Every election cycle is its own novel, and every one of these novels has a prequel and a sequel. 2018 was a doozy, but 2020 is going to be a real page turner. What the Democrats must do to prevail, to decisively defeat Donald Trump and his radical Republican Party, is to learn how to tell their story better.
These midterms were the ultimate in mixed message. Democrats and the progressive movement that put the wind in their sails and made the victories we had possible did what they had to do yesterday. By winning the House, we have a check on Trump’s power to investigate his administration’s blatant corruption and to hold him accountable. With victories in at least eight governor races and 330 state legislative seats and control of six state chambers, we have positioned ourselves well for redistricting that will occur after 2020. We won some very big state Attorney General races, offices we can use to protect Americans’ basic rights from Trump’s bullying. Yes, Beto’s loss was heartbreaking, but they built a strategy and movement that puts Texas and Florida firmly in play for the big statewide races going forward, including the 2020 presidential. And Andrew Gillum’s loss, a complete heartbreaker as well, was coupled with a big win on letting people who have served their time vote in the future, which will make it all the more likely that people like Andrew will win two and four years from now and beyond.
Most heartening to a good Midwestern boy like me, are the heartland states that won Trump his presidency -- PA, OH, MI, WI, IA – that moved back significantly toward the Democrats. Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin did not back down one iota from being strong progressive populists, and despite being targeted early with lots of money by the Republican Party, established strong early leads and won going away in Ohio and Wisconsin respectively. Speaking of Wisconsin, long-time progressive enemy Scott Walker went down in a huge victory for our side. Michigan re-elected Debbie Stabenow for Senate and elected Gretchen Whitmer for governor, both by large margins. Likewise, Democrats won re-election for PA governor and senator by big margins. And in those five working-class heartland states that went from Obama to Trump, we ended up picking up eight new House seats: four in PA, two in MI, and two in IA. We didn’t win everything -- I would have loved to have won those OH and IA governor races, and we almost pulled off beating Steve King, which would have been amazing given how conservative that district is -- but overall, the swing, working-class states in the Midwest did well by Democrats, giving lie to the conventional wisdom that those states were Trump strongholds for the long run.
So that is the good news. There’s a lot of it, and it really is extraordinarily good to have had the wins we did. It will help us keep the heart of democracy beating in this country, and that is an enormous accomplishment in the face of the worst round of gerrymandering, voter suppression, special interest dollars, and intensely effective cyber-war tactics that we have ever seen in this country. The progressive movement fueled these victories up and down the ticket by recruiting thousands of great first-time candidates, registering millions of new voters, knocking on tens of millions of doors, making scores of millions of telephone calls, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions. And give credit where credit is due: DC Democratic Party leaders did their part by raising a huge amount of money, having good field operations, and, most importantly, by expanding the playing field far beyond the usual 40 House seats to almost a hundred. You don’t pick up more than 30 seats by having a small playing field, and Democrats and the progressive movement worked together to make it possible for a lot of great candidate to run strong races in 2018, and even many of those candidates who lost this time will come back in two years and win next time.
But…you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? It wasn’t the big blue tsunami we were all hoping for, that we thought it might be after the Virginia elections and other races earlier in the cycle. I believe there were three big reasons for this, and whether we solve these issues will determine whether we beat Trump in 2020. Here’s my three:
1. We have to face Trump’s overt racism head-on if we’re going to effectively counter its sting. Racism is the single most powerful political argument in the history of America, and tragically it still works when you don’t answer it. Democrats have to stop being scared of dealing directly and forcefully with racism. It does not work to avoid these issues when Trump is talking loudly and aggressively about them every day, and the Senate races clearly show that fact. I would add that it especially does not work to buy into the racist fear-mongering the way Donnelly and McCaskill did in the last weeks of their campaigns: they were in races where they were essentially tied in the polling when they decided to agree with Trump on the caravan and birth citizenship, and ended going downhill from there. McCaskill lost by six points, Donnelly by 8.4. It reminded me of when Alison Grimes in her race against Mitch McConnell in 2014 refused to say if she had voted for Obama. She went from tied in the polls to losing by 15.5%. If Democratic base voters perceive you as too gutless to stand up for them, they will not turn out for you in big numbers.
What we need to do in terms of racism is talk about it intentionally, and actually lead with it in our messaging. We can’t just say it’s bad, though. A groundbreaking Demos report showed the way. They found that a message that leads with Trump’s racism and how it’s being used to divide people works far better than approaches that ignore racism. We should be starting with everyone’s common humanity: whether black, brown, Asian, or white, we all want to build a better life for ourselves and our families. But politicians like Trump are trying to divide us, trying to say some people are worth more than others and deserve more than others. And he’s doing it to gain power and help enrich himself and his donors.
According to the Demos research, that works. It works with white working-class folks, and it works to motivate people of color, in each case far more than a message with no mention of racism.
2. We need an economic message that reaches working-class voters. The blue wave was lessened because we allowed the Republican story about how they were responsible for the success of the economy to go unanswered. It is obviously a bullshit narrative, as we are still in the economic expansion of the Obama years. But even the idea that the economy is so wonderful is wrong: most working families are not feeling wage growth that is barely running ahead of inflation, while the costs of health care, energy, groceries, housing, and college education are skyrocketing. But the Republicans keep telling this story, and if voters never hear anything else, they might start to believe it.
Democrats seem to believe we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Our pollsters told us our best issue was health care, which was true enough -- it’s a powerful issue. But it is possible to talk about health care and about broader economic issues as well. Health care, after all, is an economic issue, and it’s not hard to weave it into a bigger narrative about how working families in America are getting squeezed by an administration that cares more about big business and the wealthy than about them. We can talk confidently about an economic vision where people actually get raises that they can feel and where working folks and small businesspeople have more power in an economy not stacked against them.
Remember Trump constantly campaigning on “the system is rigged”? Well, he cribbed that language from progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It’s time for us to reclaim it and mean it.
3. Democrats need to become better storytellers, about what we stand for and who we are. Democrats need to become so much better at creating and building on a narrative about why they are Democrats, who they are fighting for, and what their core identity is. This is especially important in red states and purple states, folks. When you are running in a red state, you better have a good answer for that question, because it’s the first one on people’s minds: why should I vote for a Democrat? If, like Joe Donnelly, your answer is that it is unimportant, all those Republican-leaning folks back home are going to think well, I guess I should vote for the Republican then. Of course, you can still distinguish yourself on some issues from national Democrats -- I’m from Nebraska, I get that you have to do that to an extent. But don’t shy away from the core identity question. How about something like this?
“I became a Democrat because it’s the party that gave us Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage, and the 40-hour work week. I stayed a Democrat because the Republicans are trying to take away health care for people with pre-existing conditions and seem obsessed with giving tax cuts to billionaires, and because I think Trump needs a check on his power.”
Of course we should run on our best issue(s), but we need to frame the elections in a way that tells that bigger story, that has a bigger idea. For all its ugliness, Trump’s racism has a bigger narrative built into it, about an America that isn’t like it used to be and how he’s the hero who is going to save us from all of the invading brown people. We need to counter that stunningly ugly stay with a better story of our own.
All three of these strategic ideas have something in common: they are designed to reach the working-class folks of all colors who Democrats are not reaching. If we do that, and keep building on the incredible grassroots work of the broad progressive movement, we will win 2020 decisively.