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.