ATLANTA—They’re energized by the marches and excited about the crowds showing up at town halls held by Republicans. But not far below the surface, Democrats are just as anxious, depressed and strung out as they’ve been since the night Donald Trump won.
Gathered here for the Democratic National Committee winter meeting at which they’ll elect a new chair and other officers on Saturday, state leaders and top operatives can’t go long in the hallways or at the hotel bar without sighing, grimacing, shaking their heads at how bad the situation still is.
“I am excited by the energy that has come out of the marches and that has come out of the resistance — and Georgia is no exception—but we have to remember that animosity toward Trump is not a strategy for winning elections,” said Stacey Abrams, the state house minority leader here who addressed the opening party of the DNC meeting Thursday night. “We cannot get distracted by this wave of engagement to believe that can automatically translate into turnout in election cycles.”
“I’m worried,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and DNC chair from 2005-2009. “All these young people, they’re not Democrats. They didn’t come out for Hillary, they don’t come out for lower people on the ballot, they don’t come out for off years.”
He argued that it was this concern that drove him to endorse Pete Buttigieg for DNC chair, as someone who would understand how to bring in young people in ways that Washington politicians don’t understand. “The Trump win,” he said, “basically repudiated every value that young people have in this country and this is an opportunity to get them interested in institutions that they don’t like.”
To some, the activism itself could inadvertently become a problem, if all the attention to it eats up the time — with about 250 days left until this year’s elections and just over 600 left until next year’s potentially existential midterms — that’s better spent going into deep strategic rethinking and massive overhaul in campaign tactics that Democrats believe they need to become competitive again.
“This is a unique situation,” said Frank Dixon, chairman of the Oregon Democrats. “In my experience we haven’t encountered it before: we have a tremendous amount of energy out there ready to work, but at the moment don’t have the infrastructure set up to accommodate that, engage people, direct them, move them to action.”
“This is going to be a tough, gritty process,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Whoever wins the race for chair, some basics seem to be agreed on for what’s ahead, including a more integrated approach to state parties guiding the decisions out of the Washington headquarters, a state-by-state rather than a national approach, and a spike in funding being sent to state parties that could amount to doubling the $7,500 they get from the national party each month to help fund operations.
But state and national officials have been struggling to get activists focused on putting their money into list-building instead of pink “pussy hats,” and they worry about the dozens of new but not very operational groups being started with functions and energy that they’d rather see directed into the DNC or other existing institutions.
They’re also fighting against the sense of shattering of politics-as-usual that Trump and his win have fostered.
“There’s a determination and a somberness about the rebuilding that has to happen,” said Randi Weingarten, a DNC member and the president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the most politically active unions. “What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of frustration and cynicism and distrust of any institution, and the moment that somebody says that the game is rigged or something rigged, that has a benefit of the doubt the likes of which I have never seen.”
“A lot of the energy that we’ve seen post-election is not something that the party initiated, but it’s something we have to embrace and find a way to replicate,” said Basil Smikle, the executive director of the New York Democratic Party. “The fear that I would have going forward is we don’t act.”
Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman and until last week a candidate for DNC chair himself, said that at least psychologically, party members have started to recover from November.
“We were shaken to our core,” he said, arguing that progress is already being made.
Asked what that progress substantively consists of, Buckley said, “there’s been a lot of meetings.”
Now that DNC elections are on the verge of getting finished, he argued, the party can finally begin the actual work.
Others say they think there’s still more than enough time to overcome the feeling the party has fallen behind.
“We need to regroup and look at ourselves and figure out what to do next,” said Peter Corroon, the Utah Democratic chair. “We’ve got at least two years of Republican control, but I think that will change in two years, and it will be easier to resist his agenda in 2018.”
Yet even people creating the battle plans are having trouble staring their current situation completely in the face.
Presenting an autopsy report on the 2016 election to the DNC’s executive committee on Friday morning, Guy Cecil, chairman of the Priorities USA Action super PAC, opened his remarks by referring to, “Donald Trump.”
He then stopped short. “I still can’t say ‘President’,” he explained. “Sorry.”
“We don’t have it all figured out,” said Michael Nutter, the former Philadelphia mayor and DNC officer. “First and foremost, we have to get on the field.”