the old county courthouse, past bobbing blue balloons and Welcome Democrats! signs. They’re hopping mad about the national state of things but simultaneously giddy with a new-found hope–finally!–for their party.
Inside, as the courtroom fills up, three symbols of the new spirit bustle around. There’s trim old Clyde Ingle, a onetime Hubert Humphrey campaigner who “finally just got tired of sitting up there in Deep Gap and complaining.” Ingle and his wife, Eva, have spent the past couple of years cajoling shy Wilkes County Democrats to “come out of the closet,” get organized and active. Then there’s Mark Hufford, a young, towheaded bundle of energy who’s been helping Democrats win breakthrough elections as a field organizer. And there’s white-haired, wisecracking “Uncle Bob” Johnston, who retired to Wilkes from upstate New York and promptly found himself being talked into the party chairmanship. “You’ve got to be in trouble when you’re asking an 80-year-old Yankee to run things,” he quips.
Suddenly, though, things actually are running, as Johnston notes after the meeting commences. “The county has twenty-two precincts,” he informs the folks. “And I’m proud to announce that every one of them is organized as of just the other day.” It might sound dull as dirt, but this is the kind of meticulous organizing–and pride taken in it–that has long been key to GOP dominance in places like Wilkes. The fifty-state strategy kicked off in 2005 by that other Yankee, DNC chair Howard Dean, has begun to level the playing field by putting field organizers, media directors and fundraisers into both “red” and “blue” states to stimulate grassroots organizing and year-round party-building.
Of course, it’s not the national strategy alone that’s bringing record numbers out to county conventions, precinct parties and Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. The main event this morning is going to be a heaping helping of the other ingredients in the Democratic resurrection across so-called red America–fury and frustration.
“Good morning everyone!” comes the booming drawl of Seth Chapman, the longtime clerk of court in neighboring Alexander County who’s pondering a 2008 challenge to the archconservative Republican Congresswoman from these parts, Virginia Foxx. “Isn’t this something–in Wilkes County of all places! I’ll tell you what, I’ve been over here before when there was maybe six of us. This is great. How on fire the Democratic Party must be in Wilkes County–and rightfully so. You have suffered for centuries!”
Amen! shout several voices as Chapman, a plain-looking, middle-aged fellow in a dark suit ideal for funerals, serves up a couple of laugh lines, surveys the crowd with a gimlet eye and then, rather than work himself up to it, begins to flat-out holler into the superfluous microphone. “This hard work that we’ve got going on here, and the only thing the opposition is working for is their own sorry hides! Staying in there with the rats, looking out for nobody but their own selves and their own political agenda. And I for one am about fed up with it!”
Mmmm! a woman’s voice rises from the second row. Tell it!
“Heard all the rhetoric. Heard everything they said they was going to do. What have they done? Bankrupted this country. Got us into a war needlessly! And doing nothing but telling us everything’s all right. I’m going to go into a little more detail about that.”
As he does, it becomes clear that Chapman, like speakers in many a county courthouse these days, is aiming not only to light a fire under the long-discouraged Democrats but also to pick apart the Republican messages that have proven so irresistible to folks, Democrats included, in places like Wilkes. “Of course, we know why Republicans oppose taxes: They want all the tax breaks. Let the rich man go, let the poor man pay: That’s their philosophy, as it has been and always will be!”
Chapman pauses to shuffle his notes dramatically, Baptist preacher-style, then brandishes a copy of resolutions passed at the GOP’s recent district convention. “Do you believe their resolution says, Listen to the people of their district, not special-interest groups? Republicans talking about cleaning up governmental corruption is just like saying that Lucifer will suddenly become the angel of light again!”
You know that’s right!
It seems impossible, but Chapman is getting louder now, jowls swinging, sweat beading, as folks alternately “mmm!” and “amen” and whoop out loud. “You ought to be tiiiiiired of what’s going on in government! It’s a shame, and it’s a sham. This is the party of what’s right, they tell you. The party of God, they tell you. The party of moral values, they tell you. And if they can’t play the God card, they’ll play the military card. Now, I pray daily–and I beg you to–for our troops and what they’re trying to accomplish over there with this needless, reckless war that’s going on. I pray daily that God will hasten the day–”
“–that they can return home and know war no more!” That gets a standing O.
“We’re fighting a war” right here at home, Chapman declares. “Let’s see… what should we call it? A war against radical Republicanism!” And from there, as he swells toward one final crescendo, the Wilkes Democrats having gotten pretty red-faced and sweaty themselves.
“The day of Republican smoke-screening and hiding under the outward righteousness of pharisaical Rome is ov-ahhhhh! America has seen, America has witnessed, your party’s lip service to values, and we’re tired of it. We will tolerate it no more! The Republican Party has no more claim on values and principles and especially God than those crazy jihadists over there! Your party’s reign of terror values is ov-ahhhhh!”
Whew! Back in the long-gone days when Chapman’s style of Democratic preachment was a popular form of entertainment in the South, the folks would have started filtering away after “the speaking.” But nowadays the real work starts after the officers are elected, after the barbecue lunch is wolfed down. Ingle has organized a “practice canvass,” in which novices will peel out across local neighborhoods, each accompanied by an experienced canvasser, to knock on the doors of fellow party members, urge them to get off their couches and put their own frustrations to work. “Practice, practice, practice,” Ingle tells the folks. “That’s what 2007 is all about. In ten months, we are gonna be something. We’re going to take back the halls of Congress and City Hall.” Farfetched as it sounds, it wouldn’t be any more so than the red-to-blue turnaround that’s happened just up the road in three formerly Republican counties. Not, that is, unless the Washington Democrats revert to their old form and find a way to douse the flames.
The single oddest thing about the fifty-state strategy is surely the adjective often attached to it: “controversial.”
Just how, exactly, could there be controversy over a national political party organizing nationally–especially after years of pissing billions into an ever-shrinking “target” slice of the country, ceding wider and wider chunks of territory and disdaining the grassroots while Republicans built a powerful army of ground troops? The DNC’s fifty-state project is relatively inexpensive, compared with the costs of the thirty-second TV ad blitzes the party has increasingly relied on to target voters in Ohio and Florida. Salaries for the state parties run to about $8 million annually, considerably less than 10 percent of the DNC’s budget and downright humble compared with what the GOP and its affiliates spend for similar party work.
In just two years, the belated catch-up effort has paid off in at least two tangible ways: It has exponentially multiplied grassroots party involvement and–in a short-term benefit not even envisioned by its architects–has helped win an impressive number of state, local and Congressional elections in majority-Republican regions. That’s not to mention the intangible benefits of fanning out 180 Democratic organizers, fundraisers and communications specialists across the map, many of them working in places like western North Carolina, where, as one local activist puts it, “a lot of Democrats think of the national party as the devil itself.” As the chair of the most overwhelmingly Republican of states, Utah’s Wayne Holland, wrote last year, “Democrats have become outsiders who do things to us, not insiders who do things for us. The fifty-state strategy is one way to turn it around.”
It is, in short, one of the brightest ideas the DNC has had in its undistinguished history. And the timing could not have been better: The organizing is providing a channel for the disgust inspired by the mounting catastrophes of the Bush years. In deep-red states like Utah, it’s ticked up the number of Democrats voting and candidates running (30 percent more in 2006). In “purple” states like North Carolina, where Democrats dominate most local and statewide elections, it’s helping to turn red counties purple and purple counties blue, uncorking a new strain of progressive populism–the kind that won Senate races in Virginia for Jim Webb, Montana for Jon Tester and Ohio for Sherrod Brown.
And it might not outlive the next presidential election.
Why? For starters, look no further than the other modifier often attached to the effort: “Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy.” From the moment the former Vermont governor launched his campaign for DNC chair in the wake of the Democrats’ 2004 debacle, the party establishment–that shadowy claque of high-paid consultants, big-money donors, lobbyists, pundits, Clintonites and Congressional leaders–has been at pains to paint Dean’s vision as another manifestation of the out-of-control tendencies they fretted about, and whispered so gainfully to the media about, when he ran for President.
Dean’s campaign for party chair was an outsider’s run at the ultimate insider’s job, spurred by a meeting he had at the 2004 national convention with disgruntled party leaders from eighteen long-neglected “red” states. In his own 2004 run, Dean had “found himself in the odd position of a candidate in charge of a movement that grew up almost accidentally around him,” says Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard public-policy lecturer and highly unlikely “Deaniac” best known for encouraging the party’s break with New Deal liberalism as a Democratic Leadership Council strategist. “That gave him the insights that led to the fifty-state strategy.”
Dean had also studied the national rise of Republicanism, when the GOP built from the ground up in Southern and Western states that had long been tough terrain for them. “The Republicans sat down thirty years ago and figured out how to do this,” Dean says. “Through disciplined organization they were able to take over the country.” He spotted another kink in the Democratic works, says strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager. “Republicans start the campaign the day after an election, win or lose. They don’t wait to have a nominee before they start putting together a battle plan,” she says. “Same on down the line, state and local. Democrats have started the day the nominee is selected, which is just bass-ackwards. We haven’t had a party; we’ve had candidates and campaigns.” That’s one reason, Dean believes, Democrats haven’t projected a strong national image, while GOP themes of low taxes and high morals have resonated loud and clear. “It’s been a problem that presidential campaigns are where our themes are developed,” he says. “Presidential campaigns are risk-averse by their nature, and it’s not the best place to be developing your message and thinking big picture about where your party stands.”
Dean’s analysis ran contrary to the entrenched interests of those who had long run the DNC, Matt Bai wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine, as “essentially a service organization for a few hundred wealthy donors, who treated it like their private political club.” Also being served at this “club” were Congressional leaders who had risen with help from the old DNC. And then there were the big-ticket consultants, the James Carvilles and Paul Begalas, who had shot to fortune and fame with their image-driven, big-media Bill Clinton campaigns, their pricey polling data and “strategic targeting.”
“If you make your living buying and making TV ads, then you’re not really very wild about a change in technology that says, Let’s hire organizers,” says Kamarck. “The whole political-consultant industry has been built on ads. But with cable TV and the diffusion of media, what the hell good is an ad? The fifty-state strategy takes a generation of consultants and kind of says, Let’s put you out to pasture.”
Despite insiders’ desperate efforts to stop him, Dean cruised to victory, with overwhelming support from the “red” South and interior West. The club was integrated. And sure enough, the strangest things started happening.
Dean set out to make good on his promises, dispatching assessment teams to meet with leaders of every state party. First was North Carolina, where 34-year-old progressive Jerry Meek, the newly elected chair, was pleasantly flabbergasted by the DNC team’s attitude. “They came down here and said, basically, What do you need? What is it that we can do to help build the state party in North Carolina?”
These were jaw-dropping questions. As Dean says, “Washington’s idea of accountability is that you ask people in the states to jump and they’ll ask, How high?” Meek recovered quickly enough to ask the DNC to pay the salaries of three regional organizers he was already planning to bring on board. The DNC complied. And they weren’t sent down from Washington; state parties make their own hires, on Dean’s wild theory that “the closer you can get to neighbors talking to neighbors, the better you can reach people with the Democratic message in a way they’ll understand.”
North Carolina’s first hire, Mark Hufford, knew the turf. He also knew that Democrats in a few of these mountain counties had already begun to dig themselves out of the doldrums–particularly in Watauga County, where a band of progressives had taken over the party apparatus in the 1990s and, despite a sizable Republican majority among registered voters, slowly built toward dominance in local elections. The Watauga organizers were soon being deployed to help Hufford train and inspire other county leaders on recruiting good candidates, motivating volunteers and getting out votes. Last fall, as Watauga County chair Diane Tilson happily recalls, “We were the first county in the nation to do a countywide canvass. Yes we were! It was freezing cold, but we did it.”
Often, even when hard-core Republicans answer their doors, they turn out to have issues on their mind that run right up the Democratic alley. “There’s so many people that really don’t realize the relationship between elections and whether or not they’re going to be able to get their drugs,” Tilson says, “or how expensive gas is.” While new canvassers often brace themselves for a barrage of questions about abortion and gay marriage, that’s not foremost on most folks’ minds. “They’re thinking about whether they’ll have heat this winter,” she says. “How they’re going to get themselves to the grocery store and work.”
In November, Democrats swept every race in Watauga. They won big down the road in Ashe County, another Republican stronghold with a newly energized grassroots. Eight-term GOP Congressman Charles Taylor was dethroned by Heath Shuler, a social conservative, but one with a feisty prolabor and environmental bent. And the Democrats came within one win of a clean sweep in “red” Polk County. In a blog on the statewide progressive website, BlueNC, Polk chair Margaret Johnson chalks it up not only to better organizing but to “walking the talk about what it means to be a Democrat.” Where grassroots Republicans often rally around religious issues, the Polk and Watauga Democrats have turned themselves into quasi-civic groups year-round, organizing roadside cleanups, planting gardens, helping the needy, putting on fundraising walks to benefit the environment. “Even Republicans come up to me,” says Johnson, “and say, I may not agree with your politics, but I sure like what you’re doing.”
While the fifty-state strategy was fueling the brush fire across western North Carolina and other unlikely parts of red-state America in 2006, the Washington club was fit to be tied. With George W. Bush plunging toward record-low approval ratings, the polls were showing that Democrats had a real shot at winning back Congress–and what was their party chair doing? Stubbornly refusing to scale back his fifty-state priorities and open the DNC’s ATM to the Democratic campaign committees! So what if the Senate and Congressional campaign outfits were raking in unprecedented money, some of it from the big donors who used to open their wallets for the DNC? There were ads to buy, targets to target, consultants to consult!
Clearly, this state of affairs cried out for some well-placed media smears and strong-arm tactics. In March 2006 House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader-to-be Harry Reid met with the miscreant from Vermont and, according to the Washington Post, “complained about Dean’s priorities.” To little avail. In May DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel and DSCC honcho Chuck Schumer had a similar contretemps with Dean, ending with Emanuel reportedly storming out with “a trail of expletives.” And on CNN, Clinton consultant and longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala tartly mouthed the insiders’ consensus. “He says it’s a long-term strategy. But what he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.”
While Dean and Schumer came to a truce, others continued to fume–even after the Democrats won back Congress, not to mention several red-state legislatures, in November. Before the victory celebrations had wound down, Carville renewed fire on the DNC, telling a group of reporters that Dean had cost the party an additional twenty House seats with “leadership…Rumsfeldian in its competence.” But former DNC chair Don Fowler of South Carolina, whose son Donnie had run against Dean for party chair, was among a chorus of power hitters who eventually shouted down what he called Carville’s “nonsense.”
Not a harsh word has been heard, at least publicly, from Dean’s detractors since the Carville brouhaha. That’s thanks not only to the intervention of saner voices but also to a study of the fifty-state strategy’s impact on the 2006 midterm results by Elaine Kamarck. While the project had not been designed to win elections in the short run, Kamarck found that it had done just that, “increasing the Democratic vote share beyond the bounce of a national tide favoring Democrats.” Comparing Democratic results in ’06 with those of the ’02 midterms, she found that the average Democratic vote went up by nearly 5 percent in 2006. But in the thirty-five Congressional districts where fifty-state staffers had worked on the campaigns, Democratic votes had soared by an average of nearly 10 percent.
“Nothing like a little straight analysis to cut through the bullshit, huh?” Kamarck says. “This came out in January and quickly got distributed. I kept running into the big-money guys and they had all read it. It was funny to see how quickly this went through the political fundraising community. They’re desperate for something that is hard data as opposed to the nonstop sales pitches they get. And you never heard a peep after that from Carville.”
But these are Washington Democrats we’re talking about; the story couldn’t possibly end as tidily as this. It’s far from certain what fate the fifty-state effort will meet when Dean’s tenure ends in early 2009. He has insisted he doesn’t want another four years–and even if he did, he’d likely be out of luck no matter how the presidential election pans out. If the Democrats lose, Dean will surely catch much of the blame. And if there’s a Democrat in the White House, tradition dictates that the President nominates–and effectively selects–the chair. But Jay Parmley, a former Oklahoma state chair and roving DNC organizer in the South, is guardedly optimistic. “A lot of people are fretting, Oh, my gosh, when Howard leaves what’s gonna happen?” he says. “I’m not worried about it going away after what we saw in 2006. Whoever wins the White House is going to have to say, Well, this fifty-state strategy helped get me there, and so we’re not going to monkey with it too much.
“Doesn’t mean they won’t, of course.”
The real fear is that a second Clinton presidency would mean a return to the Washington-centric ways of the first–to party control by “the very people who ground down the activist base in the 1990s and have continued to hold the party’s grassroots in utter contempt,” as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos wrote in the Washington Post. The harshest public critics of Dean’s strategy are also among Hillary Clinton’s most trusted advisers: Emanuel, Carville, Begala. As Thomas Edsall reported in The New Republic last year, many top Clintonites so loathe and mistrust Dean that their campaign is “laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC.” There is talk of Clinton’s team keeping its own field staff with the campaign after winning the primaries, rather than shifting them under the auspices of the DNC for the general election, as has been standard practice. “The DNC is going to be peripheral” if Hillary wins the nomination, one Clinton aide said. Clinton acolyte Harold Ickes Jr. has raised millions for a private voter database, to avoid relying on the DNC’s.
But Kamarck believes the Clinton campaign, if Hillary is nominated, would make peace with Dean’s DNC for one reason: He’s transformed it from the Democrats’ perennial problem into one of their biggest assets. “What you typically see is that as soon as a Democratic nominee is chosen, they send some senior eminence down to the DNC,” Kamarck says. “The first thing this senior eminence does is complain about what a mess the party is. Because it always was. This time, the presidential candidate is going to come in and be wowed by what they see.” And that, in turn, may give Dean leverage to keep organizers in the field throughout 2008, rather than devoting the entire apparatus to the presidential campaign–also the old norm.
“He’s earned a seat at the table,” says Donna Brazile. “Can’t nobody pull his tablecloth and take his knife and fork at this point.”
Besides, says Brazile, Democrats have a historic opportunity to start building a lasting national majority by winning back more of the voters–in places like Wilkes County, for one–they started to lose four decades ago. “White swing voters in the South and West are now much more open to independent-minded and liberal Democrats,” she says. “They’re disgusted with the Republicans. This is the moment to bring them back. Why pull the rug out from them? Why leave that terrain to the Republicans all over again?”