Democrats’ Big Donors Reach Out to Marchers, Town-Hall Activists

  • Party seeks return to relevance, beginning in state capitols
  • Donor group convenes for annual meeting with plan for outreach

A group of wealthy progressive donors that wants to restore the Democratic Party’s clout plans to meet this week with groups that helped kick off protest marches and town-hall confrontations to oppose President Donald Trump’s agenda.

The Democracy Alliance,a group of 112 prolific political contributors that includes George Soros, Tom Steyer and Donald Sussman, is expected to draw more than 400 donors in all from 32 states to discuss how to turn the demonstrators’ enthusiasm into electoral success.

“The resistance work we’re seeing in town halls and elsewhere will be channeled into electoral activity,” said Gara LaMarche, president of Democracy Alliance. “Replacement is the highest form of resistance.”

Four months after nationwide elections left Democrats without control of a single branch of the federal government and further eroded the party’s position in state capitols, the donor group is aiming to devise a path back to political relevance.

“The states are going to be an overwhelming focus,” said LaMarche. Governors races in Virginia and New Jersey this year are early priorities, he said.

The donors’ four-day annual meeting behind closed doors in Washington is part of a larger conversation among liberals about how to resurrect a party that’s lost 12 governorships and more than 900 legislative seats in the last eight years. Progressives worry that Republican majorities, especially in state governments, might disadvantage Democratic candidates. They say GOP efforts to pass voter-identification laws would limit ballot access for poor and minority voters, while Republican-controlled legislatures could redraw districts in ways that benefit their party.

Major Democratic donors, strategists and activists suggested in interviews that a strategy is emerging for how to respond: First, argue relentlessly that Trump is betraying the economic interests of voters who elected him.

Jay Robert “J.B.” Pritzker, a Chicago-based investor and heir to the Hyatt Hotels Corp. empire, said Democrats need to highlight pocketbook policy that are “progressive and pragmatic” and contrast them with Republican proposals.

“To me that’s what missing,” said Pritzker, a top donor to groups backing Hillary Clinton last year. “I don’t know where we got away from that, but it does feel like we did.”

Second, the party must organize and grow nationwide, not just in the dozen or so states that typically determine the outcome of presidential elections, leading Democrats say.

“Our reliance on winning the White House has actually been to our detriment,” said Guy Cecil, a top Democratic strategist who runs the Priorities USA super political action committee.

The party can begin rebuilding its bench by electing governors in 2017 and 2018, said Greg Speed, executive director of America Votes, a Democracy Alliance grantee that works to get progressive voters to the polls. But he wouldn’t rule out the Democrats taking back the House. “There are certainly 24 seats to be won out there in a referendum on President Trump,” he said.

Still, in Trump, Democrats face an adversary who’s adept at getting his message across, Speed said -- via executive orders, legislative initiatives or Twitter postings.

“If every room of the house is on fire, what do you put out first?” Speed asked.

The Democracy Alliance, whose members pledge to donate at least $200,000 to support recommended organizations, will devote the first two days of its meeting to rebuilding the party from the grassroots up, with a particular focus on taking on Republican governors.

They’ll also hear from leaders of the organizations they support, which include think tanks like the Center for American Progress and activist organizations like Organizing for Action. But they’re casting a wider net, LaMarche said, bringing in some of the groups that formed in reaction to Trump’s election, including those that organized the Women’s March on Washington and protests of town hall meetings of congressional Republicans.

“There has been a surge of civic engagement in response to the election of Donald Trump and the policies he has proposed,” said Michael Vachon, who advises Soros. “The progressive movement is trying to figure out how to organize that energy so it can be sustained for the long term.”

Indivisible, an activist group, began by posting a Google doc with instructions on how to protest at town hall meetings. Originally an all-volunteer effort, co-founder Ezra Levin said he and his colleagues have been talking to foundations and donors through the Democracy Alliance. His wife, Leah Greenberg, will appear on a Saturday panel at the donor conference. “We’re brand new to this,” he said. “This isn’t really our world.”

He sees Indivisible’s role as a narrow one, advising the 5,500 local groups that have registered on its website, but he admits that its volunteer model wasn’t sustainable, and that the activism it helped spark could disappear. “There’s a natural fear that the story we tell two years from now is, ‘remember that time in 2017 when we did activism?’”

Some donors and strategists say such groups need more support, more quickly.

“They’ve got to get everybody talking to each other and I don’t see that happening yet,” said Vin Ryan, a Democracy Alliance member. Without meaningful support, he said, the activism that sprang up in the first months of the Trump administration may peter out.

“Are we going to have new blood or are we going to stay with the same old body of people that brought us down this path?” Ryan asked.

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