ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- The windows in the ancient armory’s lobby fogged up as a cold soaking afternoon rain continued outside.
Inside VFW Post 1333, more than 400 Democrats packed the room Friday, filled with righteous anger at President Trump’s vision of America and eager to be about the business of rebuilding.
They came to see newly elected Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez and his deputy and former rival for the job, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, on their two-man “Turnaround Tour," aimed at unifying a party now groping for a way back to power.
“Damn right we’re going to be the resistance to Donald Trump,” Perez said. “We have the most important lever of power, the power of we, the most important word in a democracy,” he said, exulting in the GOP’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Ten weeks into the Trump regime, Democrat leaders are positioning the party as the militant voice of opposition. Hillary Clinton, in her first political speech since the election, urged an audience of professional women last week to “resist, insist, persist, enlist.” And Democratic senators are threatening to filibuster to block Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch.
Fight “bad policies that would take our country in the wrong direction,” Clinton told 6,000 attendees at the Professional Women’s Council in San Francisco. “Resist actions that go against our values of Americans.”
Opposition to Trump so far is pulling the Democrats to the left and toward a more populist tone.
“Trump sets the agenda, and everyone reacts,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College. “The Democrats are doing fairly well by default, but it’s not as if much of their success right now is in their own hands.”
Legal challenges, including some by Democratic state attorneys general, have halted Trump’s executive order banning immigration from six majority-Muslim countries, and there was the setback of the GOP health-care plan, which would eventually have taken coverage from 24 million.
The Gallup Poll finds Trump’s job-approval rating most recently at 39 percent. Of course, Democrats are not doing any better -- the party’s favorability rating averages a tick under 40 percent in the Huffington Post aggregation of polls.
On the same day the national party’s leadership was campaigning in New Jersey, Clinton, the former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic nominee, blasted Trump’s proposal to slash funding for foreign aid and the State Department.
“This administration’s proposed cuts to international health, development, and diplomacy would be a blow to women and children and a grave mistake for our country,” Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington. “Turning our back on diplomacy won’t make our country safer.”
Perez and others are taking pains to cast opposition to Trump executive actions as advancing what they say are affirmative Democratic values of inclusion, equality, and economic opportunity.
Yet, in Asbury Park, it was the toughest broadsides against the president that drew the roaring response.
Earlier in the afternoon, Perez spoke at a rally in Newark, N.J., and his rhetoric was hotter. He said Trump “didn’t win” the election, presumably because Clinton had three million more popular votes. Trump did win the Electoral College, which is how presidents are elected. And, speaking of the GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Perez contended that Republicans don’t care about people.
Republican National Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel demanded an apology Sunday from Perez.
“Whether he likes it or not, Donald Trump is our president,” McDaniel said in a statement. “He should be ashamed of himself for insulting the millions of Americans who don’t share his liberal vision for our country. The Democrats are the minority party because of comments like those.”
Borick said the focus on Trump has echoes of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, which in the closing days focused on painting his personality and record as unacceptable, hoping that would carry her over the finish.
“If [Trump] can score some policy wins and get footing after a shaky start, Dems might be looking up at him and saying, ‘How’d he do that?’ Again,” Borick said. “It’s a risky strategy.”
As the saying goes, all politics is local, and Perez and Ellison were in this seaside city to boost the campaign of state Senate candidate Vin Gopal, a former county party chairman, in Monmouth County’s 11th District.
He is opposing Republican State Sen. Jennifer Beck, a longtime incumbent. Yet the district narrowly elected two Democrats to its Assembly seats, Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey, in 2015 after years of GOP domination.
It’s a targeted district, and Trump carried Monmouth County after its voters twice chose former President Barack Obama.
Perez said Democrats are hoping to send a message to the rest of the country by this fall by electing a successor to Gov. Christie and picking up an even larger majority in the Legislature, where Democrats hold 76 of 120 seats. New Jersey and Virginia have the only gubernatorial elections in 2017.
“Historically, the mission of the Democratic National Committee has solely been to elect the president,” Perez said. “And we are here to tell you that our mission is to elect Democrats up and down the ticket ... everywhere around the state.”
Before and after the event, volunteers circulated with clipboards, taking information for the fight.
“We got so many sign-ups today, people giving us their emails and phone numbers,” Gopal said. Data, he said, are so important.
Houghtaling, the assemblyman, said that with Trump in office, Democrats are finding local meetings of party committees jammed with new faces.
“People are showing up, wanting to get involved,” he said. “Many haven’t been part of the process before, and they’re kind of mad at themselves over what happened. They want to get involved. ... It’s great that everybody wants to march, but we’ve got to get them voting.”