Will Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway take a page from Barack Obama’s playbook? After winning his elections, the outgoing president turned his highly organized campaigns into grassroots activist platforms to promote his agenda. According to the Washington Post, the first woman to run a winning presidential campaign may take the helm of a still-undefined outside activist group that follows in the mold of Organizing for America:
Senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said in an interview Monday that she is considering leading a group being formed that will provide “a surround-sound super structure” to bolster the new administration’s political and policy goals.
The entity, whose legal structure has not yet been determined, will serve as the outside hub to support President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda. Discussions about the formation of the group have been underway for several weeks.
If this plan goes into action, it has to do so quickly. The group would push hard for Trump’s Cabinet appointments to get confirmed in the Senate, although at least for now there appear to be only a couple of potential land mines there, for Ben Carson at HUD and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. If they want to build grassroots pressure to keep the vote at 51, they’d better get moving.
However, their longer-range goal is to make these votes a lot less worrisome after 2018:
One immediate goal: to have an organization in place to defend Trump’s Cabinet nominees if they face confirmation battles. In the longer term, his advisers believe the group could be a potent force in the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans are hoping to expand their Senate majority by picking off vulnerable Democratic incumbents. More than half of the 48 members of the Senate Democratic caucus face reelection in two years, including 10 senators from states Trump won.
The new group is expected to focus especially on 10 vulnerable Democratic senators who represent states that Trump won: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin III (W. Va.), who are reportedly under consideration for Trump administration positions; Joe Donnelly (Ind.), who hails from Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s home state; and Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), whose state voted for Hillary Clinton, is also seen as a potentially persuadable Democrat given her publicly stated desire to seek bipartisan compromises.
Klobuchar might respond to the carrot, but the stick isn’t going to bother her one bit. She won her last election by almost 30 points in Minnesota, and unless Harold Stassen rises out of his grave to challenge her, she’s not going to lose in 2018 either. Republicans haven’t won a statewide race here since 2006, and that was Tim Pawlenty barely winning a re-election bid. Klobuchar does talk about seeking bipartisan compromises and is almost certainly quite sincere in that desire, but she’ll want those mainly on her terms. She’s a staunch progressive, and until the state GOP gets its act together, she won’t have much reason to moderate. Klobuchar will come along on infrastructure, but that’s the only part of Trump’s agenda that will interest her.
More broadly, though, the question will be just how much organization exists to serve as the foundation for this project. Obama’s organization was massive and well-tuned for grassroots action. Trump’s organization was somewhat underestimated, but still didn’t have anywhere near the scope of the Obama campaigns and OFA. Obama depended on unions and college students for a significant part of that effort, two groups with (a) time on their hands and (b) organizational inclination toward top-down hierarchies for bottom-up action. Trump’s movement consists of suburban and exurban voters, mainly working-class people from Middle America using their time to keep the lights on and the roof from leaking. They don’t Occupy; they rent, or work to keep up with the mortgage.
The challenge to create a grassroots movement would be large indeed, plus there is another point to remember about Obama and OFA, too. The only two major wins Obama got came in the 2009-10 period, when he got ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank through Congress — due entirely to a Democratic supermajority (or close to it) in the Senate and a big majority in the House. After that, OFA didn’t deliver anything except a second term for Obama; it didn’t protect other Democrats as Republicans began seizing control of the House and then the Senate. Having an auxiliary grassroots organization to back an agenda may not hurt, but there’s not much evidence that it helps much either.
Update: Originally I wrote that Sen. Susan Collins opposed Ben Carson’s nomination. That was an error by a reporter in Maine, which had been corrected before I wrote this post, but I had not seen the correction. Collins has in fact issued a statement of support for Carson:
“Through his decades of world-renowned service in the medical community, Dr. Ben Carson has demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of Americans. As the Chairman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, I look forward to working with Dr. Carson to improve our housing assistance to disadvantaged families, people with disabilities, and low-income seniors as well as programs to assist our homeless youth and veterans, where we are making such progress. I also envision our partnership will help spur job creation and economic development through programs such as the Community Development Block Grants.”
I have removed the reference in the original post to Sen. Collins, and apologize for the need to correct this.