The Democratic Way to Win? Talk Like a Republican.

Democrats are belatedly learning that to win elections they can’t just rely on anti-Trump rhetoric.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the California Democratic Party Convention in Sacramento on May 20.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
June 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

In a highly con­sequen­tial House spe­cial elec­tion in two weeks, the Demo­crat­ic stand­ard-bear­er rep­res­ent­ing the hopes of the anti-Trump “res­ist­ance” is run­ning like a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an—hardly talk­ing about Pres­id­ent Trump on the cam­paign trail in sub­urb­an At­lanta. The front-run­ner to be­come Vir­gin­ia’s Demo­crat­ic stand­ard-bear­er for gov­ernor next week was a former George W. Bush sup­port­er who isn’t com­fort­able with hy­per-par­tis­an rhet­or­ic. House Demo­crats are re­cruit­ing mod­er­ate busi­ness­men, hawk­ish vet­er­ans, and anti-Trump­Care phys­i­cians to run in sub­urb­an dis­tricts in hopes of tak­ing back the House.

For all the talk about the power of the in­creas­ingly-strident left-wing base, Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives re­cog­nize that the way to win elec­tions is through woo­ing in­de­pend­ents and per­suad­able voters. The key voters in up­com­ing con­gres­sion­al and gubernat­ori­al con­tests are sub­urb­an­ites, many of whom have little af­fin­ity for Trump but want to hear a pos­it­ive agenda from the op­pos­i­tion. They’re also wary of a left­ward lurch—tone-deaf­ness on the ter­ror­ist threat, open­ness to single-pay­er health care, to name a couple of ex­amples—that seems to be gain­ing trac­tion with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party.

Demo­crats have ex­per­i­enced glar­ing set­backs run­ning can­did­ates pro­moted by the act­iv­ist Left. In Montana, Bernie Sanders-em­bra­cing mu­si­cian Rob Quist seemed to have the wind at his back. His op­pon­ent (now-Rep. Greg Gi­an­forte) body-slammed a re­port­er the day be­fore the elec­tion, and Quist took dead aim at the GOP’s un­pop­u­lar health care le­gis­la­tion. Yet he lost by 6 points—a re­spect­able show­ing in a Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict but short of pro­gress­ive ex­pect­a­tions. Lib­er­al groups were pre­par­ing to blame the es­tab­lish­ment for not giv­ing Quist enough sup­port, but the mar­gin of his de­feat made clear that he was a deeply flawed can­did­ate—largely be­cause of his far-left ideo­logy.

In next week’s gubernat­ori­al primary in Vir­gin­ia, Lt. Gov. Ral­ph Northam’s camp is in­creas­ingly con­fid­ent that their man will hold off the pro­gress­ive in­sur­gency of former Rep. Tom Per­ri­ello. One Northam ally said in­tern­al polling shows the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor lead­ing by 9 points. Mean­while, Per­ri­ello is run­ning low on money, and has been out­spent on tele­vi­sion by nearly a 2-to-1 mar­gin. Per­ri­ello’s cam­paign be­lieves the race is highly com­pet­it­ive, ar­guing that a siz­able minor­ity of voters haven’t made up their minds, but a spokes­man de­clined to of­fer any in­tern­al polling to sug­gest the former con­gress­man was ahead.

To be sure, it’s not as if these Demo­crat­ic prag­mat­ists are ig­nor­ing the lib­er­al base. Northam co­opted Per­ri­ello’s anti-Trump mes­sage, and the phys­i­cian has been dia­gnos­ing Trump as a “nar­ciss­ist­ic me­ga­lo­ma­ni­ac” on the cam­paign trail. Os­soff has raised much of his his­tor­ic cam­paign haul from the lib­er­al grass­roots, who turned the low-key ju­ni­or Hill staffer in­to a polit­ic­al celebrity overnight.

But these can­did­ates un­der­stand in­tu­it­ively that mo­bil­iz­ing the base isn’t enough to suc­ceed; it takes a vil­lage, to bor­row a line from Hil­lary Clin­ton. And there are enough GOP-friendly con­stitu­en­cies that are grow­ing tired of Trump and will­ing to con­sider down-bal­lot al­tern­at­ives. Ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup’s polling, Trump’s job ap­prov­al in ex­urb­an com­munit­ies dipped from pos­it­ive ter­rit­ory (+5) in the first 100 days of his pres­id­ency to deeply un­der­wa­ter (-7) in the month of May. Even voters in mil­it­ary com­munit­ies, who once viewed Trump quite pos­it­ively, have soured on his per­form­ance. Trump’s slip­page is oc­cur­ring in many of the GOP-friendly House battle­grounds that Demo­crats are tar­get­ing in their ef­fort to win back a ma­jor­ity.

Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chris Van Hol­len has drilled his staff not just to fo­cus on an anti-Trump mes­sage if they want to win the red states that make up so many Sen­ate battle­grounds. House Demo­crats are (be­latedly) seek­ing re­cruits who match up well with their dis­tricts, pre­fer­ring polit­ic­al out­siders to those with true-blue re­cords in of­fice. Even lib­er­al Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi pub­licly cri­ti­cized Demo­crats who want to ban an­ti­abor­tion can­did­ates from the party, after Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Thomas Perez ar­gued to the con­trary. She knows that to get back in power, com­prom­ise is ne­ces­sary.

The prob­lem is com­ing from the Demo­crat­ic grass­roots, whose in­flu­ence with­in the party con­tin­ues to grow. The loudest and most prom­in­ent na­tion­al voices in­side the party are in­creas­ingly out of touch with the very per­suad­able voters who are open to switch­ing sides. That dy­nam­ic is how Trump was able to win the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion des­pite hold­ing fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings aw­fully sim­il­ar to where they are today. He was able to con­vince skep­tics that Hil­lary Clin­ton was an even great­er threat.

Down-bal­lot can­did­ates, by con­trast, don’t have as much ex­pos­ure and can more eas­ily shape their own mes­sage. That means Demo­crats can be­ne­fit greatly from a very fa­vor­able polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment while con­vin­cing voters that they’re a dif­fer­ent breed of Demo­crat. The party didn’t learn that les­son in 2016, when most of its can­did­ates ran on an ag­gress­ively anti-Trump mes­sage and made mea­ger gains. This year, they’ve ad­ap­ted their tac­tics and are in stronger po­s­i­tion as a res­ult.

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