Democratic boot camp: party intensifies local tactics ahead of midterms

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Brian Peterson/AP</span>
Photograph: Brian Peterson/AP

Democrats knew going into this midterm election campaign season that they would have their work cut out for them. History shows that the president’s party usually loses House seats in the midterm elections, and Joe Biden’s approval rating has been underwater for almost a year.

But that does not mean that Democrats are giving up. Despite the grim forecasts of a Republican shellacking in the midterms, Democratic groups have doubled down on training candidates to compete up and down the ballot in November. Party leaders have expressed hope that teaching these candidates how to tailor a campaign message to their communities’ concerns and execute a successful voter turnout operation can help Democrats limit their losses this fall.

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One of the groups leading those efforts is the National Democratic Training Committee (NDTC), which coaches candidates and their staffers on the best strategies for managing successful campaigns. The NDTC has held more than 150 trainings this year, both virtually and in person, and 8,000 participants have joined the sessions.

“This all goes back to our core mission, which is lowering the barrier of entry for anyone who wants to get involved in Democratic politics and our belief that Democrats need to be preparing and building for long-term power,” said Kelly Dietrich, NDTC’s CEO and founder.

NDTC’s bootcamp training sessions instruct candidates and their staffers on everything from building personal connections with voters to executing a successful “get out the vote” strategy. Ebony Lofton, who is running to be the mayor of Dumfries, Virginia, has attended several NDTC trainings, and she said the advice she has received has already paid dividends on the campaign trail.

“It’s important to me, as someone who doesn’t have a huge staff, to just have some idea of the direction I’m going,” Lofton said. “You have so many other people from all over the country who are providing nuggets – like someone told me about [getting] signs on the cheap, from the chat in one of the trainings I had – and I’ve been using them, so it’s just been great all around.”

While much of the national conversation around the midterm elections has focused on control of Congress, Dietrich said that Democrats need to be paying just as much attention to state and local races like Lofton’s.

“We all focus on these big and sexy races of running for Congress, but it’s only a couple of dozen of competitive races,” Dietrich said. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of state [representatives], city council, school board [candidates] that are running.”

Dietrich advises trainees running in those local races to carefully consider the issues affecting their communities, and then craft a campaign message around those concerns. For many candidates, that strategy means addressing the way that rising prices have constrained family budgets in recent months.

In July, the annual rate of inflation hit 8.5%, which was slightly down from a month earlier but still close to a 40-year high for the US. A CNN poll conducted last month found that 75% of Americans consider inflation and the cost of living to be the most important economic problem facing their family.

You need to be talking about what matters in your community

Kelly Dietrich

“When you’re running in those local communities, the national mood and national environment can affect your race. But you need to be talking about what matters in your community,” Dietrich said. “If inflation is top of mind, how does that affect your community?”

James Reavis, an NDTC trainee who is running for a seat in the Montana house, said voters have told him that their top concerns are the rising cost of housing and the state’s high property taxes.

“I’ll run on tax issues all day because that’s what the constituents are talking about,” Reavis said. “So I’m still listening to the constituents, and that’s my number one driver.”

During the NDTC trainings that Reavis has attended this year, he has been able to talk to other Democrats in traditionally Republican states about the best tactics for reaching out to reluctant voters.

“There were lots of people on that phone call that were like me, which were people that were running in red states, and we were talking about the challenges that we have,” Reavis said. “We really have an uphill battle in places like Montana. If you have an R next to your name, you’re doing pretty good. You’re already a step ahead of the game. But if you’ve got a D next to your name, you’ve got to work really hard.”

The importance of helping state legislative candidates like Reavis has been thrown into stark relief for Democrats in the past couple of months. After the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade in June, individual states have been able to ban abortion access, and a number of Republican-led states have already done so.

The end of Roe has shifted the conversation among voters about the upcoming election, said Donna Dill, an NDTC trainee and campaign staffer for a Democratic candidate seeking a seat in the Texas house. After the supreme court overturned Roe, abortion became illegal in Texas under a 1925 law.

“We’re in Texas, and we’re in the fire,” Dill said. “What we’re trying to do is reach out to young women because they’re the ones that are going to bear the consequences of the law.”

Dill and her team have pointed to Texas’s abortion ban as a devastating example of the importance of electing Democrats to the state legislature, and she said the NDTC trainings have helped guide her efforts in reaching out to right-leaning voters who may have concerns about the law.

“There’s a lot of Republicans in Texas that understand that the way our state government is moving is not in a good direction for the state,” Dill said. “We’re trying to make inroads with them.”

Reavis agreed that abortion has become a more prominent issue in his race, but he emphasized that kitchen-table issues like rising prices were still dominating voters’ attention.

When they’re delivering solutions up at the national level, that makes it easier for us down here

James Reavis

“The constant message down here in Montana has been the rising price of housing, property taxes [and] public safety,” Reavis said. “Those are still the top two or three issues. Those haven’t changed.”

With that in mind, Congress’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has provided a boon to Reavis’s campaign. The spending package, which Biden signed into law on Tuesday, includes provisions on limiting Medicare recipients’ prescription drug costs and investing in renewable energy to reduce America’s planet-heating emissions.

“President Biden gets a lot of complaints down here in Montana. After the news came out about the Inflation Reduction Act, those complaints really dropped,” Reavis said. “When they’re delivering solutions up at the national level, that makes it easier for us down here to work on those state issues.”

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was one of several recent victories for Biden and his party. On Wednesday, Biden signed the Pact Act to expand healthcare benefits to millions of veterans. A week before that, Biden announced the death of the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who helped coordinate the September 11 attacks.

Those accomplishments, combined with concerns over the end of Roe, appear to have bolstered Democrats’ midterm prospects. Earlier this month, Democrats surpassed Republicans on the generic congressional ballot for the first time this election cycle, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Although there are still three months left until election day, recent developments in Washington have made Reavis and other NDTC trainees more optimistic.

“In the last two weeks, I have felt some wind being lifted in the sails,” Reavis said. “Because we are getting things done at the federal level and we’re working really hard at the state level, I’m feeling really excited about the midterms.”