Friday, January 27, 2017
By Karyn Bruggeman
Via the National Journal
No candidate in the crowded race for Democratic National Committee chair talks about the party’s base-turnout problems more than Keith Ellison.
In the first few debates held over the past couple of months, the Minnesota congressman regularly redirects philosophical conversations on topics such as race, immigration, or how to deal with President Trump back to the question of turnout—and how the party can channel people’s energy or angst on any issue into voter mobilization efforts and, ultimately, winning elections.
“The truth is there’s a whole lot of people who should have been voting for us … who don’t show up in those statistics because they didn’t vote at all,” Ellison said at a forum Monday. “The truth is we have a very serious turnout problem in the Democratic Party.”
Nearly every candidate has an angle to highlight a strength they would bring to the position at this critical juncture for the party. DNC members will elect the chair late next month.
Ray Buckley, who chairs the New Hampshire state party and is a DNC vice chair, has the most institutional knowledge about how the committee functions. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez is a policy wonk who wants to use his management experience running the Labor Department to be the DNC’s “turnaround artist.” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to bridge the party’s internal divisions and present a fresh face. Fox News analyst Jehmu Greene speaks most frequently about improving the party’s messaging and branding.
For Ellison, it’s all about getting voters to the polls, which is one of the party’s central problems, particularly during midterm elections. Democrats perpetually struggle to get their base of young and minority voters to show up, but they will need to solve that as the party seeks a comeback over the next couple of years from GOP dominance in federal and state races.
That focus on turnout largely sidesteps questions of persuasion, which was a major problem for Democrats in 2016, but the pitch reflects Ellison’s experience back home.
The six-term congressman is the only contender for DNC chair with an extensive history of running for office. He represents a safe Democratic district in Minneapolis and sees it as his duty to drive up turnout for the benefit of all Democrats running statewide.
Ellison also sees staying engaged as something that is simply smart politics. His team deploys off-year summer canvasses to clean up the voter file used by his field staff and utilizes an apartment-rental program to keep track of who is moving in and out of his district.
“Not only have I gotten Democrats elected all over the state of Minnesota, we have no statewide Republicans in Minnesota,” Ellison said at a forum last week. “It’s because we’ve turned up the vote in the 5th Congressional District. I want to take those turnout techniques and bring them all over the country.”
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by statewide-elected Democrats. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken signed a letter that will be distributed to DNC members this week praising Ellison’s efforts, which they credited with assisting their own close races.
“Keith’s organizational skills precede his time in Congress,” Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota said in an interview with National Journal. “His voter-turnout efforts working with the state party are almost legendary.”
Indeed, Minnesota had the highest voter-turnout rate of any state in the country in November, and Minneapolis ranked near the top among cities with the highest turnout rates in 2016. Ground games matter in close races, and Clinton carried Minnesota by 1.5 points.
Ellison can’t take all the credit. The state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has historically had a strong organizational culture, thanks to figures such as former Sen. Paul Wellstone. But Ellison is particularly proud of the fact that turnout went up by 3 points in his district between 2010 and 2014, while turnout dropped statewide in Minnesota that year.
“People do what’s convenient, people get lazy. Especially if you’re in a D+22 seat, you don’t have to do anything. But he’s done the opposite of that,” said Lucy Flores, a board member of Bernie Sanders’s group, Our Revolution, and a former congressional candidate.
Carolyn Fiddler, the communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, noted that while Ellison represents a safe district, “his focus on increasing turnout and doing so in innovative ways is something that could be more broadly applied to … the kind of marginal districts that Democrats need to win, to win majorities in state legislatures and the U.S. House.”
Ellison is eager to push this approach nationally and encourage Democrats in every district and county—no matter how blue—to stay engaged year-round and run, as he says, like they’re 10 points down.
“In other districts, we want to get Democrats around the country—congressional district by congressional district, county by county—to identify turnout goals, not percentage wins,” Ellison told National Journal. “We want to know the actual raw number of votes and we want Democrats to identify a 5 percent increase from the last midterm or presidential. If it’s 2018, we want people up over 2014 by, say, 5 percent.”
Still, Democrats are facing more than turnout issues. Trump won states across the industrial Midwest thanks in part to voters who previously supported President Obama, and Republicans have made dramatic gains in Congress and state legislatures over the past eight years by winning and holding suburban and rural districts that are overwhelmingly white.
Look no further than Minnesota for a prime example. In 2016, Republicans won control of the Minnesota state Senate and Democrats failed to pick up the open 2nd District, a top target of the national party. Republicans picked up legislative seats in rural areas that fell within congressional districts represented by Reps. Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan, and Walz, who all faced competitive races of their own over the years.
Walz represents a rural, mostly white district on the Minnesota-Iowa border, where 88 percent of registered voters cast ballots last November, one of the highest turnout rates in the country. Though Walz is a friend and fan of Ellison’s, he said high turnout isn’t always enough. Walz attributed his success in November to persuading independent voters.
“Everybody voted, and Hillary Clinton got 38 percent, we lost state senators,” Walz said. “And I’m in a traditionally red district and I have a close race. We have to do something there.”