With their ranks decimated at statehouses and in Congress, Democrats are organizing around a redistricting push and opposition to changes to voting laws as ways to prevent Republican lawmakers from turning their party’s current power into a permanent advantage.
While honing an economic message that will help Democrats reconnect with the blue-collar voters who deserted them in 2016 remains a priority, top Democrats and rising party stars are busy organizing several expensive undertakings to combat what they view as structural electoral disadvantages.
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D), who narrowly lost his bid for the Senate in 2016, has launched a new nonprofit called Let America Vote, a messaging and grassroots advocacy organization meant to “expose the true motivations” behind the Republican push for stricter voting laws.
That launch comes several weeks after Priorities USA, the super PAC that spent more than $190 million supporting Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDem rep: 'We must pause the entire Trump agenda' until Russia investigation complete New England Patriots to visit White House on April 19 More than ever, Justice must demand a special prosecutor for Trump-Russia probe MORE’s presidential bid, rebranded itself as the “nation’s largest funder of voting rights lawsuits.”
“When your democracy is being undermined by the president of the United States, we have to fight that on all fronts,” Kander told The Hill. “It’s all part of a larger discussion that exposes the fact that the Republican strategy here is not trying to persuade people their ideas are best; it’s about picking and choosing who actually gets to vote.”
Despite the new focus on gerrymandering and voting laws, most Democrats agree that their problems run far deeper.
Some blame the party’s neglect of its national campaign infrastructure, which succeeded at electing Obama president twice but accomplished little else over the past eight years while state parties and congressional caucuses dwindled.
And many believe the party — and Clinton in particular — lacked an economic message to win communities, especially former Democratic strongholds, that have lost jobs to outsourcing and automation.
“When you’re worried about your damn paycheck, worrying about your job, worrying about where you’re going to live and if your kids are going to go to school, they don’t really give a crap if the president is an insult dog,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley, who is running to be the next Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, told the crowd at a Saturday forum in Baltimore.
“We did not have a positive message for anyone I’m related to; we did not offer a message to my neighbors.”
But as those efforts continue, a constellation of groups is organizing around a supplemental, long-term effort aimed at voting rights with the belief that the issue has become a flashpoint in the Trump administration.
Kander warned that Trump’s “massive lie” about millions of illegal ballots cast in 2016, which the president hasn’t backed with evidence, is about “working to undermine faith in American democracy so he can take away the right to vote for people who won’t be voting for him when he runs for reelection.”
Let America Vote will wage the messaging war on that front, looking to attack Republicans pushing for stricter voter ID laws, fewer voting locations, reduced early voting hours and purged voter rolls.
“[These laws] have a purpose, and they have nothing to do with the integrity of elections. It’s the opposite,” he said. “The purpose is changing elections by unfairly changing the rules for certain groups. It’s about partisan politics.”
Priorities USA will fight the more tangible fight — lobbying lawmakers to vote against certain bills and funding litigation to challenge laws already on the books.
“We will wage as many battles as the resources allow us to wage on this front,” Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil told The Hill.
Funding is a major piece of the puzzle, since Democrats believe that the new administration’s Justice Department will give states room to change voting laws, rather than take a more proactive role to challenge potentially discriminatory laws. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsSanders: 'What do the Russians have on Mr. Trump?' Poll: Trump controversies make him more popular among supporters More than ever, Justice must demand a special prosecutor for Trump-Russia probe MORE prosecuted controversial voter fraud cases as a U.S. attorney in Alabama.
Critics of Republican-led voting law efforts argue that the measures have another aim: lowering turnout among minorities and young voters who vote for Democrats in larger numbers.
The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder removed the Justice Department’s ability under the Voting Rights Act to preemptively challenge proposed laws in certain states with a history of discriminatory voting practices. While that dealt a blow to those fighting to expand ballot access, federal judges have subsequently invalidated new voting laws, pointing to another portion of the Voting Rights Act that prevents laws viewed as hampering the right to vote based on race.
In one such example, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Texas’s voter ID law in July after arguments that the tight list of acceptable identification has a disproportionate burden on minority voters.
And a month later, a stalemate at the Supreme Court blocked North Carolina from instituting laws that included a voter ID provision and restrictions on early voting and same-day registration. The appeals court that heard the case found that those measures also had a disproportionate impact on minority voters.
While expanding access typically favors Democrats, Cecil argued the fight isn’t a partisan one. In his mind, it’s a “critical issue” for anyone who cares about democracy.
“These [laws] are all specifically designed under the false pretense of fraud to make it more difficult to vote,” he said.
The two groups will work in tandem — Kander sits on the Priorities board, while Cecil serves on the advisory board for Kander’s group. And Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who served as Clinton’s campaign counsel last cycle, is working with both Priorities and the NDRC.
The NDRC redistricting effort, orchestrated by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Director Kelly Ward, will play the longer game.
The group has a two-pronged strategy aimed at getting Democrats elected so that they’re in position to redraw the maps in 2020, while simultaneously pushing legal challenges to the existing GOP-friendly maps that Republicans put together following the 2010 Tea Party wave.
A Washington Post analysis of the 2012 election found that Democrats were underrepresented by 18 seats in the House, relative to their vote share. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that in 2014, Democrats won 47 percent of congressional votes but only 43 percent of the seats up for grabs.
This dynamic played out again in 2016 in battleground states such as Michigan, where Democratic House candidates received about 18,000 more votes than Republicans, though the GOP has a 9-to-5 advantage in elected members.
The electoral efforts are critical. Democrats will need to be in power in the state legislatures, where the maps are drawn; in the governors’ mansions, where they’re approved; and in the state courts and offices of secretaries of state or attorneys general, where they’re defended and upheld.
That’s a heavy lift for Democrats, with Republicans presently holding 69 of 99 legislative chambers across the country and 33 of 50 gubernatorial mansions. Republicans have total control over 24 state governments, compared with only six for Democrats.
“Elections are about timing, and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIntel Dem: Nunes 'sacrificed the good name' of committee with Trump briefing Report: Trump regrets backing health plan before pushing for tax reform Dem rep: 'We must pause the entire Trump agenda' until Russia investigation complete MORE is creating a lot of opportunities for Democrats to pick up seats,” Ward told The Hill.
The second leg of the NDRC strategy is on the legal front, boosting the cases that challenge the legality of GOP-drawn maps.
This is where the NDRC has had the most success so far. Four of the nine House seats Democrats flipped in 2016 were in districts where courts had overturned GOP-drawn maps in Florida and Virginia.
The NDRC hopes to see similar results in cases in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas. The efforts are expensive — although high-profile backers like Obama and Holder should help there.
Ward is also focused heavily on fundraising, although the NDRC is getting an assist from the Democratic Governors Association, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC, which are combining to spend tens of millions on the redistricting effort.
Ward said the NDRC’s fundraising has gotten a boost by harnessing some of the energy on the left, including from the thousands of protesters who have turned out to protest GOP lawmakers at town halls across the country.
“We are seeing a ton of excitement from donors and grassroots activists who are really fired up,” she said. “They see the barrier these maps have become, and there is a lot of excitement around correcting that structural disadvantage we face.”