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Tired of losing the Rust Belt, new Democratic group has strategy to un-Pelosi the party

Protesters hold a wooden coffin with an upside down donkey representing the Democratic party in downtown Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia,
Getty Images
Protesters hold a wooden coffin with an upside down donkey representing the Democratic party in downtown Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia,

At least three House Democrats are backing a new political organization that aims to give progressive candidates in the Midwest and Appalachia a new form of support that isn't dependent on the Democratic Party's coastal financial elite.

The People's House Project, founded by former MSNBC host and 2010 Virginia congressional candidate Krystal Ball, has begun interviewing candidates and recruiting donors for the new political action committee. The organization, which will go public on Tuesday, will provide money, guidance, and political connections for the candidates it chooses to run under its banner.

Democrats experiencing a surge of grassroots activism in the wake of Donald Trump's election have struggled to translate that energy into clear victories. The party improved its performance but has still fallen short of winning three straight special elections in Kansas, Georgia (which goes into a runoff in June), and Montana. Republicans have commanded a solid majority of the House since 2010.

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One potential problem identified by some political analysts is the ability of Republicans to run attack ads tying Democrats to the party's coastal and culturally liberal wing.

"It's hard to convince people around here sometimes how toxic our brand is. But, clearly the brand is damaged, and we need to see if something else can work." -Rep. Tim Ryan, D-OH

Ball and the House Democrats behind the People's House Project say they're determined to shake that image. They'll try to fundraise for the PAC's candidates, recruit candidates that fit the bill, and give them a slogan to use to try to distinguish themselves from the national party. "It will allow them to say, 'I'm a different kind of Democrat,'" said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), one of the House Democrats backing the project, in an interview. "It's hard to convince people around here sometimes how toxic our brand is. But, clearly the brand is damaged, and we need to see if something else can work."

Trying to fix the Democratic Party's "heartland" image problem

So far, three House Democrats from the two regions targeted by the PAC — Ryan, Michigan's Dan Kildee, and Kentucky's John Yarmuth — are supporting the People's House Project.

The two House Democrats interviewed for this story emphasized that they view the project as complementary, rather than in conflict with, the existing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Similarly, they stressed that they don't intend for the new organization to serve as a rebuke to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (Ryan ran against Pelosi for minority leader in December 2016 and lost.) "This has to be a movement with a lot of hands rolling in the same direction," Kildee said in an interview.

The historical steel mill town of Braddock was once a thriving center of America's steel industry but once the mills closed, it suffered severe economic decline and depopulation.
Andrew Lichtenstein | Corbis | Getty Images
The historical steel mill town of Braddock was once a thriving center of America's steel industry but once the mills closed, it suffered severe economic decline and depopulation.

But Ball was more willing to directly attack the Democratic Party's leadership in the House — and cast the new effort as an attempt to break with it. Some political analysts say Democratic candidates are weighed down by what the Cook Political Report calls the "Pelosi Factor." In the home stretch of several House elections, including Thursday's Montana race, Republicans have deployed images of Pelosi in attack ads to go after their Democratic opponents.

"She's an impediment to every House Democrat in the country except for a few coastal enclaves," Ball said in an interview. Candidates running under the People's House Project will be able to say they're of a different cast than Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ball said.

"This gives us a chance to go straight into the heartland with an economic message," said Kildee, who like Ryan stressed that he doesn't view the effort as contradictory to Pelosi. "We have really not led with an economic message that transcends the whole spectrum of voters who would benefit from Democratic policies."

But will the plan actually work?

Despite the lofty ambitions of the project, it's far less clear if the new organization will have the clout or resources to fix Democrats' image problem in Appalachia and the Rust Belt — two regions Hillary Clinton lost badly to Trump this fall.

Ball said the PAC would help by giving a boost to candidates who may not have the financing needed to draw help from national Democrats, but would ultimately prove more popular in a general election if they could only capture the nomination.

"The way you run now is based on your connection on the donor class — that's how you're evaluated. We have become beholden to not only the donor class but also the consultant-industrial complex," Ball said, citing her own experience as a Democratic House candidate and the need to raise six-figure sums for television ad buys.

What suggests the new effort will be able to raise enough money to beat candidates tied to the donor class? On that front, Ball was less clear. She said it was too early to talk about the new PAC's fundraising apparatus. She declined to mention how it would reinvent traditional grassroots funding approaches.

And this isn't the only new political group vying to field a new brand of Democratic candidate. Like the People's House Project, a new group called the Justice Democrats is looking to run candidates who are economically populist and left-wing.

But Ball is optimistic. "We've been running the wrong candidates in the wrong places in the wrong way," she said. "We want to play with another way to run Democratic campaigns."