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Has the Democratic Party got a new winning formula?

Left wing "progressives" scored several key victories in the primaries by banking on support from women and minorities. But how much of a difference can they make in November’s midterm elections?
23 Sep 2018 – 04:20 PM EDT
The influence of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has grown within the Democratic Party. Seen here at a Netroots Nation town hall meeting in Phoenix. Crédito: AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin

Like many people in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Maria Urbina found herself wondering how best to use her political skills to resist Donald Trump. The former U.S. Senate staffer from Nevada says she was “disappointed and sad,” after Trump’s victory. But she, and others, saw something surprising happening around the country that reignited her passion for raw politics.

“I didn’t think I’d jump right back in, but the locally driven grassroots power and response that was emerging was deeply moving,” she told Univision News.

Now, 18 months later, as political director of The Indivisible Project, Urbina is at the forefront of a progressive movement that has swept the country and is increasingly challenging the Democratic Party establishment to adopt a bolder approach against Trump and the Republican Party.

Born out of the ashes of defeat in 2016, and the presidential camapign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, it has already notched up some significant victories, stunning the political world from Alabama to New York and Florida. And polls suggest there could be several more by the time the November mid-term elections are done.

The progressive movement has set off an intense debate inside the Democratic Party, with some concerned that it could alienate voters by veering too far left into socialist ideology. Others see it as a potentially powerful political experiment that could help Democrats take back control of Congress this November by energizing its base, including young, minority voters long-disenchanted with traditional mainstream politics.

“There is an energy in the Democratic base that is certainly having an effect,” said Geoffrey Skelley with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It’s clear there are going to be a lot of voters turning out and a lot of them are progressives.”

But Skelley and others say it’s too early to gauge the reach of the progressive vote. “There are reasons for them to be excited. But does that mean they are taking the party over? No, at least not yet. There are a lot of moving parts here.”

United v Trump

Indivisible takes its name from a commitment made by its founders, mostly former congressional staffers, to stand united against Trump. They take their inspiration from the Tea Party, a conservative grass roots movement that rocked the Republican Party establishment a decade ago and helped the party take control of Congress, blocking President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.

Urbina, 32, who is Nicaraguan-born and grew up in Nevada, cut her teeth in politics working for her influential former home state U.S. senator, Democrat Harry Reid. After working on several election campaigns she was ready for something different after Reid decided not to run for re-election in 2016. But she began to have second thoughts after meeting with other former congressional staffers who were regrouping to resist Trump.

Calling themselves Indivisible, they had put together an online Google Doc for likeminded people, titled ‘A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. It laid out a Tea Party-style strategy for “stiffening Democratic spines and weakening pro-Trump Republican resolve” at a local, constituency level, such as town halls, visits to congressional district offices and phone calls.

“If a small minority in the Tea Party could stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump,” they declared.

Invisible’s message appealed to Urbina. It was Reassuring to discover that so many others felt like her. “They were really key in helping people find agency in their distress. I was really impressed how they were able to do that and do it so quickly and so clearly,” she said.

Outide the party

The group's immediate challenge was joining the battle to prevent Congress passing a healthcare bill to replace Obamacare. It has since morphed into a bigger battle to raise grass roots support for progressive candidates to win back control of Congress, even if that means running against more moderate candidates backed by the Democratic Party establishment.

“It wasn’t clear how much fighting we were going to get from the Democratic leadership,” said Urbina. “We see ourselves outside the party structure. I don’t take my cues from Tom Perez,” she added, referring to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body.

While wary of the challenge from its left flank, the party regards progressives as part of a collective effort to win back control of Congress in November, it's so-called 'Red-to-Blue' strategy. Party officials welcome the additional grassroots organizing and note 39 of its 41 selected candidates won their primaries.

The Indivisible Guide included information on how to form a group. There are now 5,000 groups registered around the country, organizers say, varying in size from a few people in rural areas to larger urban ones such as Indivisible Action in Tampa Bay which boasts more than 6,000 members.

"We were not politically active and we were upset at our own inaction," said Christine Hanna, a 42-year-old cancer hospital administrator who founded the Tampa Bay group a few days after the 2016 election with 80 people. "We are the progressive base. We don't coordinate with the candidate or the Democratic Party, we just find a need and fill it," she said.

Indivisible argues that the Democratic Party has played it too safe in the past, seeking to eke out victories by charting a centrist course, focused mostly on winning over white voters who make up 70% of the electorate. It argues that driving up new voters is a more winning strategy and that the Democratic Party should pay more attention to a growing minority electorate.

Many of its endorsed candidates are women with little or no previous political experience. That helped Democrats nominate a record 180 female candidates in House primaries this year, beating the party's previous record of 120, according to Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics.

There are white men too. The group backed a prominent white Alabama lawyer, Doug Jones, for the U.S. Senate last December, helping him defeat controversial Republican judge Roy Moore, who was supported by Trump.

Indivisible says it recruited 985 virtual volunteers across the country to send almost 250,000 texts to Alabama voters to get out the vote, as well as knocking on doors in the state.

Indivisible also scored early success backing candidates in Virginia’s state and municipal elections in November 2017.

For the November midterms it created a 50-state plan for the grass roots, known as Indivisible 435, targeting 73 key elections in 13 states with a list of endorsed candidates. To earn the group’s national support candidates had to commit to permanent protections for undocumented immigrants, universal health care coverage for all Americans, and raising the minimum wage.

The Indivisible Project does not pick candidates, but rather requires them to be nominated by a local group. “There’s no obligation, there’s no franchise. They can support a candidate, or they can create their own field programs,” said Emily Phelps, the communications director for the Indivisible Project which has a staff of 50 in Washington D.C.. “Some groups stay neutral and agree to turn out for whoever wins the primary,” she added.

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Primary season

The group’s first major upset came in June when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a virtually unknown 28-year-old Bronx-activist and bartender , beat incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley who had been in Congress for two decades.

“Those closest to the suffering should be closest to power,” says Urbina, quoting from the campaign of another successful Indivisible endorsed primary candidate, Ayanna Pressley, a 44-year-old black Boston City councilwoman who this month defeated an incumbent Democrat in a Massachusetts congressional race.

A progressive African-American, Nika Elugardo, also beat a powerful incumbent in the Massachusetts House earlier this month.

Indivisible backed Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, in Florida’s hotly contested Democratic Party primary for state governor, who caused a major upset by defeating the party’s preferred candidate with a late surge in the race. Indivisible says its groups helped with direct mail and bilingual advertising, spending $140,000 - the maximum under Florida law for a political action group.

"Before he had a ground game we were the ground game. He didn't have money to pay people, so we did it for him," said Hanna, the Tampa founder, describing how the group got volunteers out to place Gillum street signs at key precincts.

Some Democrats worry that the progressive agenda could backfire, especially in places like South Florida where many Hispanic voters associate socialism with Cuba’s Communist Party, as well as dictatorial regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

"They need to be less associated with “la izquierda” ('the left,' in Spanish)," said José Parra, a communications strategist who has worked with Indivisible. "They want to be equated with a European-type socialist model, and not the likes of (Fidel) Castro, (Nicolás) Maduro and (Daniel) Ortega," he said referring to the leftist leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Not all have enjoyed success. Despite an endorsement from Indivisible, Sex in the City actress , Cynthia Nixon, lost in her bid Thursday to unseat the incumbent Democrat Governor of New York , Andrew Cuomo. However, progressives were successful in the elections for the New York legislature Thursday, removing a group of moderate Democratic state senators who had voted with Republicans.

New Hampshire Democrats also rejected progressive candidates for governor in the state’s primary last week in favor of moderate incumbents.

But progressives see positives in defeat. "Even if they support a candidate who might not win it still helps move the conversation," said Parra. He noted how Cuomo was forced to shift his campaign to the left to counter the threat from Nixon.

While Indivisible doesn't take its lead from the Democratic Party, some of its primary candidates have garnered establishment support. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke, is running a surprisingly strong U.S. Senate campaign against Republican former presidential candidate Ted Cruz, with the united backing of the party and Indivisible. The group also supports Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, who is a safe bet to win re-election to the U.S. Senate for New York.

In California, Indivisible is supporting Harley Rouda who is challenging Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in congressional district 48, as well as Mexican-Palestinian, Ammar Campa-Najjar, running against another Republican incumbent in district 50.

Getting out the vote

Indivisible prefers to partner with local community-based organizations and provide help with getting out their message. "We are here to lift up the grass roots movement," says Urbina.

"Organizations that parachute into a district from [Washington] D.C. are a dime a dozen," said Parra, who worked on the Gillum campaign. "Indivisible is different. It works with people who already know the lay of the land and gives them extra capacity."

That effort is part of a longstanding ‘get out the vote’ movement by groups such as Voto Latino, the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), designed to raise the historically low voter participation by minority voters.

Voto Latino recently joined forces with 80 groups, including Univision, to launch Somas Mas to register one million new voters by 2020.

“It’s not enough to test the existing voters, it’s about getting to new voters,” said Voto Latino’s president María Teresa Kumar. She pointed to a recent poll by the NALEO Educational Fund and Latino Decisions which found that nearly 60 percent of Latino registered voters reported that they have not been contacted by political campaign asking them to register or vote in November.

“The challenge is that the Democratic Party has not necessarily built the outreach to increase the base. Our job is to register our hearts out,” she added.

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