by Mike Smith Many liberals and progressives are bewildered over the national Democratic strategy to win the 24 seats needed to regain control of the US House of Representatives. At a time when many in the party are motivated and energized, these liberals and progressives are urging their party to challenge Republicans at every opportunity across this country to maximize their chances for success. However, Democratic leadership in the House is insisting on a more focused strategy, concentrating their efforts and resources in the cities and suburbs where voters are likely to be angrier with President Donald Trump, rather than in rural districts.
This strategy explains why the Democratic House leadership left congressional candidates in Montana and Kansas to financially fend mostly for themselves in recent special elections, ultimately leading to their defeat when many thought those contests were winnable.
Instead, party leaders have put enormous resources behind 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, a candidate for Congress from an Atlanta suburb who has never held elected office. It’s a special election June 20 to fill the seat of former Republican Rep. Tom Price, who became Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary. Already both candidates — Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel — have spent more than $37 million.
Some Democrats have expressed concerns about their leaders’ strategy for several reasons.
First, it has the potential of frustrating a meaningful portion of the Democratic base. They are looking for their party’s involvement in as many races as possible. At a time when liberals and progressives are angry with Trump and his policies, it could be demoralizing to see candidates defeated in districts not targeted by party leaders.
Senator Bernie Sanders and his committee, Our Revolution, stepped into the void in an attempt to help Democrat Rob Quist in Montana. Although Sanders’ efforts didn’t produce a victory, they did help maintain enthusiasm among Democrats for a race that national party leadership abandoned.
Second, relying solely on an anti-Trump message has proven to be fraught with electoral danger. No doubt the president is going to be a major factor in the 2018 election, but relying on him as the sole reason to vote for a Democratic candidate may not be enough to motivate middle-class voters. Americans are still seeking change, and Trump’s populist message, especially in the area of trade and jobs, still resonates with the middle class.
To Hillary Clinton’s detriment, she failed to concentrate on economic concerns, especially job creation and job security issues that are so important to middle-class voters and instead focused on Trump’s personality quirks. The result: Middle-class voters abandoned Clinton and voted for Trump.
Recently former Vice President Joe Biden asked: “… how much did we hear (during the last campaign) about that guy making 50,000 bucks on an assembly line, the women — his wife — making $28,000 as a hostess?” Biden went on to say, “They have $78,000, two kids, living in a metropolitan area, and they can hardly make it.” He then asked: “When was the last time you heard us talk about them?”
Sanders has voiced similar concerns. In a speech after the November election, and repeating the same theme at a recent Boston rally, Sanders said Democrats failed to connect with many middle-class voters on pocketbook issues.
Third, the Democratic strategy for gaining House seats isn’t helpful to Democrats up for re-election in the US Senate. Some experts have predicted that 12 Democratic senators will have re-election contests where the outcome is in doubt. This is a precarious position for Democrats, especially when only three Republican US senators are in a similar category.
Senate Democrats must rely on both urban and rural areas to win elections. Any strategy that isn’t coordinated and doesn’t maximize rural participation could be the difference between winning and losing Senate races. Also, any future presidential candidate can’t risk alienating potential supporters if party leaders decide to shun rural areas. Certainly Sanders understands this, which may explain his interest in challenging Republicans in rural America.
Finally, the Democratic strategy may not be a path to successful governing. Democratic political power is concentrated in the Northeast, the West Coast and most major cities. With a large number of people living in these areas, Democrats may be able to recapture the U.S. House using a targeted strategy, but most of the rest of the country is still a sea of Republican red on an electoral map. The Democratic strategy of favoring urban over rural areas can actually help a Republican presidential candidate, since winning the presidency is predicated on winning the Electoral College. The more states you win, the better position a candidate is in to win the presidency. And to win a state, the rural areas must be a crucial part of your strategy.
But doesn’t this Democratic strategy also present a scenario where the interests of certain areas — in particular urban areas — may supersede the interests of rural areas? Those in rural areas are likely to be very suspicious of the urban strategy that House Democrats are deploying.
Of course whatever the strategy, its success will depend on how Americans rate Trump’s performance. The administration is already off to a rocky start. The political gaffes by the president and his team are many. But it isn’t only the president; Republicans in Congress can’t agree on a policy direction in terms of a federal budget, health care or taxes. Above all, they can’t figure out how to effectively govern even though they control both Congress and the White House. Without any domestic or foreign policy victories, it’s very likely Democrats will enjoy electoral success in the upcoming midterm elections — although a lot can happen between now and November 2018. So Democrats will still need a good strategy and message in order to win control.
Perhaps the best chance for Democrats is to follow the lead of two Vermonters: Sanders and former Gov. Howard Dean, who was Democratic National Committee chair from 2005 to 2009. Develop an economic message that appeals to middle-class Americans, particularly those in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and deploy a coordinated 50-state strategy. Sanders has proven he can connect with working class Americans with a strong economic message, and Dean has proven that Democrats can win with a 50-state strategy.
Mike Smith is the host of the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith,” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM. He is a regular columnist for VTDigger and Vermont Business Magazine and a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Governor Jim Douglas.