Fractured Democratic Party Struggles to Find Footing

Special-election losses, Clinton's jabs at DNC, new superdelegate drama spur liberal dissent

by Jim Stinson | Updated 08 Jun 2017 at 8:07 AM

If the Democratic National Committee has many more weeks like the previous one, it might not recover in time for the midterm elections in 2018.

The Democrats have lost special elections for two House seats in the past two months, plus a big race for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. In one of the House races, the Democrats could not even beat a Republican who had body-slammed a reporter the night before the election.

Now they’re struggling to win a suburban House seat in the Atlanta area, in a congressional district Trump barely won despite its heavily Republican makeup.

The Democratic National Committee took a brutal shot to its ribs when its 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, said it was bereft of ideas and data, and was near bankruptcy when she was nominated in July.

Clinton's surprising criticisms at the Recode Conference are likely to further trouble new DNC Chairman Tom Perez.

Perez, an attorney and former secretary of labor under President Barack Obama who also headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, is known for his affinity for the kind of identity politics that have doomed the Democrats outside of the Northeast and the Pacific Coast.

Perez was favored by Obama over Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a liberal Muslim whom the DNC gave the consolation prize of a deputy chairmanship. The two have become the dynamic duo of identity-politics cheerleading and anti-Trump fervor.

But it has not paid off. With all of Trump's fumbles, and an intense media campaign to tie Trump and his advisers to Russian hackers, the Democrats cannot seem to find traction.

Clinton threw oil on the DNC's path back to health when she told the Recode Conference on Wednesday that the DNC's "data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong. I had to inject money into it."

The DNC's data operation was widely praised in 2016 as being well-functioning. The Democrats famously outperformed the Republicans and presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 on data, and were seen under President Obama as having a data operation that would leave Trump and his campaign, inexperienced data operators, in the dust.

It didn't work out that way. Trump's data team was surprisingly nimble and effective, even predicting to Trump that he would win Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states the Republicans had not won since the 1980s.

Andrew Therriault, the former DNC director of data science, responded by slamming Clinton in two since-deleted tweets, calling Clinton's comments two unprintable words, according to CNN.

Angry Democrats suggested Clinton and her campaign did not know how to use the data, or failed to use it. That is not a surprising charge, as Clinton oddly stayed out of Wisconsin and Michigan.

"I hope you understand the good you did despite that nonsense," Therriault said in a message to DNC data staffers.

Another data official told CNN that Clinton was attacking the Democrats on one of their strong points.

"I can tell you, having worked with the DNC from the outside over that time period, the DNC not only maintained what was built as part of the Obama 2008 and 2012 campaigns, but they built upon it," said Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic voter-targeting firm. "And that meant more staff and that meant better data. They built an in-house analytics team, which they had not had in the past. And they were constantly adding data to the file."

Angry Democrats suggested Clinton and her campaign did not know how to use the data, or failed to use it. That is not a surprising charge, as Clinton oddly stayed out of Wisconsin and Michigan, two states that Trump targeted, while she focused resources on Georgia and North Carolina.

Obama loyalists also want Clinton to get out of the spotlight, as Obama largely has.

"When Al Gore lost the election, he went to Europe, gained weight and grew a beard," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, speaking to The Hill. "He walked away. And there's something to that."

But even worse for Perez were signs of fissures in the support of one of the Democrats' key constituencies: black females.

A group of black female activists penned an open letter to Perez, accusing the DNC of "taking them for granted."

"Black women have consistently shown up for Democrats as a loyal voting bloc, demonstrating time and again that we are crucial to the protection of progressive policies such as economic security, affordable health care and criminal justice reform," they wrote. "Well, like civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who testified at the 1964 Democratic convention demanding blacks have a seat and voice within the party, we are 'sick and tired of being sick and tired.'"

The activists demanded a meeting with black female leaders and activists to hear concerns and thoughts on how the DNC can invest in engagement and leadership. The letter suggested the DNC is lacking in opportunities for black females.

But in perhaps the biggest sign that many Democratic activists want a transformational change, a fight over "superdelegates" is on the horizon. Superdelegates are prechosen delegates with standing in the party, such as members of Congress, who are free to vote however they want.

The superdelegates helped give Hillary Clinton an edge in the 2008 and 2016 primaries, even though she lost the former. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist, believe the superdelegate rule helped bury their candidate.

The Democrats are due to deliver recommendations on the issue, but tensions are rising about the course, according to CNN.

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