How Democrats Need to Reshift Their Focus for 2018
Come the 2018 Midterm Elections, Democrats must secure a majority in the House. With the litany of failures to secure seats during the special elections, the outcome looks bleak if the DNC refuses to change its campaigning tactics. Historically, the party in power tends to lose seats during midterm elections, and considering the Trump Administration’s rapidly falling approval ratings, the Democrats should be able to make gains in Congress. However, the party cannot rely on President Trump’s unpopularity to fill seats. The party must undergo systematic changes in its leadership and campaigning to regain the trust of rural Americans.
One of the most publicized elections of the year occurred in Georgia’s sixth district when DNC-backed candidate Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in the most expensive House race in history. Ossoff outraised his competitor 5 to 1 and received an additional $5 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Yet, Handel won by a margin of about six percentage points in an area where Donald Trump’s approval rating was only 35%. Democrats considered Georgia’s sixth district to be a possible win, despite being historically Republican. The election points towards a failing of the Democratic Party to secure voters’ trust, namely in southern and rural areas of the country.
The national party has become increasingly disconnected from the desires of democratic voters. Per the Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in April, the majority of Americans feel that the Democratic Party is out-of-touch with the concerns of the public. Considering the scandal that came to light when the DNC’s emails leaked-- that the committee had allegedly worked to undermine Bernie Sanders’ campaign-- Americans’ distrust of the party is hardly surprising.
The DNC failed voters on two fronts. First, refusing to acknowledge the appeal Sanders’ campaign had to rural and blue-collar workers. One leaked email revealed that DNC national press secretary Mark Paustenbach had planned to push the narrative that Sanders “never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess." Such a narrative reveals quite blatantly that the Democratic Party has failed to grasp which candidates appeal to the majority of voters. Second, the leak reinforces the wariness two-thirds of Americans feel towards the Democratic Party. The DNC, by nature, should not be conspiring to support one candidate over the other.
While voters all over the country are disenchanted by the Democratic Party, the culture of rural areas, and the specific economic issues that plague blue-collar workers create a specific kind of distrust. One can safely assume the metropolitan areas of this country, college towns, and wealthy suburbs will almost always vote Democrat in congressional elections.
Rural areas dominated by working-class voters, while usually Republican strongholds, may be contested more than ever. Bernie Sanders’ class-focused message led him to surprising wins in Indiana, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming, amongst other rural states during the Democratic Primaries. In fact, Sanders won nearly 60% of rural counties during the Primaries according to the Wall Street Journal.
The DNC’s biggest shortcoming is its continuing support of moderates like Ossoff and Thompson; politicians who are, at best, nebulous on the economic issues most pertinent to working-class voters. For blue-collar workers still struggling with the aftermath of the Recession, politicians who refuse to take a clear stand on economic issues like unemployment. During the special election, Ossoff was criticized for his refusal to speak explicitly on his economic platform. Hillary Clinton came under fire during the presidential election for saying that she wanted to put coal miners out of business. Granted, the quote was taken in context of replacing coal mining with renewable energy sources, but such grand plans do little to soothe the worry of rural workers facing underemployment and poverty.
If anything, the presidential election has provided the DNC with the greatest insight into what the party must do if it wants to secure a majority in the House, and later, the presidency. No figure is less emblematic of blue-collar values than a billionaire real estate mogul from New York City. Yet, Donald Trump’s populist platform mobilized rural areas in the United States in a way that the Democratic Party has failed to for years. Regardless of whether or not Trump actually follows through on his campaign promises, rural constituents felt listened-to for the first time in a long time. The GOP presented wary voters with an alternative to career politicians with a promise to “drain the swamp.” Conversely, the Democratic Party continues to push candidates supported by and funded by the elite politicians and organizations rural and working-class voters distrust.
Similarly, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mobilized rural voters in a way that Hillary Clinton was incapable of doing. Sanders was, by all accounts, an outsider far removed from the Washington elite, and, most notably, not a millionaire. His willingness to address wealth disparity, job loss, namely in coal mining and factories, and his support of pro-agricultural initiatives spoke to voters. Where Clinton seemed over-polished and detached, Sanders brashly criticized the millionaires and billionaires, many of whom have come to dominate party politics.
The districts that might have once been considered lost causes, might not be as much anymore. Areas like Georgia’s sixth district and South Carolina’s fifth district became battlegrounds this summer when traditionally there would have been no question what party would win. An anti-Trump sentiment spreads across the country and more progressive groups are being founded in red states, the Democratic Party needs to take advantage of the swelling Trump opposition to win big during the Midterms.
Over the summer, angry constituents swarmed the town hall meetings of Republican lawmakers in places like Utah, Iowa, and Kentucky. The Indivisible Project, a grassroots movement aimed at opposing the Trump Administration and electing Progressives to office has spread to small towns across the country. The Democratic Party has the chance to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment, but if the Party does not work to regain rural voters’ trust, Democratic candidates will continue to fall short like they did in Georgia and South Carolina.