100 Days: Trump's Rocky Start Fires Up Dazed Dems

100 Days: Trump's Rocky Start Fires Up Dazed Dems
Steve Griffin /The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
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Democrats charting their long course out of the wilderness might look fondly upon the first 100 days of the Donald Trump administration.

For in this window of time, they have seen: the new president’s travel ban challenged in courts, a Cabinet appointee withdraw, the FBI make public its investigation into the campaign’s Russia ties, the attorney general and House intelligence chairmen recuse themselves from their own probes, the unraveling of a years-long effort to repeal Obamacare, Trump back away from his insistence of border wall funding, liberal activism at Republican town halls, and special elections that have put the GOP on edge.

As it turns out, the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency have invigorated a decimated Democratic Party in ways its own standard bearers could not. The president’s low job approval rating has further complicated the calculus for congressional Democrats inclined to work with the White House to shape legislation. Instead, some members of the loyal opposition are already laying the early groundwork to challenge him in 2020.

The Democratic House and Senate campaign committees report a surge in recruitment and fundraising in response to the new administration, and outside groups are busy harnessing momentum from a newly re-activated liberal base.

“The resistance has fundamentally altered American politics,” said Anna Galland, executive director for MoveOn.org. “This is the biggest grassroots movement, at least in my lifetime, and it has transformed the way elected officials are acting. It’s a shot across the bow for not just 2018 but for 2020 and beyond.”

Yet not too far beneath this shiny surface exist significant issues and problem sets including the party’s structure, leadership, and message that can’t be fixed simply by focusing on Trump’s own troubles. And for all the trials and tribulations of the new administration, the president did make good on a most consequential campaign promise: the confirmation of conservative Neil Gorsuch to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.

While public polling assessing the first 100 days of the new administration found a historically unpopular president, Americans aren’t exactly enticed by the opposing party. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found 67 percent of voters believe the Democratic Party is out of touch -- and 44 percent of Democrats believe that, too. By contrast: 62 percent say Republicans are out of touch, and 30 percent of Republicans say their own party is out of touch.

“Democratic ideas are popular. But the party as a brand needs work,” Democrat Pete Buttigieg told RCP. "The American people overall are skeptical of the president -- and that's encouraging -- but it doesn't diminish the fact that there's a long way to go." 

The 34-year-old South Bend, Ind., mayor ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year, urging the party to expand its reach to cities and states like his and to young people like him who are disaffected by institutions. He withdrew shortly before votes were cast when it became apparent that Tom Perez or Keith Ellison had the most support. Perez, a former labor secretary in the Obama administration, would go on to win the chair race but named Ellison, the Bernie Sanders-backed congressman, as his deputy.

Perez and Sanders just completed a “unity tour” in red and rural states that did more to highlight intraparty divides than to glue them back together. Perez was booed on occasion, while crowds cheered for Sanders. The Vermont senator and former presidential candidate drew his own fire within the party for his reluctance to call Jon Ossoff -- the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election -- a progressive, and he endorsed Omaha, Nebr., mayoral candidate Heath Mello despite his conservative record on abortion. Perez drew a hard line on abortion, saying the party would not support candidates who weren’t pro-choice.

The stance comes as the party has been criticized for focusing on social issues at the expense of a compelling economic message. Congressional Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi attempted to smooth things over, arguing that the party was a “big tent.” But the flare-up also highlighted the fact Democrats are without a clear leader, now that Barack Obama is no longer in the White House and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is in the party’s rearview.

Sanders, with his carefully cultivated grassroots network, has become something of a party star since losing the nomination and is a vaunted campaign trail asset. But he isn’t a Democrat, and he intends on keeping his independent label for at least the remainder of his term. And he hasn’t committed to sharing his extensive email list of donors and voters with the official party.

“What is clear to anyone who looks at where the Democratic Party today is that the model of the Democratic Party is failing,” Sanders said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” noting that Democrats lost the White House to the most unpopular candidate in history and have lost more than 900 legislative seats and two-thirds of governors’ mansions across the country. “Clearly the Democratic Party has got to change. And in my view what it has got to become is a grassroots party.”

Democratic groups see signs of heightened grassroots engagement beyond the activism shown at congressional town halls over recesses and protests around the country in response to various Trump administration policies. A survey commissioned by Priorities USA found that 80 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters who tend to stay home in midterm years say they are motivated to vote in the 2018 midterms. The survey found that while only a third of these voters thought the 2016 election had a significant impact on their lives, now nearly half believe the 2018 midterm elections will affect them personally.

“Moving forward, Democrats should continue to focus on economic issues, which are extremely important both to drop- off voters and voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, wrote in a memo. The group urged Democrats to highlight the president’s and Republicans’ health care proposals and their economic consequences.

Democratic operatives say the health care fallout, along with other Trump controversies, have been a boon to fundraising and recruiting efforts. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is tasked with defending two dozen seats this coming cycle, points to slow recruitment on the GOP side and record fundraising levels as a reflection of early enthusiasm. Ten vulnerable incumbents up for re-election next year in states Trump won have raised $19 million in the first quarter, according to analysis from USA Today. The DSCC said incumbents Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana have set fundraising records for off-year elections in their states and have seen an increase in new donors.

Still, the map favors Republicans, and Senate Democrats will be focused more on defense than on offense. Democrats are zeroing in on the House, where a net gain of 24 seats would win them back the majority. It’s a tall order, especially given the conservative district lines, but incumbent presidents typically lose congressional seats in their first terms. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it has had recruitment conversations with 300 potential candidates in more than 70 districts, which they say is a surge compared to previous years.

“There's no question that there’s been big jump in Democratic enthusiasm at a time when we are on offense across an expanded battlefield,” said spokesman Tyler Law.

President Obama, who made his first public appearance this week since leaving office, has identified redistricting laws as an area where Democrats need to gain ground, and has tapped former Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the effort.

Democrats have been cheered by party showings in special elections in red states. The Democratic candidate for an open congressional seat in Kansas, left vacant when Mike Pompeo became CIA director, came within seven points of the Republican in a district Trump won by 27 points. And in Georgia, Ossoff led the field with 48 percent of the vote, forcing a June runoff in a district Republicans have held for decades.

But neither Democrat won outright, even with all the spotlight and money given to special elections. Ossoff raised a whopping $8 million, the kind of money that won’t be available to most House candidates like him in changing districts, and still faces a challenge in the final round in June.

“The Democrats have a brand problem, and unless you can fix the brand it's tough for some of these Republicans [to cross over],” said Georgia Democratic strategist Keith Mason, speaking about the special election. “Tribalism trumps partisanship.”

And while the national mood and lack of legislative progress is challenging for Republicans now, it’s difficult to predict how voters will feel about the Trump administration next November. Republicans meanwhile have been portraying Democrats as partisan, unwilling partners. The RNC released a video this week with clips of Democrats criticizing the administration titled “100 Days of Obstruction.”

The challenge of sustaining momentum has some Democrats urging the party to focus more on people and issues, not solely on Trump and politics. “I don't think a lot of people sitting around South Bend are closely watching the movements of Michael Flynn and Jason Chaffetz or Nancy Pelosi,” said Buttigieg, arguing there are persuadable voters out there who could be drawn into the party on issues that actually affect them. "We have always been the party of the people."

“Everyone recognizes this is a long haul we are engaged in,” said MoveOn.org’s Galland. “We’re seeing lots of activists take off their sprinting spikes and put on their marathon shoes.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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