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ATLANTA (AP) — Out of power and looking for a way forward, Democrats are hoping to harness the energy of an opposition movement that has flourished since President Donald Trump took office.
The ideal for the party is to use a disparate network of liberal and progressive groups — like the Facebook sensation that led to worldwide women's marches the day after Trump's inauguration — to drive voters to the polls in gubernatorial and special House elections this year and congressional midterms next year. The enthusiastic throngs would then watch newly elected Democrats enact policies the movement wants.
As Democrats gathered in this Southern city for their three-day annual meeting, political reality hit hard. Republicans control the White House, Congress, 33 governorships and, if Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, a conservative advantage on the high court.
Tapping the passion of the resisters could lift the party.
"The grassroots cannot win without political powers, and the political powers cannot win without the grassroots," said Brad Bauman, a liberal Democratic consultant who previously ran the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "There's a natural distrust there, but they have to figure out how to make it work."
The leading candidates for the next national Democratic Party chairman say they agree.
"The energy is electric," said former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is battling Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and others for the party's top post.
The chair candidates, other potential DNC leaders, state party executives and the leaders of the liberal groups are talking about how to maximize the anti-Trump surge that began with street demonstrations last month and has continued this week as Republican members of Congress meet angry constituents at town halls across the country.
Among the groups are Black Lives Matters and Swing Left, along with less-known efforts like Indivisible, Resist Trump Tuesdays, Knock Every Door, Rise Stronger and Sister District.
Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson says "many of these groups already involve Democrats, so there's not really a disconnect." Peterson said it's a matter of the party doing more to help organize the efforts, recruit candidates and identify voters and volunteers. She is running for a DNC post charged with directing civic engagement. "Right now, we have one person representing that office," she said.
"It's about money and personnel," she said.
Recruiting new faces will be crucial for the party in the post-Obama era, not only for congressional races but the White House in 2020.
The risk is that Democrats and their like-minded groups stay disorganized or, even worse for the party, end up fighting with each other, yielding nasty primary battles and a split party that is no match for Republicans. That could be of particular concern to incumbents like Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, who are among the 10 Democratic senators facing a 2018 re-election in states where Trump topped Hillary Clinton in November.
Liz Jaff, who is running for national vice chair, has organized a gathering Friday, the day before the 447 DNC members will choose a chairman and other officers, that will bring together leaders of a half-dozen liberal activists groups with top DNC members. She has invited Ellison and Perez.
"It's all out there, the volunteers, the votes, the information," she said. "But it's just not altogether. Whoever is chair has to know these groups and help these groups. These people are Democrats waiting to be engaged."
Party leaders organizing the DNC gathering are seemingly aware of the need to reach party liberals, with a speaking lineup highlighting the Trump opposition.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who's expected to lead many of the legal battles against the new administration, will deliver the keynote address. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who narrowly lost his 2016 Senate race, will also deliver remarks.
The organic rise of the women's marches and the subsequent demonstrations has been compared to the tea party movement during President Barack Obama's two terms. Tea party candidates cost Republicans a few winnable Senate seats early on, but the GOP managed to harness the movement to win control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
Even before Trump's election, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed Clinton, a prohibitive favorite for the party's presidential nomination, to an extended primary fight that delighted liberals. And now his preferred DNC chairman, Ellison, is among the leading contenders to lead the party.
As to how current Democratic officeholders should deal with the movement, Bauman said, "With absolute opposition to Trump."
He praised Democratic senators for nearly party-line opposition to Trump's Cabinet and other nominees so far, even as Republicans muster the necessary votes to confirm one after the other.
"They did a good job," he said. "But they didn't do it until they saw all the pressure."
It remains to be seen whether that pattern of opposition is enough to stave off primary fights and keep the party leaders on the same page with the activists. If not, Bauman said, "I'm a firm believer that primaries almost always make for better Democratic candidates."
Peterson, the Louisiana chairwoman, agreed: "That's the system. May the best Democrat win."
Associated Press writer Lisa Lerer in Washington contributed to this report.
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