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A new generation of Democrats isn't waiting for the party to tell it what to do

The women darting through the statehouse here alongside mentoring lawmakers have what Democrats need: sterling resumes, grit and anger at President Trump so deep that they are overlooking misgivings about establishment politics to run under the party banner.

“I woke up the day after the election and said, ‘I have got to do something to try to fix things,’” said Jessica Way, a 29-year-old teacher and labor organizer. She was now completing six months of intensive training provided by California-based Emerge America, which recruits women nationwide to become Democratic candidates. Applications to the program are soaring.

Thanks largely to Trump’s election, Democratic leaders are blessed with an unprecedented outpouring of interest in running for seats held by Republicans. Whether the party can leverage that enthusiasm remains an open question.

The surge of interest comes as Democrats are scrambling to rebuild a tattered party infrastructure. State organizations are depleted from neglect. Party stalwarts in Washington are bickering over what message wins in the age of Trump — and what districts are winnable.

The kind of top-down, laser-focused recruitment operations that Democratic congressional leaders built before their 2006 House takeover — and that their Republican counterparts duplicated four years later — have yet to emerge, and may not.

What is happening instead is that thousands of potential candidates are overwhelming recruitment operations like Emerge, pro-choice behemoth Emily’s List and Our Revolution, built by alumni from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

They reflect a national disaffection with Trump and the Republican agenda that could propel a wave of victories. But only if party leaders can figure out how to channel it.

“There is so much going on that it is kind of amazing to watch,” said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic strategist and blogger who blames power brokers in Washington for long writing off regions that could be winnable, leaving Democrats with historically little control over all levels of government.

“It is hard to figure out how much is actual traction, and how much is just spinning wheels. Some days I wake up optimistic and think they are finally figuring this out. Other days, it just feels like the same old, same old.”

A party that for the past several years clung to a strategy of cautiously choosing where to compete based on the kind data and algorithms that failed Hillary Clinton is rushing to reacquaint itself with its own grassroots.

At the same time it must avoid further alienating defectors who voted for Trump in hardscrabble Rust Belt towns and fast-growing Sun Belt suburbs.

It’s all making for a busy but challenging recruiting season.

The urgency facing Democrats was renewed after their recent loss in the Montana special congressional to a GOP candidate who physically assaulted a reporter asking questions about healthcare.

Obama campaign mastermind David Axelrod suggested that if Democrats hadn’t run a “genial troubadour” — nominee Rob Quist was a country singer with no political experience — the rural Republican stronghold might have been within reach.

“Candidate recruitment matters,” Axelrod tweeted.

Democratic operatives pushed back, saying Quist did much better than anticipated in winning 44% of the vote, and the GOP was forced to spend heavily to hold a seat it should have easily won. But the outcome nonetheless fueled charges that Democratic kingmakers in Washington, for all their talk about expanding the map and implementing a 50-state strategy, are reluctant to send the cavalry outside the same old battlegrounds.

Just before the election, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, had been in Washington warning that the party high command was out of touch with opportunities in states like his.

“Democrats need to do a better job showing up, making an argument even in places where people are likely to disagree,” Bullock said last month at a Center for American Progress conference attended by some of the party’s top stars and biggest donors. Bullock said if he had used the national party’s campaign blueprint in his 2016 race, he would have lost.

“We don’t have the presence in the states anymore,” said Howard Dean, who was the Democratic Party chairman during the wave election of 2006. “It will be hard to rebuild that in the next few months.” Dean expects Democrats to notch big gains in the 2018 midterms, but not because of efforts by the national party.

Most of the candidates emerging from the grass roots have little use for heavy party involvement, Dean said, and that may be fine: “This generation can organize themselves better than we can organize them, and frankly they don’t like institutions very much.”

He is working with Clinton on an effort to nurture the many new progressive groups cropping up to lure millennials to run for office, helping them tap the expertise and financial resources that have traditionally flowed toward established Washington institutions.

“We have to empower them, but not tell them what to do,” Dean said. “We have to make a really big adjustment on the Democratic side of the aisle. This group [of candidates] is not interested in top-down, command-central politics. I don’t think this is resonating in Washington yet. Washington is always the last place to change.”

Others warn that Dean’s approach, which focuses on tapping into outrage over Trump, is misguided.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had his own role as a mastermind of the 2006 takeover and is a critic of Dean’s 50-state approach, has been arguing that it is moderates in the suburbs who are ripe to move the balance of power in Congress. Anger and resistance, he warns, will be less potent than offering solutions for economic anxiety.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is struggling to strike a balance, dusting off the playbook from when Emanuel was chairman while also trying to rebuild bridges to the long neglected grass roots. It has already trained about 2,900 fledgling political operatives through its “DCCC University” program and sent staff all over the country in an effort to establish local roots for some of its operations.

The campaign committee moved its California command center out of Washington and into the heart of Orange County, where Democrats are eager to unseat several Republicans who won in districts where Trump lost.

That’s a first for the campaign committee, according to executive director Dan Sena, who says outside operatives have too often misread the state’s electorate.

“It’s important to me that we get California culturally correct,” he said.

Activists aren’t waiting for direction from on high. More than 14,000 women have deluged Emily’s List by signing up for its boot camp sessions on how to run for office. There were only 920 applicants for the entire previous election cycle.

“This is absolutely unprecedented,” said Stephanie Schriock, the group’s president. “The grass-roots energy is there. Now we need the connective tissue to the Democratic Party.”

Run for Something, a fledgling progressive group seeking to recruit smart, driven millennials who are unlikely to make it on the radar of the party machine, had anticipated hearing from as many as 100 potential candidates. It has been deluged with nearly 10,000 inquiries.

“We are working with a candidate in Virginia in a district the Democrats have not contested in the last three cycles, which I think is b.s.,” said Amanda Litman, a Clinton operative who started the group. She described it as a “frenemy” of the Democratic establishment — eager to help, but on its own terms.

“Recruitment needs to stop happening in back rooms, behind the scenes, where the insiders doing it are finding people just like them to run, perpetuating the cycle,” she said.

Back in Harrisburg, some in the class of 23 women who graduated recently from the Emerge program had not yet picked which office to run for. But they are all committed to running for something. The organization is adding chapters in states it hadn’t imagined possible before, including Louisiana and Alabama.

Among its Pennsylvania graduates was Natasha Taylor-Smith, an attorney who was a teenager when her son was born. She had soured on Democratic politics after running unsuccessfully for a judgeship in 2015 in a race where she saw little enthusiasm among the party machine for reaching out to voters from backgrounds like hers.

“There were constituencies I wanted to reach out to, and the party was like, ‘Don’t bother,’” Taylor-Smith said. “They took them for granted.”

Now Taylor-Smith is back in the game, determined to help the party broaden its outreach. “After the election, I felt like I had an obligation to run,” she said.

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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