Tom Perez wears many hats. He’s chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a former senior official at the Department of Justice, and the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
All three identities came to bear Thursday at the Monitor Breakfast, a day after President Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and two days after Democrats reclaimed the majority in the House and grabbed at least seven governorships away from Republicans. It was the most such “flips” of state chief executive for either party since 1994.
Looking ahead to 2020, Chairman Perez said Mr. Trump is “absolutely” beatable.
One of the lessons of this cycle is that "we have to expand the electorate, we have to compete everywhere,” Perez said, citing Nevada as an example.
The Democrats won the Nevada governorship for the first time in 20 years, and beat Sen. Dean Heller – the only incumbent Republican senator to lose – in a cycle dominated by Democratic incumbents defending Senate seats in states won by Trump in 2016. Democrats were also successful in red states, such as Kansas (governor), and Montana and West Virginia (Senate), though the party lost ground overall in the Senate.
A handful of races remain undecided – including Georgia governor, where Democrats are claiming “voter suppression,” and the Senate seat in Florida, where there’s “an army of lawyers down there” working on the recount, Perez says. Democrat Andrew Gillum, who lost a close race for governor of Florida, opened the door Wednesday to a possible recount in his race as well.
One lingering challenge for the DNC is fundraising. The committee was outraised this cycle by the Republican National Committee by about 2 to 1, as donors have given to House and Senate party committees, outside groups, and individual candidates. Democratic billionaires George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg funded their own political initiatives.
The DNC’s 2016 election cycle was marred by the release of stolen emails that showed party officials had favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for the presidential nomination. The scandal cost the party in donations and in the trust of its members.
While fundraising is important, Perez says, it isn’t everything. In 2006, the RNC outraised the DNC by about 2 to 1, and the Democrats won both the House and the Senate. In 2010, President Obama’s first midterm, the DNC outraised the RNC “considerably,” Perez says, and the Democrats got crushed.
“For me, the goal has never been to match them dollar for dollar,” says Perez, who took over the chairmanship soon after Trump’s inauguration. “The goal is to raise enough money to implement our game plan, and our game plan is a 50-state strategy.”
Perez also fielded questions on Trump’s firing Wednesday of Attorney General Sessions and the controversial decision to make Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, acting attorney general. Mr. Whitaker, whose previous job did not require confirmation by the Senate, now has decisionmaking authority over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Russia and Trump associates in the 2016 election.
“What happened yesterday doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Perez, former assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Obama administration.
He called Mr. Whitaker’s appointment “an effort to do an end run around decades of sound practice to ensure that a Senate-confirmed person was at the helm of the Justice Department.”
As DNC chair, one of Perez’s key tasks is party-building and voter outreach – including to the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic community. Hispanic voters overall lean Democratic, but Perez doesn’t buy the argument that demography is destiny.
“That’s fingernails on a chalkboard for me,” the chairman says. “Demographics is only destiny when you're out there building relationships with people, when you're out there listening, and when you're out there fighting for the things that people care about.”
In Florida, the large Hispanic population – especially the fast growth in the Puerto Rican community – is considered a key to state Democrats’ future. But reaching out to potential new voters is tricky, Perez says, when they are dealing with displacement after hurricane Maria hit the island last year.
“The key is, showing up in a culturally competent, linguistically appropriate way,” says Perez, who speaks Spanish. “And when we were doing all the Puerto Rican outreach in Florida, the first question you always ask is, ‘How can I help?’ It's not, ‘Hi, I’m Tom, we need your vote.’ ”