Speaking to a predominantly black audience in the summer of 2018, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez said: “We lost elections not only in November 2016, but we lost elections in the run-up because we stopped organizing… We took too many people for granted, and African Americans — our most loyal constituency — we all too frequently took for granted. That is a shame on us, folks, and for that I apologize. And for that I say, it will never happen again!”
During the last 12 months, voters of color have been key to notable electoral wins. But the party has a long way to go to fulfill Perez’s promise. Too much money still goes to big ad buys instead of community-based outreach and organizing. Overall, the party has not done enough to advance positions that would appeal to voters who want to end ICE repression, promote sanctuary cities, and credibly affirm that black lives do indeed matter.
In the November 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam “won three-quarters of the votes overall” in racial minority neighborhoods “and more than 80 percent in African-American neighborhoods,” the Washington Post reported. “Margins grew by 10 percent in Hispanic neighborhoods.” Black voters turned out in higher numbers than they had before. However, the degree to which this was thanks to Northam and the party’s campaign strategies is debatable. While Northam vocally opposed Confederate monuments, he also omitted his black lieutenant governor from some campaign literature and pledged to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia if one was ever created. Though he has since vetoed a bill that would have implemented such a ban, his willingness to stand up for the rights of people of color has been weak.
Northam’s campaign spending priorities were also distressingly similar to the party’s 2016 behavior. Heading into the home stretch, his biggest expenditure was nearly $9 million for TV commercials given to an advertising firm with an all-white board. The ads, highlighting his opponent’s ties to Enron, were the sort of spending that last year’s Autopsy warned against. Groups like BlackPAC and New Virginia Majority handled essential local black organizing, but had a difficult time securing adequate resources.
Alabama’s special election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions tells a similar, slightly more encouraging story. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, a man accused of pedophilia with a history of pro-slavery and birther remarks. To be sure, Moore’s racist past played a role in Jones’ overwhelming margin among black voters. Jones won 96 percent of the black vote, and black voters accounted for 29 percent of those who cast ballots — a higher share than in either of Obama’s presidential victories, and more than the state’s 27 percent black population. All told, 56 percent of Jones voters were black.
That victory was due to the robust organizing among Alabama’s communities of color. BlackPAC and other groups, including local NAACP chapters, organized and knocked on more than 500,000 doors with a tailored message addressing criminal justice reform, education and health care. The DNC also contributed to operations, spending around $1 million on engaging black and millennial voters and hiring black consultants to handle organizing. Jones, like Northam, devoted huge sums to advertising; out of the $9 million that Jones had spent overall as Election Day approached, nearly $7 million went toward TV ads targeting white voters, according to Democracy in Color’s Steve Phillips.
While spending priorities remain misguided, the party is making some progress toward aligning policy positions with the needs of communities of color. Such alignment requires forcefully advocating for steps to ensure economic security for everyone through policies like Medicare for All and progressive tax reform, while also addressing specific forms of state violence that target communities of color.
Donald Trump’s assault on immigrants has mobilized some in the party to take a stronger line on immigrants’ rights, including calls for the abolition of ICE. Yet congressional Democrats were seen as having sold out Dreamers in their budget negotiations with Republicans in early 2018 — contributing to mistrust. An April 2018 poll found that while 40 percent of Hispanics believe Democrats care about undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, 54 percent believe they’re “using this issue for political gain.”
Likewise, the Democratic Party must do much more to reform the police and justice systems. Eighty percent of Democrats want reform and 87 percent want to decrease the prison population. Running for Philadelphia district attorney as a comprehensive reformer, Larry Krasner showed that these desires for change could be mobilized into a winning campaign; turnout for his November 2017 election was much higher than previous DA elections. Krasner went on to implement policies such as dropping marijuana charges and dismissing problematic prosecutors in the DA’s office.
Such policy approaches, coupled with grassroots organizing, enabled police accountability advocate Randall Woodfin to win the Birmingham (Ala.) mayoral race in 2017 and enabled progressive Democrat Earnell Lucas to win the race for Milwaukee County (Wis.) sheriff in August 2018. These campaigns suggest a path forward for Democratic candidates — where the priority is to inspire voters and maximize turnout rather than to woo “persuadable” Republicans.
However, as Shaun King of The Intercept pointed out in August 2018, national and state-level party organizations have not adequately supported reform-minded candidates in winnable races. To fulfill Perez’s recent promise, that must change.