ATLANTA — Democrats are preparing for what many believe will be the party’s largest presidential field in decades in 2020. But at the premier annual progressive gathering on the political calendar, signs of the crowded primary to come are nowhere to be seen.
Just one potential candidate — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — is scheduled to speak at the three-day Netroots Nation event. Beyond that, there’s almost no presence from the many prospective presidential candidates who are already building up their political teams and making moves to run.
Instead, the elected officials and formal presenters in the main ballroom are focused on ideology — the need to be unapologetically progressive in 2018. To them, voting rights, climate change and health care take precedence over a presidential race that is more than three years away.
The question of alleged Trump campaign collusion with Russia looms especially large here. In the hallways and on side panels, activists and organizers are resisting the guidance of party leaders who worry about overplaying the Russia issue at the expense of others that may matter more to voters. The message from the grass roots? We’re not going to stop talking about President Donald Trump and Russia.
“Not only is it a false choice, it’s a really limited choice,” said Democracy for America Executive Director Charles Chamberlain of the common refrain that Democratic candidates and groups ought to focus on issues like health care rather than the investigations. “I get it when people are frustrated when they feel like all they’re hearing is, ‘Russia, Russia, Russia…[but] it actually isn’t a distraction: It’s actually critical for our democracy.”
In any case, it’s not a debate that top Democratic presidential prospects are eager to get involved in. Some said they couldn’t attend the event this year because their invitations arrived at a time when it was unclear whether the Senate would be in session. Others were wary of protesters like the Black Lives Matter activists who interrupted then-presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at 2015’s event, according to multiple Democrats aligned with potential White House contenders.
The divide over the party’s approach to Russia was apparent from the public speeches and statements of the elected officials who did attend. Unlike the grass-roots activists who want to engage voters about the investigations that continue to dominate headlines and cable television, the officeholders steered clear of talking about Russia.
“There’s a different Trump scandal or controversy almost daily, but the only thing that’s consistently dominated the news these last eight months is Russia,” said Shripal Shah, a vice president of the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge. “As a party, we have to figure out the best way to message the issue: It’s not going anywhere, and we can’t afford to ignore it.”
In Thursday evening keynote addresses, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander hit on voting rights, Tallahassee mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum criticized current Gov. Rick Scott for his ties to Trump, former Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards talked about winning back Barack Obama voters who sat out the 2016 election, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams delivered a largely biographical speech.
The pattern repeated itself on Friday: Paul Ryan challenger Randy Bryce talked about health care, Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego leaned on the imperative to develop a progressive agenda, and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison — the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee — sat on a panel that touched on right-wing smears and media failures.
As other progressive elected officials — including California Rep. Barbara Lee, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, California Rep. Ro Khanna, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan — roamed the halls and sat on panels of their own, even the official programming steered clear of the topic: Just one event appeared designed to touch tangentially on the Russian investigations — a Friday panel about the role of state attorneys general and legal action against the White House.
Mingling at the hotel bar and in the coffee line, some activists conceded that an unrelenting focus on special prosecutor Robert Mueller or the Intelligence committee investigations might not be helpful in the Republican-leaning suburban districts that are essential to Democratic hopes of winning back the House.
“If you talk about Russia does Jon Ossoff win those 4 or 5 points? I don’t think so, that district had a ceiling,” said Mike Ceraso, a party organizer and former senior staffer on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, referring to the Democrat who narrowly lost a Georgia special election in June.
Even so, organizers universally agree that the topic so animates Democratic base voters that the party can’t afford to take its foot off the gas pedal.
A messaging memo prepared for liberal groups American Bridge, End Citizens United, MoveOn.org, and Stand Up America by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner — and viewed this week by POLITICO — got straight to that point: "Although the Russia scandal is not the top concern, the research shows this issue is motivating to potential Democratic voters," it reads.
“If you are not recognizing that what is going to drive massive turnout in 2018 is people who want to send a message to Congress that we have to fight and stand up and be against Trump,” you’re not seeing the full picture, said Chamberlain.
The memo, aiming to provide some guidance, encouraged campaigns to “stress the national security implications” of Trump’s potential ties to Russia.
“Voters — particularly swing voters — are sensitive to the scandal’s national security implications,” reads the memo, which was based off polling in a wide range of primarily Republican-held House districts and a series of focus groups.
The document reflects a growing wish — particularly among those who are dealing with donors — for a framework for talking about the topic and issues related to it, such as impeachment.
“Look, at the end of the day, it’s an issue. Our democracy was corrupted by a foreign power, and we should never allow that to happen. But just because you’re talking about it doesn’t mean you’re avoiding other issues that are just as important, like economic issues,” said Gallego, fresh off his Friday speech that steered clear of the investigations.