LAS VEGAS — The Democratic National Committee is reeling, facing a turnaround that’s proving a much bigger lift than anyone expected as it struggles to raise enough money to cover its basic promises.
Many donors are refusing to write checks. And on-the-ground operatives worry they won’t have the resources to build the infrastructure they need to compete effectively in next year’s midterms and in the run-up to 2020.
Here in the halls of the Bally’s hotel and casino for the DNC’s fall meeting through the weekend, state committee chairs and operatives echoed a now-common concern among donors and strategists: the DNC’s recovery is still a ways away, and that could have serious repercussions for the party in the coming years.
"Donors, small and large, are so over the party," said Nebraska party chair Jane Kleeb, summing up the problem facing DNC chairman Tom Perez and his counterparts in the states. Kleeb, who is working on grassroots fundraising efforts for the committee, said she believes the money will come eventually.
"Everybody thinks that some magic three-page document and some magic tagline is going to turn everything around for us," she added. "But this is very typical work."
But the DNC reboot under Perez, the former Labor Department secretary who took over the DNC in late February, has taken longer than anticipated, in part because of the sheer scale of the undertaking, said a range of party operatives, donors, and elected officials.
"It’s a very legitimate concern," said one DNC member who has spent years raising money for the committee.
The financial challenges reflect a broader struggle at a committee led by a chairman who is new to party politics — and on a steep learning curve at a time national Democrats are still searching for an identity after a historic loss. And it’s not just donors who are staying away as the Perez-led group promises an expansive set of new investments and innovations. The party’s old leaders, led by former president Barack Obama, have kept their involvement to a minimum, as well.
So with 2018’s midterms presenting a clear opportunity for Democrats to leap forward, the worry is that they simply may not be prepared in time. While the House and Senate Democratic campaign arms — and individual candidates — are having no problem raising funds, the comparatively anemic cash flow at the central committee and state branches could affect organizing efforts on the ground across the country.
Much of the immediate anxiety centers on the State Party Innovation Fund, a planned $10.5 million competitive grant program that DNC leadership has made available to interested state parties over the next year. The money is meant to pay for organizing, ground operations and other mechanics seen as essential to countering Republican National Committee investments that helped elect Donald Trump and a slew of other other Republican candidates in 2016, leapfrogging Democrats in the process.
The planned funding is on top of the $10,000 each state party receives from the DNC every month.
But entering October, the DNC had just $7 million in its main account, which also has to cover its central responsibilities and salaries.
Financial concerns underpinned side conversations over the four-day meeting here, and officials repeatedly alluded to the committee’s fundraising troubles in formal sessions.
"We’re all aware the money is not flowing in the way we hoped it would," said longtime DNC member Alice Germond, a former secretary of the committee. The abundance of new resistance-minded groups asking for cash from donors "has been pretty overwhelming, and a newer phenomenon," she said, and it represents "competition for the party."
Top DNC finance officials painted an optimistic picture during an executive committee meeting on Friday, but still acknowledged the concerns.
“The finance organization has only recently been built up,” said Bill Derrough, the party’s new treasurer, in an extensive presentation, during which he insisted their efforts were "on track."
"In general, we’re in decent shape," he said, pushing a sentiment echoed by national finance chair Henry Muñoz. "But none of us are satisfied."
Perez did not address the committee’s fundraising during the Las Vegas conference. But DNC press secretary Michael Tyler pointed out that most of the party’s donations are small-dollar contributions, a sign of grass-roots enthusiasm.
"While our overall fundraising is on pace with previous ‘off-years,’ we want to do better and that’s why we are building a team to elect Democrats to win as we head into 2018 and beyond," he said.
Compared not just to the RNC, but to other Democratic committees, groups and candidates that are teeming with donations, the DNC’s funding problems are stark. That is the case even though it’s customary for an out-of-power committee to face a drop-off.
Perez, who had no previous fundraising experience, has been hitting the road non-stop for months in a bid to bring new donors and win over disillusioned contributors who are withholding checks after the 2016 election.
He hit fundraising hotspots like Martha’s Vineyard this summer and swung through San Francisco and Seattle in recent weeks, according to Democrats familiar with the events. Perez is also visiting secondary money destinations, including a planned stop in North Carolina later this month.
This isn’t a social club, he says at round-tables and meet-and-greets, according to donors who’ve heard the pitch. It’s something they all have to participate in, since they have to win — though it’s not going to be easy or cheap, he says.
Party officials involved in fundraising say donors repeatedly turn them away with a "try again next year," especially since it became clear there won’t be an official party autopsy from 2016. Democrat Jon Ossoff’s loss in his much-hyped special congressional election in Atlanta’s suburbs in June has also depressed donor enthusiasm.
"I’ve made it pretty clear I don’t want to donate to the DNC, DCCC, or the Senate counterpart, so they have not called me," said Northern California attorney Guy Saperstein, a part-owner of the Oakland Athletics and a prominent funder of progressive causes and candidates.
Even donors who are more willing to play ball have a stern message: The party needs a clearer plan to win before we fork over more money.
"You can’t just go to [donors] and say … ‘Support me, I’m the DNC.’ You have to rebuild the credibility," said a longtime Democratic donor and DNC member.
DNC members themselves have now been asked to give or raise $1,000 each, some said — a request people who’ve been around the committee for decades say they can’t remember being made before.
Part of the problem has been the lack of major draws for the contributors. For the past eight years, much of the party’s donor strategy has been built around large events featuring Obama.
But Obama so far has committed to just one DNC event since leaving office — a September event in Washington that brought in $2.5 million, a total that was less than officials had hoped for, according to people involved. Other high-profile party officials, like the dozens of potential presidential contenders, have not signed up to raise cash for the committee.
In Las Vegas, Minnesota party chairman Ken Martin, the president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, went out of his way while speaking to a gathering of state party executive directors to assure them the grant program was on schedule, since the money will be doled out over the course of a year and so doesn’t have to be raised yet, said one Democrat in the room.
Brandon Dillon, the Michigan Democratic Party chair, said he believes that the matching grant program will help focus donors’ attention by giving them a specific target, with specific operations that they’d be funding. Asking for money to help a DNC that few have faith in anymore and that lacks a clear mission isn’t working, he warned.
With races for both governor and Senate in his state next year — not to mention Michigan’s must-win status in the 2020 presidential election — Dillon is hoping to get at least the $100,000 per wave of grants that’s been outlined. He said he has faith that Perez will find a way to come through.
“They’re going to get it done. They have to. There’s no other alternative,” Dillon said. “We’re going to operate under the assumption that if we apply for the grants, the money will be available for us to get. And if we don’t, we’ll be driving to D.C. to turn Tom upside down and get the money out of his pockets.”
Other members are urging patience, noting the magnitude of the rebuilding task.
"If you look at what Tom is trying to do, and [deputy chair] Keith [Ellison], it really is a turnaround of the whole organization," said Washington state chairwoman Tina Podlodowski. "It’s going to take a little time to turn it around."
It’s not just a fundraising hole DNC officials are facing. They have to rebuild political infrastructure and trust in the wake of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s controversial tenure atop the committee, the loss of the White House, and the fallout from the Russian hack of the committee computer system.
After being slow to assemble a full staff, the DNC is still advertising for 22 jobs to fill, including a chief security officer and a data science lead.
Paying for those jobs will take more money, which means winning over more skeptical donors.
“I’ve had enough dinners,” said Orlando attorney John Morgan, a longtime top party donor who is now considering a Florida gubernatorial run. “I’m not really interested. I’m going to let them get new blood. I can’t get motivated.”