By Tim Reid
LOWELLVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - On a sweltering evening in a rural corner of Ohio, the struggle for the soul and identity of the Democratic Party is playing out over wine, meatballs and recriminations about Hillary Clinton’s defeat in last year’s presidential election.
Joe Schiavoni, the former top Democrat in the Ohio state senate, is talking to a crowd at a fundraising event for his fledgling bid to become their next governor. He believes leaders of his party in Washington have lost touch with voters. It’s a familiar refrain among Democrats in a state that helped catapult Republican Donald Trump into the White House in November.
“You can’t just talk about things and send out press releases,” says Schiavoni, a former boxer who revels in his blue collar roots. Many in the crowd, a few miles from the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, nod in vigorous agreement. Meeting voters and hearing their daily concerns is vital, he says.
In Ohio, as in other politically competitive “swing” states that Democrats won in 2012 but lost in 2016, Democrats are struggling to come up with a clear message and identity to win back the voters they lost.
Listening to voters is the key to moving forward, some three dozen Democratic Party members across Ohio said in interviews. But there was little consensus on how to win over those voters.
Many of those interviewed said the party's national leaders have not learned the lessons of last year's defeat, when many voters rejected the party as too elitist and out of touch with working Americans.
David Pepper, chairman of the state party, dismissed that criticism in an interview, saying he and his team have been traveling around Ohio, talking to voters and visiting their homes. They have been especially focused on two groups: the people who voted twice for President Barack Obama and then Trump, and Democratic voters who sat out the last election.
Democrats across America, as in Ohio, are desperate to win again as they look ahead to next year's congressional elections. The stakes are high. Without a significant shift in voting patterns, the party will fail to recapture the House of Representatives and could lose more seats in the Senate, where they are already in the minority.
On Monday, the national Democratic Party unveiled an economic platform they said would help U.S. families. Called “A Better Deal,” it was the first major step by the party to try to reconnect with voters since the election.
The plan called for creating 10 million jobs over five years and cracking down on monopolies and big corporate mergers.
"But the plan was missing a vital piece," said Alan Melamed, a longstanding member of the Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee and a political consultant who has worked on dozens of campaigns for more than 40 years. "We need to show we are fighting for people. The plan failed to do that."
Since Clinton’s defeat in November, Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee – the body which runs the national party – has conducted a nationwide “listening tour” to hear why so many traditionally Democratic voters defected to Trump last year.
Yet when he came to Ohio, some Democrats said, he didn’t do much listening – just a lot of talking.
In June, the listening tour came to Youngstown. About 75 party stalwarts paid $25 each to attend a “Pizza with Perez” event at a local pizzeria.
“What I saw was a typical campaign event, with the audience doing the listening while Democratic operatives touted their positions,” said John Russo, the former co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown University and a political analyst. “We paid $25 to be told by Perez what he thought we were thinking.”
Michael Tyler, a spokesman for Perez, disputed that account, saying Perez had done a lot of listening at the event.
“Too many in Ohio and elsewhere feel politically homeless because for too long the national party focused solely on electing the president of the United States at the expense of local concerns," Tyler said. "That’s exactly why Ohio was among the first places Tom visited when he decided to run for DNC chair."
'A BETTER DEAL'
One of the national politicians unveiling "A Better Deal" in the town of Berryville, Virginia at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, was Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mention Pelosi to Democrats in Ohio and many roll their eyes. A California liberal, Pelosi is part of the problem, not the solution, they said in interviews. They view Pelosi as part of a coastal elite that does not understand the struggles of Americans in the Midwest.
Christopher Celeste, the son of former Ohio governor Dick Celeste and a major Democratic Party donor at both the state and national level, said the retention of Pelosi as a party leader earlier this year was "mindboggling."
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said the Democratic leader has raised almost $570 million for Democrats since becoming part of the party leadership in 2002, and was a master legislator and strategist.
"While some may find it politically advantageous to engage in a circular firing squad, Leader Pelosi isn't in Congress on a shift. She's on a mission to protect the Affordable Care Act," said Hammill, referring to Obama's healthcare reform law which Trump wants to repeal.
Joyce Beatty, a congresswoman from central Ohio, also defended Pelosi. "To just blame Nancy Pelosi is not only wrong, but it's wrong for Democrats to do it. If there has been a failure we all need to own it."
Angered by last year’s defeats up and down the ballot in Ohio, a group of political consultants circulated a memo to every member of the state party’s executive committee in December.
The memo, which has not been previously reported, lambastes the party leadership for the “electoral carnage” of 2016. (Read the memo here http://tmsnrt.rs/2h2sTgT)
Clinton lost Ohio, a key battleground, by over eight points. Only one Democratic presidential candidate in the past 40 years – Walter Mondale in 1984 – won fewer counties in Ohio than Clinton.
Ohio Democrats also lost the U.S. Senate race, both Democratic nominees for the Ohio Supreme Court were defeated, and state races were lost. Ohio’s Democratic congressional delegation in Washington is at its lowest in decades and Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both the state House and Senate.
“The status quo cannot stand,” the memo says. It calls for “new messages – and more effective strategies for delivering them.” The memo does not make clear what those messages should be.
A source close to the state party leadership dismissed the memo as sniping by disgruntled consultants.
Pepper, the Ohio party leader, does not want to relitigate the past.
"We need to go and talk to voters and win them back," he said.
(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Ross Colvin)