First came the announcement of a downsized convention in Milwaukee that delegates were urged not to attend in person. Now, Democrats are questioning whether even gathering in smaller events throughout the country as an alternative is a plausible option after a new surge of Covid-19 cases.
With infection rates exploding in several states, some elected officials, state party leaders and rank-and-file members of the Democratic National Committee are skeptical about the proposed idea of “mini-conventions” across the nation — regional satellite sites for delegates and party leaders, particularly in battleground states.
“We should think, ‘What would Dr. Fauci do?’ And I doubt Dr. Fauci would say go ahead and have mini-conventions across the country,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, who is co-chairing the California delegation. “I personally think it will backfire to be aggressive like the Republicans are.”
The Republican National Committee said in June it would move its convention keynote events — including President Donald Trump’s acceptance speech — to Jacksonville, Florida, after the party failed to come to an agreement with officials in North Carolina, where the event was set to be held in August. Jacksonville ranked third in the nation for metro area Covid-19 growth in the week ending June 27.
Democratic Party officials announced in June that their nominating convention will be almost entirely virtual and encouraged delegates to stay away from Milwaukee. Officials have announced that Biden will accept the nomination in Milwaukee, but details have not been released about his keynote speech.
Yet the anxiety surrounding the possible regional events demonstrates the difficulty of planning a convention in the Covid-19 era as well as the rising fears among the public as infection rates go up in California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and many other states. It has also spurred some DNC members to call for party leadership to welcome more input about the convention.
“I’m not sure that any in-person gathering is safe or smart at this point,” said James Zogby, a DNC member who sat on the 2016 party platform committee, of regional events. “This is something we’ve known, or should have known, for a long time. And my concern from the beginning, and I raised it within the party and I raised it with others, was that the discussion of what we do in lieu of an in-person convention should have involved more people than just a small planning staff.”
Asked whether the party would hold regional events, Democratic National Convention Committee spokesperson Ofirah Yheskel said, “The specifics of the satellites have not yet been finalized.”
Democratic officials said any choices will be made in consultation with two epidemiologists, Ian Lipkin and Larry Brilliant, that they have hired. They also said they have done several calls with DNC members and state parties to discuss ideas for the convention.
“We are getting input from health professionals, which will guide our decision-making on all fronts,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “We aren’t like Republicans who are putting people’s lives at risk.”
A look at the difficulties that Pennsylvania Democrats are grappling with as they finalize their own state convention demonstrates the challenges faced by the national party in establishing even small get-togethers.
Nancy Patton Mills, leader of the state’s Democratic Party, said county representatives were recently planning to gather all in one room for their convention later this month. But they scrapped that idea due to the virus. Instead, they are going to hold a completely virtual meeting.
“It will be very difficult because you have motions from the floor and seconds and people have to vote,” she said. “For the DNC, they’re going to organize 50 states and seven territories. Honestly, I think it’s what we’re doing but on steroids.”
While Mills said she would ideally like for delegates in her state to have the option of attending the national convention in August virtually or at locations throughout Pennsylvania, depending on what they are most comfortable with, Mills expressed doubts about regional events.
“They were talking about regional convention sites, and I don’t think that’s going to work either because of the pandemic,” she said, adding later that she is waiting to hear what the DNC decides regarding such sites before determining what to do.
On a private call in June about the pared-down convention, Michael Kapp, chair of the DNC’s Youth Council, said he asked party staff about satellite sites locations around the country. Aides said they haven’t made a decision, and that the selection will be done along with Joe Biden’s campaign, he said. Kapp hopes the events can take place.
“Democrats are more likely to respect mask and social distancing orders,” he said. “As long as there are extensive virtual options, delegates should still have the option to experience a small piece of the convention in-person safely, if possible.”
While they overwhelmingly support the call to go virtual, DNC members have other outstanding questions. Committee and caucus chairs on June’s call asked what programming will take place in Milwaukee and how the party will successfully engage first-time delegates. Some rank-and-file Democrats also said they don’t know how many people will attend the main event.
There will be a cap of 1,000 attendees at the gathering in Milwaukee, people familiar with the discussions have told POLITICO.
Ben Wikler, chairman of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, said he is sure that delegates will be involved in the convention regardless of the set-up. One upside of a virtual gathering is that the party can use it to run organizing trainings for Democrats across the country, he argued.
“Fortunately, we now have several months of experience living in a socially distanced world under our belts,” he said. “So I’m confident that wherever delegates might be physically located, they’re going to feel like full participants in the convention process.”
Ron Harris, chair of the DNC’s Midwest caucus, said he asked on the call with party leadership in June what programming will take place in Milwaukee.
“There’s going to be some contingency on the ground in Milwaukee, and I don’t know who that is or how that is going to be decided,” he said. “There aren’t too many answers on that question.”
Larry Cohen, a DNC member who sits on the rules committee, said he doesn’t have a sense of how the committees will be set up. He said Democrats “need to be sure that platform and rules committees encourage participation and discussion.”
However, he said, he is not worried about the convention. Others Democrats feel differently.
“We have a lot of concerns. We have a lot of questions,” Mills said of the party’s decision to make the convention mostly virtual. “But we think it was the right decision.”