The Democratic Party Just Ticked Off Its Youngest Organizers

In an attempt to protect the House majority, the DCCC may have compromised its relationship with some of the party’s most loyal activists, the College Democrats.

Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

Updated on May 6 at 1:05 p.m. ET

The youths in the Democratic Party are angry.

Sixty-eight chapters of the College Democrats are urging voters not to donate to the party’s congressional-campaign arm after it instituted a new policy to protect incumbents from primary challenges. The protesting students say that the change will deter young candidates and people from historically marginalized communities from running for office. Their outrage isn’t just noteworthy because they represent younger voters in the electorate—these young people are also some of the party’s key organizers and activists.

“As College Democrats, we did a lot of work to build the new Democratic majority,” says Hank Sparks, the 20-year-old president of the Harvard College Democrats, which is spearheading the boycott. “This is a policy that’s going to silence a lot of voices like ours.”

They did do a lot of work: College Democrats help form the backbone of the party’s organizing infrastructure. The chapters currently boycotting the policy change from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee canvassed and phone-banked for dozens of Democratic congressional candidates across the country, including some of the 40 so-called majority-makers who flipped House seats from red to blue. Alumni from these College Democrats chapters have gone on to work for lawmakers on Capitol Hill and as staffers on presidential campaigns, and some have even run for office themselves. And current members are already gearing up to help Democrats up and down the ballot win in 2020.

Until the boycott’s announcement, progressive organizations and lawmakers such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York had been the most vocal opponents of the DCCC’s new rule. The fact that the College Democrats—the party’s stalwart organizers and its future leaders, staffers, and reliable voters—have joined in the protest demonstrates that they, too, are worried the party is setting itself up for failure.

The DCCC unveiled the new standards in March, which require vendors hoping to do any work with the committee—political-consulting firms or campaign advertisers, for example—to sign on to a set of terms. The one the College Democrats oppose is an agreement for vendors not to contract with any primary candidate who is challenging an incumbent Democrat. Explaining her opposition to the rule, Ocasio-Cortez told reporters that “primaries are often the only way that underrepresented and working-class people are able to have a shot at pursuing elected office.” During a closed-door meeting with DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos on March 27, leaders of the House Progressive Caucus pressured her to reverse the new standards.

The controversy surrounding the vendor rule embodies one of the central debates currently roiling the party. According to the DCCC and other Democrats, the party’s core job is to protect its incumbents, even in safe blue districts: How can Democrats protect their House majority and win back the Senate, they wonder, if they’re spending time and resources mounting challenges to their fellow Democrats? But others in the party, many of them progressives, argue that the DCCC shouldn’t discourage primary opponents from challenging any Democrat—even the longest-serving incumbents. After all, what if such incumbents no longer represent the interests of their constituents?

The protesting College Democrats, whose views run the ideological gamut, argue that the DCCC’s new vendor rule shows that the party is ignoring its younger voices—their voices—in favor of maintaining the status quo. The policy, they say, will only serve to stymie the evolution of the Democratic Party, which is skewing younger, browner, and more female.

The DCCC might see the victories of outsider candidates in 2018, such as Ocasio-Cortez, as a reason to impose the vendor rule. She mounted the first primary campaign in more than a decade against Joseph Crowley, beating the powerful Queens-based congressman who was long considered a future speaker of the House. But the College Democrats argue that victories like hers are evidence that the party should be allowing, if not encouraging, primary challenges, especially in safe blue districts; clearly, they say, the district was ready for new representation. (That’s not to say that progressive candidates were responsible for the House majority; to the contrary, moderate candidates provided the most wins in the last midterm elections.)

“We are stakeholders in the future of the Democratic Party,” says Ruby Schneider, the 20-year-old chair of the College Democrats at the University of Michigan, which worked on behalf of several state and federal candidates during the midterms, including Representative Elissa Slotkin. “We want to see a party that reflects diverse identities and is open to change.” Primary challenges, Schneider adds, allow for “necessary shifts.”

Several of the College Democrats I spoke with cited increased voter support across the country for progressive proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and suggested that preventing progressives from launching primary challenges will hinder the party from achieving those goals. “We have a bunch of younger and progressive Democrats who want the party to be taken in that direction only to see the leadership and the establishment not be responsive to our needs,” says Ben Pearce, the president of the University of Southern California College Democrats.

Pearce’s chapter, whose members helped phone-bank for candidates such as Representative Katie Hill in 2018, plan to avoid DCCC-sponsored volunteer events during the 2020 election, and will instead work directly with candidates. “I don’t think it does the party any favors to protect incumbents who might not be as responsive to the new voices that are coming forward,” Pearce says.

The DCCC has taken issue with the criticism of its new policy, pointing out that its focus is on maintaining the Democratic House majority and expanding the political map for Democrats, not replacing progressives with other progressives. “House Democrats are the firewall against attacks on Americans’ health care, pushing to end corruption in Washington, and create an economy that works for everyone,” the DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter told me, noting that the current House Democratic caucus is the most diverse in history. “The DCCC is already well into our work to fortify this newly won House majority and expand the battlefield further into districts that haven’t had the opportunity to elect a Democrat in decades.”

It’s also worth noting that the DCCC actively works to put progressives in office. The committee spent a combined $25.7 million in the 2018 midterms to elect eight new members who ended up joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Representative Katie Porter of California, a protege of Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose aggressive questioning of the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase went viral in April.

But the consequences of the DCCC’s new policy are already being felt on the ground, and the College Democrats I spoke with are troubled by it. Marie Newman, a 55-year-old progressive and former nonprofit executive, is challenging the anti-abortion Democrat Dan Lipinski in Illinois’s third congressional district. Newman, who has the support of several progressive lawmakers in her party, ran against Lipinski in 2018, but lost by 2 percent. She’s trying again in 2020, but since the DCCC’s new vendor policy was enacted, four different consultants have dropped her campaign, Newman has said. (On the bright side for her campaign, however, the attention that progressive activists have brought to the vendor rule have helped her raise almost $45,000.)

Another potential problem the students have expressed is keeping young people engaged. “The next generation of grassroots activists and organizers are really not happy with the way the Democratic Party is conducting itself,” Pearce says. If the party makes it harder to challenge incumbents, they’ll also make it harder for young people looking for change to feel excited about a candidate. “When we have younger voices and voices that better represent young people, they’re more likely to vote,” says Georgie Swan, who will serve as president of the Mississippi State College Democrats in the fall.

Bustos, the chair of the DCCC, recently agreed to a meeting with progressive activists to discuss their concerns over the committee’s rule, though she hasn’t given any public indication that she’s willing to relax the policy. Regardless, deliberations about the trajectory of the party—and leadership’s willingness to encourage and enable change—will only intensify ahead of the 2020 election, especially as young people begin attaching themselves to campaigns or launching their own political bids. In their attempts to protect their majority, Democrats might have compromised relationships with some of the party’s most loyal organizers.

“People concerned about this issue aren’t just going to go away,” says Kayla Everett, the 23-year-old outgoing president of the University of Missouri College Democrats, who plans to volunteer for a political campaign this fall. “Which is something to keep in mind if you’re party leadership.”