DES MOINES — A growing number of Democratic lawmakers who are increasingly concerned that their party might fall short again in elections next year are on the road this summer to buck up beleaguered party activists and recruit new candidates.
Some have broader political ambitions, but most of these little-known Democrats are being invited by local and state party activists seeking fresh faces to help raise money, recruit candidates and woo voters. It’s a reflection of the growing voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s top leaders in Washington — and sheer worry that the party again might spoil its chances.
Struggling to rebuild after being wiped out of power in Washington and state capitals, Democrats run the risk of more setbacks next year, even as President Donald Trump’s approval ratings continue to tumble amid his penchant for controversial statements. The party is in dire straits, trailing national Republicans by some measures in fundraising. The Republican National Committee outraised its Democratic counterpart by more than $6 million in July.
That’s why Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., recently traveled far outside her district in Queens, N.Y., to visit the Iowa State Fair. Local Democrats picked her up at the airport and whisked her to the fairgrounds, making sure she sampled a pork chop-on-a-stick and fried Oreos.
“I might come back for breakfast,” she joked as she posed for photos with a pork chop, “the food here is so good.”
Meng, 41, who also is a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is focusing much of her travel on rural areas in a bid to better understand how to win back voters who may have drifted away.
She said she’s not running for president —but other House Democrats already are running or clearly thinking about it.
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“I’m not here to test waters,” she told a group of Des Moines-area Democrats as she explained why she was visiting Iowa for the first time. “I am here to do what so many people around this country are doing right now — being more involved than ever before in our party. I’m learning to be a better listener.”
The group of fresh faces hitting the road this summer includes Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., 54, who has announced he’s quitting Congress to run for president in 2020. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, 44, one of the most frequent travelers, is campaigning for Democrats in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Iowa, while declining to rule out a presidential bid. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., 36, is an Iowa native who represents a San Francisco-area district, but keeps visiting his birth state and wooing party activists.
The same Des Moines-area Democrats who hosted Meng are hosting Ryan and Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., 55, and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., 38, for a party fundraiser next month. Moulton has been the subject of recent reports about a fledgling presidential bid and is helping recruit fellow veterans to run for office.
“We’re seeing folks who aren’t an Obama, Biden, Clinton or a Sanders, and that’s what we as a party want to see,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party. He explained that Iowans are especially eager for Democrats to “focus on an economic agenda. As long as we have folks from the national party who are willing to come in and talk about that, we’re willing to host them.”
Trouble for Pelosi?
These forays by Democrats come as a growing number of new Democratic congressional candidates say they won’t vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to lead their caucus in the future, signaling they, like many of the voters they meet, want generational change inside the caucus as well as ideological change.
“I think it’s clear that there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who can’t go everywhere,” said Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi last year for the top House Democratic job.
Pelosi last visited Iowa in 2016, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made recruiting trips to Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of last year’s congressional elections, aides said. But neither top party leader makes frequent stops in early primary states or traditionally Republican states.
Swalwell in Iowa
Swalwell is doing most of his travel on behalf of the Future Forum, a group of 27 younger House Democrats that he leads that is recruiting 30- and 40-somethings to run for Congress. He’s devoted a notable amount of time in recent weeks to Iowa, using his family roots in Sac City as an excuse to visit.
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After making a stop to meet with a potential candidate in Omaha, he traveled across the river into Pottawatmie County, Iowa, where he headlined an event for Democrats that local leaders said drew a bigger-than-expected crowd.
During the event, he announced plans to return for a Labor Day fundraiser and when he did, “People were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to tell my friends,’ ” said Linda Nelson, chairman of Pottawattamie County Democratic Party. “He’s helping us build a crowd.”
Swalwell said he’s merely “doing my part” to help rebuild the party.
Delaney is runnimg
Delaney has more personal motives for making trips to early primary states. He’s a self-made financier and one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with an estimated net worth of more than $90 million. He stunned some colleagues by announcing plans to run for the White House — but said he plans to have offices and staff in Iowa and New Hampshire by the fall.
He plans to instruct his campaign team to work with Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats to make gains in next year’s midterm elections — a move he thinks can help him dispel the notion that a little-known House lawmaker can’t win the presidency.
“The reason members of the House do not become president is because they don’t run for it,” he said.
Testing the waters
Other Democrats thinking about running for president are only beginning to make overtures to party activists.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is set to visit Iowa in September, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is expected to speak at an Iowa Democratic Party dinner in October. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has made overtures to Iowa and South Carolina Democrats, while other names talked about as potential contenders, such as Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., have so far declined invitations to headline fundraisers or give speeches, saying they’re not yet ready to stir the pot.