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DNC Chair Tom Perez On What This Year's Election Means For The Party


Now more on the elections. We're going to talk with Tom Perez, who chairs the Democratic National Committee. Welcome to the program.

TOM PEREZ: It's great to be back with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Your party won big yesterday. For you, what is the lesson that you've learned this week that you can actually apply to other races?

PEREZ: Well, I think when we're united, that's our greatest strength. We saw that yesterday in all the races. When we organize everywhere and when we put candidates on the ballot up and down the ticket - we saw that in Virginia - 88 people running for the House of Delegates. We had a historic set of accomplishments. We haven't won that many seats in Virginia in the house since the late 19th century. When we lead with our values, we succeed. Those to me are the key.

SIEGEL: You mentioned all those candidates down-ballot, say, in Virginia for House of Delegates. Is that because Democrats are doing an especially great job of recruiting, or is there just a lot of energy and enthusiasm and anxiety out there leading people to want to run this year?

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PEREZ: Well, I think it's been both. I mean, we have seen in all of our races the candidate recruitment for people to run for the House of Representatives has been off the charts. We are about electing people from the school board to the Senate. The old DNC was about simply helping to elect the president every four years.

When we are competing at every level of elected office, you get energy that way. And we've been able because of the - really the reaction to Donald Trump, so many people stepping up. And we saw it in Virginia. We see it elsewhere.

SIEGEL: Virginia's governor-elect, Ralph Northam, is the lieutenant governor. He's hardly an outsider. He won a primary against former Congressman Tom Perriello, who was backed by Bernie Sanders. What, if anything, is the message about establishment Democrats versus more progressive Democrats?

PEREZ: Well, actually, I think the reality when you look at Ralph Northam and you look at Tom Perriello is they agree on just about everything. And I think the lesson of Virginia is that in the primary, we can have spirited discussion, and then we come together after the primary. That spirited discussion in Virginia resulted in record turnout. When we acknowledge that what we have in common far outweighs our differences, that's when we're at our best. And Virginia really illustrated that.

SIEGEL: Virginia and New Jersey are both states where the governorship can often go either way, but both went for Hillary Clinton. Do you think the Democrats are poised today to win statewide in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, the states that Hillary Clinton lost?

PEREZ: Absolutely. And I say that we can do that when we organize everywhere, not just in certain parts of each state.

SIEGEL: But the implication of that is that those states were lost for lack of effort last year, not for serious reasons of substance or opinions of the candidate. Is that what happened, that you just didn't try hard enough to win in those states?

PEREZ: Well, I think what Democrats stopped doing enough of was organizing everywhere. And we were good at mobilizing, Robert. Mobilizing is that sprint up to the election. But we weren't good at organizing. Organizing is the marathon. It's talking to people 12 months a year. It's building relationships with people. And we used to be the best at that.

I believe that the issues that keep people up at night are issues where Democrats have an edge. But we have to talk to people. And frankly we ignored whole-cloth, you know, rural parts of Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin. And the new Democratic Party - and we saw this in Virginia. We saw it in New Jersey. We were running in every ZIP code there.

SIEGEL: But that's a tactic - that's a description of a tactical success. I mean, were Democrats saying something different in all of those ZIP codes in southern Ohio than they were saying in southern Ohio last year? Is there some different message from the Democratic Party in 2017?

PEREZ: Well, again, we weren't showing up (laughter) in all too many parts of the country. And when you don't show up, that's frankly a sign of disrespect. And so what we have to do and what we are doing at the new, you know, Democratic Party is making sure that we're putting our values into action everywhere.

SIEGEL: What do you say to the Republican national chair who said, well, the result of this election is status quo? Democrats had Virginia. They have it again. New Jersey went for Clinton last year. Now they have the governorship. You just held.

PEREZ: (Laughter) That's laughable. This was a 14-year election yesterday. That's good spin. But here's the reality. The voters of America - and it wasn't just in these two states - mayors races, state senate in Washington state. Americans want a leader we can be proud of, and Donald Trump has given us nothing but chaos and carnage. That was a very clear message that was sent in yesterday's election. If she chooses to ignore it, she ignores it at her peril.

SIEGEL: Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, thanks for talking with us today.

PEREZ: Have a good day.

SIEGEL: And we hear a Republican view of yesterday's election results elsewhere in today's program.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFAN GROSSMAN'S "PEAK'S PUZZLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.