Keith Ellison Believes Democrats Will Take Back the House and Senate

A conversation with the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee about how Democrats can win back trust, his high hopes for the party in 2018, and the possibility of impeachment.

U.S. Representative Keith Ellison
Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison listens during a forum on the future of the Democratic Party, in Denver. (David Zalubowski / AP)

Keith Ellison has a prediction. The deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee believes that Democrats will win back not just the House of Representatives in 2018, but the Senate as well.

“We’re going to take the House and we’re going to take the Senate,” the Minnesota congressman told me during a recent interview, following Democratic victories in the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races on Tuesday and down-ballot wins in other states.

It wasn’t until June that chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Ben Ray Luján, a Democratic congressman from New Mexico, publicly said that “the House is in play in 2018,” or put another way: Democrats have a realistic shot at taking control back from Republicans in the midterm elections.

Winning back the House is a tall order, but winning back the Senate is likely to be even more difficult, which is why most Democrats in Congress aren’t confidently predicting it will happen. The Senate map favors Republicans, who only have to defend eight seats while Democrats have to protect 25, including in states President Trump won by double-digit margins like North Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, and Indiana.

Ellison has been right before when others weren’t. In a now-famous viral television exchange from 2015, Ellison said that Donald Trump had momentum, adding,“we better be ready for the fact that he might be leading the Republican ticket.” That pronouncement led ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos to laugh, before replying, “I know you don’t believe that.”

Ellison believes there’s still a lot of work to be done, however, to engage the Democratic grassroots, and rebuild trust in the party and the DNC. During the interview, Ellison said that the DNC should put a formal policy in place to ensure that no candidate or campaign ever has an inside track or unfair control over the party.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows.

Clare Foran: What do you think are the takeaways from the elections in Virginia and New Jersey where Democrats won both of the governors’ races?

Keith Ellison: When it comes to Virginia, I think it’s a foreshadowing of good things to come.

The American people are patriotic and love their country. When you see a president trashing it, green-lighting white supremacy and Nazis, which he did do after Charlottesville, they step up and the Democratic Party has to be ready to step up and train, resource, and provide a fair election process for them.

Foran: Were you surprised at how many Democratic gains there were in the Virginia House of Delegates? Political analysts did not think that was going to happen.

Ellison: When I was campaigning with [Virginia governor-elect Ralph] Northam and [Virginia lieutenant governor-elect Justin] Fairfax, we were always talking about the down-ballot races, always talking about taking the House [of Delegates] back. A lot of people might have thought it was just exuberance and a sense of optimism, but I believed we could take it back.

Foran: Do you think Democrats can take back the House of Representatives in 2018?

Ellison: We’re going to take the House and we’re going to take the Senate.

Foran: Really? It would be pretty hard to take back the Senate given the number of seats Democrats have to defend.

Ellison: It will be hard. But look at Nevada, [Republican Senator] Dean Heller [who is facing reelection in  2018] doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. He doesn’t know whether he wants to protect health care or oppose health care.

Foran: Do you think the party is melding its progressive and establishment wings? Or do you think any Democrat who runs at this point has to adopt a progressive agenda because that’s where the party is headed?

Ellison: There is more income and wealth inequality in this country than since the Great Depression. What some folks would label or call progressive is just responding to the economic realities of literally millions of Americans. Sixty-three percent of Americans don’t know what they’d do if they had an unexpected $500 bill. So is it progressive to say they should be able to handle that bill? I don’t know, call it whatever you want, I call it responsive government.

Foran: Well, regardless of labels, do you think more Democrats are getting the message that they need to address those kinds of concerns?

Ellison: Yes. My opinion is that any Democrat who is not responsive to the economic challenges of working Americans will not be able to win.

Foran: How are you feeling about the Alabama special election race? Do you think Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, has a shot? Could he win even in a deeply red state?

[Editor’s note: This conversation took place before news broke on Thursday afternoon of sexual misconduct allegations against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in the race.]

Ellison: Alabama is a blue state in the making. It’s full of folks who want a better life, who want higher pay. I think Roy Moore is, he’s a perfect villain, he’s a gun-toting racist, law-violating theocratic person. And Doug Jones is a civil-rights hero. If we don’t win, it means only one thing, we have not gone to the grassroots and mobilized the people enough.

Foran: Roy Moore made statements objecting to the fact that you were sworn into Congress because of your Muslim faith. Is it troubling to you to see that some Republicans in the Senate endorsed him?

Ellison: Of course it’s deeply troubling to me, but it’s not surprising. The Republican party has been running on anti-Muslim hate for years. I’ll never forget Herman Cain saying hateful things about Muslims, or Newt Gingrich, this guy Frank Gaffney was an adviser to Ted Cruz.

Foran: Do you think the party is doing enough to back Doug Jones in his race?

Ellison: We’re trying. But only time will tell. The election will tell. I believe there are enough Alabamians who need a better economic future to elect Doug Jones. The question is will we reach them in time for the election.

Foran: Do you think there have been significant changes to the DNC since you became deputy chair? Is it a different DNC than it was before 2016?

Ellison: I feel like we’ve made some initial very good steps, and we have a lot more work to do.

In the 2016 presidential election, I’d say 90 percent of the money was spent in about 15 battleground states. We bought into this highly minimalist campaign strategy, which essentially said we’re only going to target the number of votes we need to win, and we’re going to use TV and data analytics to do it. We’re completely reversing that model, and saying first of all we’re not in it just to win the election. We’re in it to win community. If we make people feel that we’ve got their back, and their party is there for them, the election becomes the easy part.

If you look at the mission statement of the DNC prior to now, it would say our goal is to elect the president. Now our goal has changed. Our goal is to elect Democrats from dog-catcher to president and everywhere in between, and our primary tool is grassroots engagement.

Foran: Politico recently published controversial allegations from Donna Brazile that the DNC and the Clinton campaign entered an agreement that “in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised.” Do you think the DNC has done enough to address concerns over that? [NBC later reported that “the arrangement pertained to only the general election … [but] clearly allowed the Clinton campaign to influence DNC decisions made during an active primary.”]

Ellison: I think the DNC should never, ever, enter into a relationship with anybody in a primary, which advantages that one candidate above any others. I don’t think that should ever happen again. We need a policy that says we will never do that again.

Foran: Do you think at this point you’re confident that would never happen under new leadership? Or are you saying that should be set it in stone?

Ellison: I would never tolerate it, but I would have to know about it, you know what I mean? That’s sort of a thing too. I think we need a policy.

Foran: As an assurance so people know that will never happen?

Ellison: Not only is the policy an assurance, it’s also a notice. So, if you’re a candidate and you’re thinking, I’m going to get an inside track, you’re not getting one. We don’t do that.

Foran: Let’s talk about the unity reform commission at the DNC. Do you feel confident in the process underway now that’s supposed to lead to reform?

Ellison: Look, I just hope that everybody understands that we have a chance to win back the confidence of the American people. I hope we take that chance.

We are working together on reform, and I’m fully committed to the unity commission recommendations. I don’t think you should have 700 or so superdelegates that one candidate can secure before any primary can take place at all. So we need superdelegate reform.

We need to open up the primaries. Now I’m not saying that there should be completely open primaries, but I’m saying there shouldn’t be any state that has a primary where the waiting period between your sign up and the election is like six months, eight months. That shouldn’t happen. It should be a fairly short time period if any. I believe in same-day [voter registration].

People want real reform. Open the door, make it so people can participate. And make it so that nobody gets an inside track. We have to do it, and we have to do it very conspicuously.

Foran: Do you think Republicans in Congress will be able to pass tax reform?

Ellison: The GOP tax bill is a scam. It’s simply a scam to redistribute the wealth from working and middle-class people to the richest people in the country.

You better believe I’m worried about it. I’m worried about it, but I think we can win. It depends on us mobilizing mass numbers of Americans all over this country to say no you’re not going to starve our government and cut all our important services.

Foran: There was a lot of grassroots mobilization in response to Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but health care is such a visceral thing. Do you think it’ll be harder to mobilize that kind of engagement for taxes?

Ellison: Yes, I do but I think we can certainly do it.

Foran: Some Democrats in Congress are calling for President Trump to be impeached. Is that a distraction?

Ellison: I think that he totally deserves to be impeached, but given the present composition of Congress, it’s not about to happen soon, so why not focus on things that are right in front of us, like fighting this tax bill, like making sure we extend DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], like making sure we get high open-enrollment numbers. I think those things are more important.

I don’t think these members of the Republican caucus, there are no set of circumstances under which they will impeach him. Even if they got him on tape to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin saying ‘Thank you sir, I’m so glad we’re working together on this thing.’ I don’t think they would do it.

Foran: You don’t think so?

Ellison: No, because Fox [News] would get up there and say, ‘He didn’t do it.’ He’d say he didn’t do it. It’d be like, ‘Well, we’re playing the tape,’ [and he would say], ‘Who are you going to believe: Me or that tape?’

Foran: So basically there’s no way impeachment would happen unless Democrats—

Ellison: Take over.