Friday, November 26, 2004

The rise of the local parties

Dan Balz has a good article in this morning's Washington Post (link) on the maneuvering going on in the Democratic party with regard to the DNC chairmanship. There are several points in this article that are noteworthy, but I was particularly drawn to the following section:

But there is disgruntlement among some, particularly the heads of the state parties, many of whom feel neglected after a presidential campaign cycle in which just a dozen or so states were targeted by the Kerry campaign. "There is huge frustration that the party broadly defined was not well served," one longtime DNC member said. "The presidential candidate was well served, but in states not targeted by the presidential [candidate], we were completely shut out."

Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and the leader of the Association of Democratic State Chairs, said: "We're looking for a much more cooperative relationship with the DNC, with much more focus on state parties and on races down the ballot [below the presidential contest]. I'm the chair of a targeted state and I feel that way. Michigan got plenty of attention from the DNC and we're grateful for the financial support, but there's no question we've targeted ourselves into a corner. When you write off states in election after election, you make it harder and harder to win."

Brewer has asked his fellow state leaders to remain neutral for now in the contest to elect a new DNC chairman, in the hope that they ultimately could become the power brokers in deciding who succeeds McAuliffe. The state chairs have begun to invite candidates for the DNC chairmanship to meet in Orlando on Dec. 12 in what will be a potentially pivotal tryout before the February vote. "Together we can have quite an impact, if we choose," Brewer said.

We may be on the cusp of a fundamental power shift in the structure of the Democratic party. Since at least the election of Bill Clinton, the party has been run by a small nexus of power brokers within the Democratic Washington establishment. This nexus' political philosophy was to focus energy and resources on a narrow band of races with the idea of breaking the back of the Republicans at their heart. It was a plan that worked for Bill Clinton, but it has failed pretty much every else it has been tried.

In the process of feeding this national beast, the local parties fell into disrepair. They no longer had the money or the talent to keep their political prospects alive. The money was sucked up by the focus races and the talent was siphoned off by the nexus power brokers.

But this year the local parties have started to wake up and, with a new infusion of grassroots activists, have produced some of the few good stories to come out of this past election. It was at this level that Democrats had the most success, taking back several state houses and winning surprising gubernatorial races (most notably, in Montana).

I take the comments from Mark Brewer as an indication that the state parties have become aware of their power. They may be seeking to play the role of kingmaker in the selection of the new DNC chair. The Dec. 12th meeting with the state party leaders could give us the first indication of how much influence they have and who among the potentials have the best prospect.

This is a positive sign for Dean. One, because Dean was and is the focal point of the rising grassroots/state-party movement. And second, because Dean has a proven ability to win people over to his side in these kind of situations. Recall that Dean was the guy who managed to get both the SEIU and AFSCME heads to endorse him, despite the fact that they had a history of NOT cooperating with each other.

I've always had the sense that Dean was a great coalition builder. The Dec. 12th meeting could be his first opportunity to demonstrate it to the party leaders.


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