Reconnect and pick the right battles: Campaign vets outline the DNC's to-do list

The Democratic National Committee's new leadership team has a lot of work ahead after Hillary Clinton's stunning November loss.

The DNC's new leadership duo: Ellison and Perez. (Image via the DNC's Twitter account).
The DNC's new leadership duo: Ellison and Perez. (Image via the DNC's Twitter account).

The Democratic National Committee has its work cut out.

At the top of its to-do list is rebuilding morale after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s devastating and unexpected loss to Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election. Its challenges don’t stop there. The group must also rebuild its reputation after hacked emails forced its leadership to resign and the party lost the support of many working-class voters in several formerly solid blue states.

Experts say it must walk a communications tightrope, promoting party unity and striking a balance between positive, unifying messages and pushback to Trump’s policies to revitalize its supporters.

Step one: It elected new leadership on Saturday, voting former Labor Secretary Tom Perez as DNC chair and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) as his deputy.

"They’re doing what they should be doing in the wake of the election: showing unity and amplifying a common agenda," says Ellen Moran, GM of Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Washington, DC, office.

The DNC did well to show unity in the wake of the election—Ellison and Perez posed for pictures wearing the opposite number’s campaign button—and demonstrate the two can work together, she adds.

"Perez and Ellison are an excellent team," contends Joel Benenson, CEO of Benenson Strategy Group and worldwide vice chair at Burson-Marsteller. "After the vote, they showed their commitment to work together to make sure the party comes together, because we’ve seen the results of when we don’t and it doesn't work. Democrats, like Republicans, are not going to agree on every issue. They need to make the case that they are the party the best represents the issues."

Next up: Reenergizing the base
With its leadership in place, the next step for the DNC is motivating Democrats across the country. Benenson, the former chief strategist for Clinton’s 2016 run for the White House, says the best way to do that is with positive messages, showing the party has the same values as voters.

"What the party, messaging-wise, needs to do and will do is firmly establish that we are and always have been the only party that has fought for working people," he says. "We are the party of economic fairness and justice and social justice."

Tim Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana and ambassador to India under President Barack Obama, boils down reconnecting with the base to a three-step process: "show up, listen, and connect."

Roemer, who ran for DNC chair in 2005, says this is where Obama succeeded in getting voters excited and Clinton failed.

"Democrats lost in my heartland, in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, because they didn't show up in the right places, they weren't listening to the crisis going on in blue-collar communities, and they didn't connect with the issues," says Roemer, now a senior counselor at APCO Worldwide. 

Alongside working class communities, the DNC is also invested in the wave of millennial voters that supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Democratic primary, DNC Finance Committee Chair Henry Munoz III told The Hill.

He said the DNC must win back millennials to build its grassroots fundraising capabilities after many young voters were driven away by the party’s treatment of Sanders during the primaries.

"I don’t think we lost millennials," Moran contends. "But they are core constituents that need to be excited again."

Last summer, former DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned after leaked emails showed her and other DNC leaders badmouthing Sanders’ campaign. Her role was filled by Donna Brazile, who also faced controversy after a leaked conversation showed she shared a debate question with Clinton while working as a contributor to CNN. The network cut ties with Brazile after the news became public, though she stayed on as interim DNC chair.

Benenson suggests focusing on social justice and capitalizing on the "organic energy happening all over the country" in the form of protests can re-engage millennials.

"With millennials or whatever group you're talking to, you have to connect with them around set of values both economically and socially rooted in fairness and a belief in social justice," Benenson says. "Those values are as vital to millennials as they are to working-class Americans and [middle-aged] voters who feel left behind."

Smart opposition
Because the Democrats lost the White House and are in the minority in both houses of Congress, much of the party’s messaging has been about opposing Trump policies.

Over the past two months, the party structure and Democratic leaders in Congress have loudly spoken out against Trump policies from the Keystone pipeline to the struck-down travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries. They’re also applying pressure on the administration over Russia’s role in the presidential election.

Yet the Democrats can’t go all negative all the time. Experts and campaign veterans say it needs to strike a balance.

"Democrats across the country expect them to hold Trump accountable," Moran says. "With a president who is the least popular in this point of his presidency of any president in the history of polling, he cannot be given a pass. Democrats expect that and Democrats demand that."

Democrats should also work to rebuild bonds at the state and local levels, notes Roemer.

"It’s more important that the DNC is the party of the local and state races, not just the national races," he explains. "The party needs to concentrate on not only ideas, but the nuts-and-bolts of rebuilding energy, candidate recruitment, and party ideas at the local and state levels to get people involved."

Roemer adds that Democrats "have to be able to tell the American voter three reasons why you need to be hired and three reasons why the other person needs to be fired."

"They need to say, here is what the party stands for, here is why you should be excited to work for us, and here are reasons why you should fire the person occupying the White House," he explains.

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