Democrats are conflicted over the path back to power, caught between catering to a base that is seething with anger toward President Donald Trump and appealing to voters in Republican-leaning parts of the country who they’ll need win control of Congress.
A debate about an attack plan for the November elections pits two party factions that have been competing for dominance. The establishment wing wants to run on safe issues like rising health care costs and opposition to the GOP tax overhaul. The party’s progressive movement sees a rare opening to re-imagine the Democratic agenda with more daring proposals like government-guaranteed jobs, expanding Medicare to all Americans, and reducing the proliferation of guns.
“There’s one big unifying factor, which is the disgust of the Trump administration,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, which works to elect Democratic women. But beyond that “every candidate is different, every voter is different,” she said.
Trump may be a political gift for party unity, but that may not be enough to build a durable coalition of voters.
Less than seven months from the Nov. 6 election, Democrats are without an overarching agenda for how they would govern if they gain power. Their challenge is coming up with one that’s broad enough to cover the political circumstances of progressives running in solidly Democratic states, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as conservative Democrats running in Trump country, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
“My view is we should continue to focus on key issues in the election, including the fact that people are facing rising health care costs and other pocketbook issues,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who is leading the election operation for Senate Democrats.
The Maryland Democrat has the unenviable task of defending 10 seats in states that Trump carried in 2016 and trying to win in Republican states like Arizona or Tennessee to gain the two seats needed to flip control of the Senate. In his view, that means winning independents and GOP-leaning voters.
“This is a case where our members know how to best represent their constituents and they will always fight for their states first,” Van Hollen said.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Sen. Ted Cruz in Republican-dominated Texas, is taking the pocketbook approach. His message to voters is that the Republican tax law’s repeal of the individual requirement to buy insurance will destabilize the health care market and cause higher premiums. He argued that will eat up any extra take-home pay for many people.
“If you’re lucky enough to still have health insurance, what tax cut?” he said.
Establishment Democrats are resisting calls from figures on the left like billionaire Tom Steyer and the activist group MoveOn.org to campaign on impeaching Trump if the party seizes the House. Many Democratic leaders, including Van Hollen, argue that they should avoid that conversation and instead let Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible coordination with Russia play out.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said impeachment is “probably not” a productive conversation to have now. “I’ll let Tom Steyer do his own thing,” he said.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said Democrats raising the prospect of impeachment will help the GOP keep control of the chamber.
“The crazier the rhetoric from the left, I think it’s going to motivate the president’s supporters and Republicans to come to vote. It’s not very attractive to mainstream voters,” he said.
Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist based in western Pennsylvania, agreed that the left’s push for impeachment would backfire on Democrats. “There’s definitely a risk when talking about impeachment that they can come across as a party of sore losers who lost at the ballot box and are trying to rewrite history,” he said.
Unlike Republicans in 2013, Democrats didn’t conduct an autopsy on why they were swept out of power, leaving them with few unifying themes other than opposition to most of Trump’s agenda and platitudes about equality and fairness. The national party brand is weak, earning a favorable rating of 36% in an Economist/YouGov poll this month, with a 50% unfavorable rating.
Mikus said the lesson from Conor Lamb’s upset victory in a Pennsylvania special election earlier this year is that Democrats can win in the toughest of districts if they’re not tethered to the national party and are able to craft unique platforms. Notably, Lamb ran as an advocate of gun rights and declined to support Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“A one-size-fits-all message won’t work,” Mikus said, arguing that running on issues like gun control may work in Democrats’ favor in some parts of the country and hurt them elsewhere.
Democrats’ advantage in the congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they want to see control Congress, has slipped into single digits in recent polls — 4 points in a Washington Post-ABC poll, 7 points in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, and 8 points in the Economist/YouGov poll. Analysts say they need an advantage of 7 or 8 points to flip control of the House in the midterm elections. The NBC poll found Democrats with a 21-point advantage among “high-interest” voters, signaling an enthusiasm edge.
“We need have an honest conversation about how Democrats got lost in the political wilderness, and how we find our way out. The party shouldn’t just hang its hopes on the current wave of anti-Trump sentiment,” Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, wrote on Crooked Media, a progressive platform he co-founded.
The void has emboldened people on the left who want Democrats to embrace far-reaching proposals to promise every American a job, nationalizing health insurance into a Medicare-like program and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which finds and deports undocumented people.
“Giving every person a job guarantee is pretty popular across the country,” said Sean McElwee, a writer and activist who co-founded Data For Progress, which aims to push the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.
When it comes to other ideas, like closing down ICE, McElwee conceded that they may not work everywhere but he argued Democrats in safe blue states and districts should run on them to shift the window of acceptable conversation leftward and “create more space for progressive discourse.”
Schriock of Emily’s List argued that the twin goals of harnessing progressive energy and winning over moderates were not in conflict, and urged Democratic leaders in Washington not to “step on” grassroots energy evident in the anti-Trump Women’s March and the anti-gun March For Our Lives.
“This is not about a big national vision here,” she said. “This energy is not going to go away. It is going to be here through November. And probably through two years after.”
— Read Democrats Coalesce Around Health Care on ThinkAdvisor.