Angry and inspired: US Democrats train new wave of candidates

ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug 3 (Reuters) - The 100 Democratic women who packed into a suburban Maryland conference room recently for a one-day training on how to run for political office were more than activists eager to battle President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans.

The teachers, students and business leaders were also a window into the future for a Democratic Party desperate for new blood, and into the booming effort to turn the left's grassroots anti-Trump activism into a new wave of Democratic officeholders.

As thousands of potential first-time candidates explore political bids in what Democratic veterans say is an unprecedented surge of activity, a broad but informal network of groups is beefing up efforts to train them for the task.

10 PHOTOS
Democrats who could challenge Trump in 2020
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Democrats who could challenge Trump in 2020

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) - In her new book, Warren reveals for the first time that she considered running in 2016, when liberals were begging her to enter the race. This year, Warren joined the Armed Services Committee, filling a major national security gap in her resume. First though, she'll have to win reelection next year in Massachusetts, where some Warren allies expect Republicans to spend heavily to defeat or at least damage her.

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) - Booker is a crowd favorite whenever he speaks to Democratic audiences and is expected to headline several party fundraising events this year. One of the few African-Americans in the Senate, Booker has a big social media following and is a darling of the Manhattan donor class. His precedent-breaking testimony against Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a high-profile event that endeared him to many on the left.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) - Sanders won millions of votes during his unexpectedly strong presidential primary bid last year, which gave him a massive following and small-dollar donor base that's the envy of many Dems. He's the most popular politician in America, according to some surveys, and inspires enthusiastic loyalty. But Sanders would be 78 in 2020, and while his age doesn't seem to slow him down, Democrats may want a fresher face. 

REUTERS/Mary Schwalm

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley (MD) - No one has shown more interest in 2020 so far than O'Malley, who has been traveling to key states to campaign for Democrats and who told NBC News in January that he "just might" run for president again. O'Malley failed to crack 1% in the Iowa caucuses last time around. But he was convinced there no room for anyone in a race so clearly defined by Hillary Clinton and Sanders, and insists that he could perform better under different circumstances.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) - With a reality TV star-turned-politician in the White House, some Democrats think the comedian-turned-politician would be the perfect foil. His book out next month, sarcastically titled, "Al Franken, Giant of the Senate," could be a signal of higher ambition.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden - The former vice president ran for the top job twice and nearly did a third time in 2016. Could he really make a go of it in 2020? "Never say never," Biden told "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert. "You don't know what's going to happen. I mean, hell Donald Trump's gonna be 74. I'll be 77 and in better shape. I mean, what the hell?"

Photo by Brad Barket/WireImage

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) - Gillibrand has long been seen as potential presidential material, and her decision to vote against almost every one of Trump's Cabinet nominees has earned her renewed praise on the left. A recent profile in New York magazine further edged her toward the national stage.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY) - Cuomo has built record of accomplishments in his time leading New York State, including the recent passage of a universal college tuition program, even though he's also racked up some detractors along the way. And unlike some of the other 2020 possibles, he's hardly shown a relish for taking on Trump.

Photo by Brad Barket/WireImage

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) - The former California Attorney General just got to the Senate in January, but many party insiders think she's interested in higher office and that she would be a formidable candidate for the White House. Political talent scouts have been watching her for years, with a 2015 Washington Post headline asking, "Is Kamala Harris the next Barack Obama?"

Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

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The goal: turning neophytes into successful politicians who can win, giving the party a deep and diverse bench of up-and-coming progressive talent at all levels of government.

"This era of Trump has made everybody just want to run for office, and it's not easy," said Josh Morrow, executive director of 314 Action, which since its founding last year has heard from about 6,000 scientists, engineers and mathemeticians exploring political runs and trained nearly 500 of them.

"No matter how accomplished people are, they need help when they first run," Morrow said.

The surge of interest has given dispirited Democrats, long criticized as a top-heavy party lacking fresh faces, hope for a renaissance at the local and state levels after repeated setbacks under President Barack Obama.

Building from the ground up, from the school board to the statehouse, is a party priority after losing nearly 1,000 state legislative seats in the last eight years. Republicans also control the White House, both chambers of Congress and 33 governor's offices, the most in nearly a century.

"Local offices matter, and as Democrats we have sort of forgotten that," said Amanda Litman, a staffer on Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign who founded the group Run for Something after the 2016 election to recruit and prepare millennials for office.

For first-timers, the initial enthusiasm for public service can quickly give way to worried questions about the logistics of building a fundraising list, utilizing social media and crafting a message.

"I knew I had a steep learning curve," said Thereasa Black, a lawyer and Navy veteran running for the U.S. Congress from Maryland. She attended the Rockville session run by Emerge America, which prepares women for office.

"This is a way to find people who are like-minded and going through what you are, and can help you," she said.

A Republican spokesman said Democrats would need more than training and fresh faces to gain ground in next year's midterm elections given the losses of first-time Democratic candidates in special congressional races in Georgia and Montana earlier this year.

"The challenges that Democrats face go much deeper and come down to fundraising and messaging," said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, which sponsored a training program for about 4,500 volunteer field staff and operatives last year.

'SO MANY THINGS I DIDN'T KNOW'

Geoffrey Dittberner, 30, said he had volunteered on campaigns before deciding to run for the Minnesota legislature, but he was still unprepared for being a candidate before he was accepted into Run for Something's training program.

"There were so many things I didn't know - fundraising, setting up a campaign organization - but they made it pretty easy," he said. The group's Slack application gave him access to a variety of resources, from tutorials to mentors and peer networks, discussion groups and on-call experts, he said.

Aside from new groups like 314 Action and Run for Something, about a dozen established organizations that have long offered training to progressive candidates also have been flooded with interest since Trump's election.

Emily's List, which for years has trained women candidates who favor abortion rights, has hired five more staffers this year for a reconstituted training unit. It already has heard from 16,000 women interested in becoming candidates this year, compared to 920 in 2016.

Emerge America has seen applications jump by 87 percent and added five new state chapters. The Maryland state chapter, which ran the one-day course in Rockville, had trained 250 women by mid-year. Last year, it trained 55.

At Emerge's Rockville session, candidates were encouraged to listen more than they talk and delve into their own experiences to explain what motivated them to run.

"When we tap into our own personal story, we relate better to people in our community," Diane Fink, executive director for Emerge Maryland, told the class. She asked them to put together a three-minute story that explains how they got started.

While Democrats nationally have battled over their core message, most of the training programs say they avoid telling candidates specifically what issues to emphasize.

"First and foremost you should be talking about what matters to voters, not to you," said veteran Democratic strategist Kelly Dietrich, who founded the National Democratic Training Committee last year to offer free online training for any Democrat running for any office.

So far, more than 6,000 have signed up. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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