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Strategists: Dems must retake state seats, reach out to moderates

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
John Lapp
John Lapp
Burns Strider
Burns Strider
Kevin Strouse of Bensalem is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's 8th District.
Kevin Strouse of Bensalem is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's 8th District.

WASHINGTON — Seven months after President Obama won a second term, his Democratic Party can brag about successes but has much to worry about, analysts say.

Minorities, women and youths again voted in record numbers for Obama, and the party held onto its majority in the Senate. It gained eight House seats from Republicans, despite redistricting that made it all the more difficult.

Yet the Democratic National Committee is $20 million in debt, and its leaders acknowledge hurdles ahead: winning control of the House and retaining the Senate in 2014, and trying to win governors' seats and control of state legislatures. They must lure back some conservatives and moderates who quit the party.

This party that touts itself as a family of sorts, with people of differing opinions who find a way to come together, can act more like the Kardashians of catfights and sarcasm fame on reality TV than the idyllic family of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in their 1950s show.

“Certainly, we have our spats, but we are a family and blood is thicker than water, and so we move forward,” said Burns Strider, co-founder of American Values Network and the director of faith outreach for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.

Howard Dean, former Democratic Party chairman, Vermont governor and presidential candidate, believes the party “is in great shape from the outside.”

“We have a Democratic president, and whatever party in America has the presidency has the biggest megaphone in America,” Dean said.

But against Organizing for Action, the spinoff issue-advocacy group that led Obama's re-election campaign, and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's powerful, well-funded gun restriction advocacy group, the Democratic Party faces a growing relevancy problem.

All three groups compete for money and influence as they build voter databases that hold the treasure trove of information about people's voting, donating and volunteering habits — along with where they shop, eat and spend down time.

Because of this, party strategists already are working toward next year's elections.

Finding crossover appeal

In their office attached to an old tobacco warehouse along the canal tow path in Georgetown, John Lapp and Jason Ralston plot ways to win House and Senate races and the Arizona guberna-torial election.

Lapp worked alongside Obama gurus David Plouffe, David Axelrod and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He retains decidedly un-Beltway-like optimism about the Democrats' chances.

He points to a type of candidate the party needs: “Kevin Strouse, who is running in the 8th Congressional District in Pennsylvania, is this outside-of-the-box candidate that I think is good for the party. He is an Iraq war veteran, former CIA officer and a good problem solver.”

Strouse of Bensalem, Bucks County, has something in common with candidates that Lapp and Emanuel recruited to win a Democratic House majority in 2006: They're post-partisan thinkers who did not emerge through traditional machine-politics. An Army Ranger who was deployed to Afghanistan before Iraq, Strouse has crossover appeal among all sorts of voters, Lapp said.

“The only office I have ever run for was student council in high school,” said Strouse, who counts his Army and CIA experience with helping to shape his analytical mind. “Politics didn't matter. What mattered was finding the solution and getting the job done.”

Most of the “Class of 2006” House members have left office; their moderate political instincts clashed with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Obama's progressive stimulus and health care legislation in 2009.

Dane Strother, another Washington-based Democratic strategist, believes the party must make room for moderates.

“There is no struggle for the ‘soul of the party' anymore; the party is Barack Obama,” Strother said. “The party has shrunk in the last few cycles, and we have shrunk (toward the) left,” enabling progressives to dominate.

Issues that Obama pushes — gun control, gay marriage, immigration reform — play well with educated professionals in cities and college-age voters, but the 2010 midterm elections showed Democrats that Obama's appeal doesn't necessarily transfer to other candidates when he's not on the ballot.

If the progressive influence begins to fade, other factions in the Democratic Party almost certainly will fight for power.

Bottom-up rebuilding

Strother and Strider (known around Washington as the guy who can pry the evangelical Christian “God vote” away from the Republicans) voice concern that the party has no “grassroots bench” in state House and Senate seats across the country.

In the past decade, Democrats lost dominance in many state legislatures and local governments, giving potential stars no place from which to start careers.

That stings, Strider said, because the party prides itself as one that encourages “bottom-up” politics.

“It is essential to win state chambers back,” he said. “They are the link, or the bridge, to the grassroots of the party. If one link is weak, eventually the whole (party) is going to suffer.”

Losing control of state governments matters “because that is the party infrastructure,” Strother said, referring to the Washington-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee in charge of winning state chambers.

“Every election cycle we have lost more statehouses,” Strother said. “The DLCC has had the same leadership and structure for 15 years, and we keep losing.”

At the local level, candidates and voters tend not to be as progressive as “Obama Democrats” at the federal level, the strategists say.

“I think that our party infrastructure has to be as strong and inclusive as the party it serves, and grow it in every place of the country, with all of the voices,” Strider said. “That is our challenge.”

Ideology and enthusiasm

Three fault lines run through the Democratic Party, said Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics.

“The first is the ideological gap between the downscale minority branch, the middle-class suburban branch and the upscale liberal branch of the party,” he said.

“A lot of times, they see things the same (way), but when Democrats are in power, it never seems to take long for things to fall apart.”

The second crack shows itself in midterm elections, Trende said, “where you have a bunch of highly enthusiastic voters in the presidential election who won't turn out” in 2014.

The third is the speculative split over whether Hillary Clinton could win the presidency if she runs in 2016. Many people say it's hard to imagine anyone beating the former first lady, senator from New York and secretary of State to become the Democratic nominee. Others quickly remind you that everyone said that in 2008, when she lost to Obama.

Those close to Clinton suggest she has in place people to help raise campaign money and gain grassroots support. She just needs to decide soon whether to run, in order to build a campaign machine.

Other presidential hopefuls likely will become evident in the leadup to the midterms, by gauging the level of involvement of Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and anyone else who tries to demonstrate clout in helping Democrats win seats.

“Given that the 2016 Democratic race is ‘Hillary and everyone else,' I'm sure we'll be overanalyzing every campaign appearance she does or doesn't make,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at

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