Ellison Focuses on Turnout in DNC Chair Bid

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.”