Midterms Show You Can Teach an Old Democratic Party New Tricks

Howard Dean’s greatest contribution to the Democratic Party was to promote the idea of a fifty-state strategy. That rankled party operatives because the amount of money they had was limited, and the so-called “old guard” thought they knew best where to spend it. Prior to any actual votes, they picked the party’s winners and losers.

The story this week about how Democrats are raising substantial funds for the 2018 midterm elections demonstrates that the idea of a fifty-state strategy has permeated the entire party. DNC Chair Tom Perez has actually taken it a step further to suggest that Democrats need to compete in every zip code.

The big numbers being posted by individual Democrats are primarily coming from small online donations via sites like ActBlue, taking what both Howard Dean and Barack Obama did in their presidential campaigns to the local level.

In an analysis of August fundraising, Politico reported that Democrats have found their answer to the Koch brothers in online fundraising from small donors.

That sustained cash flow has extended Democrats’ already formidable edge in the fight for control of the House. Democratic House candidates raised more than $35.8 million online in August, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission data from ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform. That’s up nearly sixfold from House Democrats’ online total of $6.2 million in August 2016, during the last election.

As news about this fundraising success began to spread, I noticed this tweet from Simon Rosenberg:

The DCCC responded to the article in Politico with this:

“The DCCC made an unprecedented investment in online, grassroots fundraising for both the committee and our Democratic candidates, and it’s a tactical decision that has paid off massively,” said DCCC Spokesman Tyler Law. “We have been clear that one of the largest structural challenges to taking back the House is the historic amount of Republican outside money. That hasn’t changed, but our laser focus on empowering Democratic candidates and ensuring that they can beat Republican outside groups to the airwaves in the vast majority of races is clearly working.”

“Our committee’s key, early investments have helped Democrats harness grassroots enthusiasm and capitalize on pivotal news cycles to raise the money necessary to be competitive across such a huge House battlefield,” said Digital Press Secretary Sebastian Silva.

Here is how they did that:

The money sprouted after months of groundwork by campaigns and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC placed digital staffers in each of its regional political teams for the first time this election, according to a DCCC aide, helping campaigns grow online and be prepared to capitalize on viral moments and other opportunities.

That is precisely how you operationalize a fifty-state strategy and compete in every zip code. You have to quit worrying about how to divvy up the pie and start working on how to grow it. And since we’re talking about Democrats, you do that from the ground up.

A lot of media outlets will be reporting on the fundraising success of Democrats this cycle. But not many of them will tell you about the strategic shifts being made by groups like the DCCC that, as Rosenberg says, represent significant breaks from the past and could very well be game-changers.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.