Progressive candidates line up to take down Republicans

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at a press conference alongside the Congressional Democratic Leadership as they introduce "A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future," their new economic agenda, on July 24, 2017 at Rose Hill Park in Berryville, Va. (Alex Edelman/Zuma Press/TNS)

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at a press conference alongside the Congressional Democratic Leadership as they introduce "A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future," their new economic agenda, on July 24, 2017 at Rose Hill Park in Berryville, Va. (Alex Edelman/Zuma Press/TNS)

Lori Wahila and her son Matt have done everything together since jumping into politics this year: They took the same bus to the Women's March in Washington, joined local activist groups, and dedicated themselves to protesting President Donald Trump at every turn.

Now, this progressive duo from upstate New York are undertaking another venture — running for office.

Lori, 60, is running for county legislator while Matt, 28, is seeking a seat on the local town council. They're among the f hundreds of progressive candidates who have decided to seek elected office this year and next.

"A lot of people we've talked to are in same boat," Matt Wahila said. "We've never really considered it before, but with everything going on, we have to do it." ... If we don't do it, who will do it? That's been a sentiment from a lot of people."

The Wahilas were in the capital Saturday participating in a candidate-training conference put on by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group in which there has been a surge of interest from progressives who want to run for office.

The group hosted about 300 candidates for the three-day event — almost double the number who attended the PCCC's candidate-training session in 2015, committee officials said.

The prospective elected officials learned how to punch up their stump speech, organize volunteers, and keep a campaign budget. They also heard speeches from liberal icons such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who celebrated the number of candidates in attendance while encouraging them to stay true to their values.

"If you're about step over that line, just stop first and make sure, have you got it clear in your heart?" the senator said. "Because if you have it clear in your heart, I guarantee no matter the outcome, you're a winner."

The unusual number of progressive candidates isn't a surprise. Trump's election has prompted a furious response from liberal activists, who have marched and helped formed groups, such as the grass-roots liberal organization Indivisible.

Many Democratic leaders credit them with derailing Republican attempts to pass a health care bill, which suffered a serious setback in the Senate last week when Sen. John McCain joined two other Republican senators to vote "no" on a "skinny" repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The activists running for office are doing so in part, they say, because they sense an opportunity to not just start campaigns, but also to win them. Although the midterm elections are more than 15 months away, Democrats hope that Trump's low approval ratings and an energized base can help them make significant gains in the House, where they need to win 24 seats to reclaim a majority.

"There's enormous opportunity," said Mike Bocian, a Democratic strategist.

Bocian attended the PCCC conference to discuss political strategy with the attendees, many of whom are running for office for the first time.

"What is unprecedented is there are so many candidates," he said. "What a lot of progressives did is they woke up the day after the election, and then a month later said, 'What can I do?' And some of them are volunteering, some are holding rallies, and some of them are running for office."

The prospect of a wave of progressive candidates excites most Democratic strategists, who are thankful to have enthusiasm on their side. But it also worries them: A surge of progressive candidates means the party could face a litany of potentially harmful primaries, especially in federal races.

On the House side, many battleground districts have already attracted multiple Democratic candidates, and party operatives say they are bracing for the fallout of those races. To them, it's not yet clear if the intraparty tests will damage their eventual nominee, or just ensure that the strongest candidate emerges to take on the Republican.

The new candidates can also challenge Democratic incumbents. Sean Thom, 32, a charter-school teacher in Camden, N.J., is running against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.

He's a long-shot contender by any measure. But he said he decided to consider a campaign for office after the election last year, when students — many of them Latino and African-American — were worried about what Trump would do to them and their families.

After a frank discussion, the kids started encouraging Thom to run, he said.

"When they first said, run for president, I chuckled a lot," he said. "It got a good laugh."

But then his students suggested something more plausible and closer to home, like running for Senate.

It made Thom think.

"Well, why not?"

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