21.02.2018
US Democrats Say Key to 2018 Election Wins Is Grass-roots Action

US Democrats Say Key to 2018 Election Wins Is Grass-roots Action

Yasmin Radjy finished graduate studies at one of the country's top schools, Harvard University, and began mobilizing local efforts in Virginia to elect Democratic, progressive candidates.

Radjy said she soon learned that bookwork often doesn't equate to real life.

They [Harvard professors] taught me a lot of things that didn't work in [the election of] 2016, she said. She said a simple strategy would win the midterm elections for the opposition Democratic Party in 2018: talking to voters and listening to their concerns.

That type of grass-roots campaigning is taking place across the country, and Democratic organizers say recent local elections have shown that it works.

A transgender woman, Danica Roem, will serve in the Virginia House of Delegates after defeating a Republican incumbent. Another woman, Jennifer Carroll Foy, gave birth to premature twins during her campaign and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates with both babies still in the hospital.

Radjy said that grass-roots volunteers need to be trained to customize their pitches for non-typical candidates. You can't take them off the shelf and expect them to act the right way, she said.

WATCH: Yasmin Radjy on Returning to Campaign Basics

Republican activism

President Donald Trump's Republican Party also understands the importance of grass-roots activism, owing its current grip on power in part to the enthusiasm of tea party supporters who have advocated vigorously for conservative causes since 2009.

The movement took root as a reaction to measures introduced by then-President Barack Obama to help homeowners wiped out by the 2008 recession, and it gained strength in opposition to Democratic-sponsored legislation that gave government a larger role in the health care industry.

Tea party activists helped carry the Republicans to their unexpected success in the 2016 elections, when Trump's earthy, populist rhetoric helped the party win not only the White House but also both chambers of Congress.

But that same rhetoric infuriated many left-leaning voters, especially women who vented their anger the day after Trump's inauguration by staging the Women's March of 2017, one of the largest protests in the history of the nation.

Now the energy seems to be more with the Democrats and especially women, who are running for office in unprecedented numbers. Almost 400 female candidates are running in the 2018 congressional elections.

Organizers say much of that anger has been channeled to the local level, where large numbers of liberals and especially women are running for mayoral offices, city councils and state legislatures.

The winner of any contest is determined by the number of activists on the respective side, acknowledged Republican Morton Blackwell, who is in his eighth four-year term as a Republican National Committee member from Virginia.

Blackwell admitted that the Republicans have fallen behind Democrats of late and need more and better on-the-ground volunteers.

Women listen to a panel discussion sponsored by the DC Grassroots Coordinating Committee at the Woman’s National Democratic Club. (C. Presutti/VOA)
Women listen to a panel discussion sponsored by the DC Grassroots Coordinating Committee at the Woman’s National Democratic Club. (C. Presutti/VOA)

On the Democratic side, local groups like the DC Grassroots Coordinating Committee, supported by the Woman's National Democratic Club, are holding regular meetings to teach organizers how to train grass-roots volunteers leading up to the November elections. The test for organizers is maintaining that vigor over the next 10 months.

Democratic momentum

Jean Gearon founded the Maryland-based Women's Alliance for Democracy & Justice, a group that strives to empower women politically. Gearon said volunteers need to feel they are being effective, so her group keeps things simple.

When training her volunteers, she drafts simple scripts and gives them phone numbers, explaining everything. Here's what you want to say about fracking, she gives as an example. Here's where you sign your name.

Democrats still face tough odds in trying to break the Republican hold on power. After Congress passed a sweeping tax plan and Trump reached the first anniversary of his presidency, Republicans gave him an 87 percent approval rating in a Gallup Poll.

For 25 years, Guy Short, who lives in Erie, Colorado, and is vice president of fundraising with Campaign Solutions, has advised and managed Republican political campaigns and groups at all levels of government. He predicted that 2018 would be an election won with those staunch Republicans.

We need to motivate and turn out the base, he said. This year, significant amounts of money are needed in order to compete in what's a very big playing field.

Short said Republicans were significantly ahead of Democrats in fundraising, but Blackwell said he thought Republicans would need more than money to win the midterm elections. If money were the key factor, he said, Jeb Bush would have been the Republican nominee for president in 2016 and Hillary Clinton would have crushed Donald Trump for president.

Longtime Republican Morton Blackwell walks by a Carrara marble bust of President Ronald Reagan. Blackwell had it commissioned for his Leadership Institute. Blackwell says he thinks Republicans will need more than money to fare well in the 2018 midterm elections. (C. Presutti/VOA)
Longtime Republican Morton Blackwell walks by a Carrara marble bust of President Ronald Reagan. Blackwell had it commissioned for his Leadership Institute. Blackwell says he thinks Republicans will need more than money to fare well in the 2018 midterm elections. (C. Presutti/VOA)

​Economy's impact

Blackwell said the economy, which he predicted will improve throughout the year, would give his party a boost. In just a few days, the paychecks of employees across the country are going to show a significant benefit [from the federal tax cut]. Ninety percent of the people are going to get more income, so that is going to have an impact.

WATCH: Morton Blackwell on the Political Effects of the US Economy

In a January CBS News Nation Tracker survey, 67 percent said the U.S. economy was the same or doing well. Yet, 54 percent did not credit Trump with the improvement, while 46 percent said he had contributed to the economy doing well.

In the Gallup Poll, only 5 percent of Democratic voters approved of Trump's performance. Democrats are motivated by one thing and one thing only, Short said, and that is they hate Trump. That's not enough.

But Democrats said that's exactly what has catapulted new candidates, new volunteers, and new voters into the spotlight.