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Democratic grassroots strength to face test in 2018 midterms

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Lara Taylor credits the election of Donald Trump as the spark that got her fired up about politics.

The adjunct college professor and mother of three daughters said the results of the 2016 presidential contest were a “kick in the teeth.”

Determined to do something, she and her sister traveled to Washington, D.C., for the January 2017 women’s march and, upon her return to Illinois, she started going to community gatherings and meetings, which led to her becoming a leader in the local Indivisible movement.

The Indivisible grassroots movement sprang from Trump’s election and has spawned thousands of groups across the country.

These progressive soldiers helped flip 15 Virginia state House seats to Democrats in 2017 and got out the vote for Democrat Doug Jones in the December Alabama U.S. Senate race. They have now turned their eyes to the 2018 midterms.

There are two big contests in March where their power will be tested and in two different ways: the special election in Pennsylvania on March 13, where they are working on get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic nominee Conor Lamb, and the Democratic primary in Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District on March 20, where they are attempting to defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski with a more liberal rival.

While it’s too early to say the Indivisible movement may have the effect on Democrats that the Tea Party had on Republicans in 2010 -- when conservative enthusiasm helped the GOP retake the House but later led to divisive primaries where ultra-conservative candidates ultimately couldn’t perform in the general election -- their enthusiasm is making itself known in competitive races like in Illinois, where Taylor’s group is heavily involved.

“A lot of fury and tornado energy has been organized in the grassroots,” she told ABC News.

Her group, Indivisible La Grange/La Grange Park, is one of three local Illinois chapters that have endorsed liberal activist Marie Newman in her Democratic primary challenge of seven-term Rep. Lipinski.

Their move reflects the divide that the Democratic Party has dealt with since the 2016 election: the split between the moderate and liberal wings embodied in the presidential primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Illinois primary contest reflects that conflict.

In addition to the liberal grassroots endorsing Newman, Sanders endorsed her on Thursday, saying Newman has “made it clear that she will be a champion for working families in Illinois, which is why I am proud to support her campaign.”

Lipinski, meanwhile, has the endorsement of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi along with strong union support, including the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Chicago Fire Fighters Union and the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.

"In this incredibly high-stakes race, having Indivisible in our corner is critical. Their members are fiercely dedicated to the progressive values that this campaign is all about, and the grassroots energy they add to our already-robust field operation only further bolsters our momentum as we head into the final weeks of this election,” Newman told ABC News in a statement.

Lipinski, however, has warned the Democratic Party against creating a left-wing version of the Tea Party.

“There’s a battle for what the Democratic Party is going to be,” Lipinski said on WGN radio on Sunday. “There are those who want to have a Tea Party of the left in the Democratic Party to match -- unfortunately, what happened to the Republicans.”

He also made a play for Sanders voters. The interview took place before the Vermont senator announced his endorsement of Newman.

“We have to be for working men and women,” Lipinski said. “That brings all Democrats together, and I think that’s what we should focus on. I think that’s what Bernie Sanders focused on.”

The grassroots groups claim Lipinski, a Blue Dog Democrat, is too conservative for the district, particularly pointing to his record in opposing abortion rights.

When asked if her group had heard from national Democrats about their involvement in the contest, Taylor said: “Nope.”

The party has said it supports grassroots activism and the work that groups such as Indivisible perform. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján issued a supportive statement but not an explicit endorsement of Lipinski.

“Congressman Lipinski is taking this race seriously, he has ample resources and support at home, and is running to win," he said.

Women, in particular, are heavily involved in this type of volunteer activism. ABC News spoke to several of them, all of whom, like Taylor, credited Trump’s election and a desire to stay involved after the Women’s March with their new burst of political energy.

The women’s vote helped put Democratic Ralph Northam over the top in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race, where he won them by 22 percent. In Alabama, 98 percent of black women voted for Jones.

These groups also embody the sentiment that all politics are local. No two are the same. They have effectively learned to use social media. Most of them began as Facebook groups and email lists to stay organized and quickly rally the faithful.

And not all of them are involved in divisive primaries.

Some groups are supporting the establishment Democrat, such as in Pennsylvania, where several local groups and ones from the Washington, D.C. metro area are aiding Conor Lamb, where their get-out-the-vote power will be tested in his Tuesday contest against Republican Rick Saccone.

“People are on fire and, in a sense, what’s happening is that people are getting a sense of their own power,” Daniel Doubet of the Invisible group Keystone Progress told ABC News.

Virginia and D.C. groups held a fundraiser for Lamb on Feb. 27 in McClean. Plus, members from multiple groups in the D.C. metro area plan to go to Pennsylvania’s 18th district this weekend to canvass for him.

Luisa Boyarski, a facilitator for the Virginia Grassroots Commission, was a leader in the grassroots movement in the 2017 Virginia election.

The Virginia groups wrote a lessons-learned report for other Indivisible Groups to use in the midterms, which was obtained by ABC News. Among its advice to these groups, canvassing and fundraising are the “gold standard” of what grassroots can do for candidates.

Boyarski said the biggest lesson learned is collaboration. “Everyone said we were stronger together.”

She pointed out that the more volunteer groups they were able to draw from, the lower the burnout rate from exhaustion, and enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. They rallied their troops to knock on 580,000 doors in Virginia the weekend before the election.

Sen. Tim Kaine, who is up for re-election this year, has already met with them.

“The grassroots -- because we’re new, we have to show that we’re willing to show up and do the hard work to get our candidates elected. And I think by proving ourselves last year, the party at various stages is more interested in having serious conversations with us in 2018,” Boyarski said.

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