Dems Hope to Ride Grassroots' Anti-Trump Wave Till 2018

Dems Hope to Ride Grassroots' Anti-Trump Wave Till 2018
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BALTIMORE – They may be the minority party, but House Democrats are feeling energized these days – and for good reason. They point to the grassroots protests, marches and town-hall disruptions of recent weeks as a sign that President Trump has already sparked involvement by their base at historic levels.

The high-profile protests so far have been organic, not organized by any party apparatus – from the women’s march on inauguration weekend to the thousands who showed up at airports following Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. Dozens of lawmakers joined in the events at the National Mall and airports, eager to encourage such activism and take part in it.

But for lawmakers reinvigorated after feeling shell-shocked following the election, the critical question is how to turn opposition outrage into an electoral movement, and how to make sure the energy is still palpable 20 months from now at Trump’s first midterm election.

It’s a question that was central to discussions at the annual conference for House Democrats here in Charm City last week. They know they have a major opportunity on their hands -- but also one that carries the risk of losing momentum or misreading the desires of their agitated base.

“I think we’re really conscious of the fact that that energy is a double-edged sword,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a co-chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. “If we can channel it, if we can be true to it and if we can use it to make some progress, it’s going to be a great thing for the Democrats. But it’s also going to be an energy that holds us accountable, and I think there’s a sense of that in the caucus, which is woe will befall those who don’t listen to the very loud yells that are coming up from our supporters."

In some ways, there have already been tangible results. Rep. Katherine Clark, the vice chairwoman of recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the group has already spoken to more than 40 potential candidates for Congress next year. One such person, on an unrelated trip to Washington, came to the DCCC unannounced to seek advice about running for office, according to a committee aide.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the chairman of the committee, said the DCCC views connecting with as many people as possible to be a critical step forward. The committee has hired full-time staffers in 20 targeted Republican districts to keep the organizing going, and professionalizing it into a campaign effort by next year.

“It was important to us to make sure we reached out with everyone we could,” Lujan told reporters here Thursday. “To visit with them, to keep them engaged, to engage those that maybe aren’t engaged. We’ve heard the importance of the march for progress, and now we want people to run for office, to volunteer and to vote."

In an effort to better mesh House Democrats’ agenda and messaging with the interests of the grassroots, Rep. Kathy Castor led a panel on the final morning of the retreat with representatives of several groups, including Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington.

Castor said in an interview with RCP afterward that there was a desire among members of Congress to be more engaged with those organizations, and a desire among her constituents to become more actively involved in the process. Constituents have asked her at marches for details on specific pieces of legislation and daily activity in Congress. A key discussion, she said, was how to foster more cooperation among the groups and lawmakers, and the organizers on the panel emphasized that the latter can provide detailed information for those less informed but interested in getting involved.

“It’s how we turn the protest into a movement,” Castor said. “The grassroots, the citizens across the country, I feel, are way ahead of politicians. Citizens across the country are worried and they’re energized and they are in the lead for a change. They want to hear from their elected representatives at all levels. They’re more engaged than ever. We’re focused on how do we focus that energy into elections and really making a difference in policy from the Hill."

But while Democrats see tremendous opportunity in engaging with these protesters, there’s hesitation among some about inserting themselves too much, or professionalizing the effort. Several House Democrats said they see benefit to the organic, bottom-up nature of the anti-Trump outcry, but that needs to be balanced with converting it into an electoral outcome.  

Rep. John Yarmuth, the only Democratic member of Congress from Kentucky and the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said it’s possible many of the marchers don’t care about party affiliations. They have policy agendas, or want total opposition to Trump, he said, and it is unlikely that Democrats could control or dictate their message even if they tried. Instead, Yarmuth said, it is important for Democratic lawmakers to “make sure they know we are at least encouraging them."

“We’ve got to figure out how to harness that if we can. But I’ve told a lot of them, why would you expect us to be the ones?” Yarmuth told RealClearPolitics. “You got out here -- we didn’t get you out here. I think there’s probably a legitimate case to be made to let that remain organic and see where it goes rather than try to make it a Democratic thing.”

Still, there’s a potential danger for elected officials down the road. Progressive groups have called for total opposition to Trump, and have threatened backlash for Democrats who work with the administration in any capacity.

Most members at the retreat in Baltimore suggested that because of the fast-paced, aggressive – and, in their eyes, outrageous – early agenda from Trump, working with him remains out of the question. But they also cautioned that if the president proposed solutions that they viewed as beneficial to the American people, such as infrastructure spending, they might be willing to engage. However, an enraged grassroots might turn some of its fire on Democrats if they’re seen as working with Trump.

“So far, we haven’t seen anything from the administration that would justify any kind of cooperation,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “Of course we engage where we can. We haven’t seen any reason to engage yet.”

As for opposing Trump, there is next to no chance they can win legislative victories, as Republicans will be able to pass major legislative items on party-line votes. House Democrats will have to look to the courts, which provided Trump an early setback on his immigration ban last week, as they’re refuge for noteworthy gains. And they hope that the grassroots energy holds up until 2018.

“I think then the activism and the interest and engagement is going to increase, not decrease,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez. “Granted, two years is a long period of time, but once people are active and engaged in the civic process and standing up and voicing their opinions for the America that they want to see and the issues they want our government to prioritize, it’s very hard to quell that energy."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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