Against the Grain

The Emerging Democratic Minority?

If Democrats can’t take advantage of Trump’s troubles in next year’s midterms, they could be out of power in Congress for a long time.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a rally in support of the Affordable Care Act and against the Senate replacement bill on July 17 in New York.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 30, 2017, 6 a.m.

Democrats deserve credit in uniting their party to block GOP attempts at rolling back Obamacare. They managed to outline a vague list of economic priorities in hopes of convincing voters they’re not just obsessed with President Trump. But even after six months of shambolic Republican governance, Democrats are still viewed as an unacceptable alternative to many persuadable voters in middle America.

Those were the sobering findings of a Democratic survey commissioned by the party-backed House Majority PAC, which Politico and McClatchy first reported. The poll surveyed working-class white voters in pivotal districts that Democrats are targeting in the midterms. Despite the Trump turmoil in Washington, Republicans held a 10-point lead on the generic ballot (43-33 percent) among these blue-collar voters. Democrats hold a whopping 61 percent disapproval rating among these voters, with only 32 percent approving. Even Trump’s job-approval rating is a respectable 52 percent with the demographic in these swing districts.

Democrats maintain that with robust economic messaging, they can move those numbers in their favor. But the results show how difficult that task will be. By a stunning 35-point margin, blue-collar white voters believe that Republicans will be better at improving the economy and creating jobs than Democrats. Under Trump, the economy has been growing—even in the disadvantaged parts of the country. Between promising job creation and Trump’s own paeans to blue-collar work, it’s hard to see the GOP numbers changing significantly.

The more uncomfortable reality is that these blue-collar voters’ resistance to the Democrats is on cultural grounds, not economic ones—a finding that studies of Obama-Trump voters have repeatedly shown. Democrats are facing a double-whammy: They’re still experiencing resistance among moderate voters in suburban swing districts over tax-and-spend economic policies. Meanwhile, small-town voters are having a tough time voting for their candidates because of a growing cultural disconnect.

In the short term, the House will give Democrats their best opportunity to prove they can make inroads despite the political hurdles. To win back control in the lower chamber, they will need to win Republican-held seats both in the suburbs and in small-town America. It’s not an either-or proposition. But if they fall short despite such a promising political environment, the longer-term ramifications for the party’s ability to regain congressional power are discouraging.

Just look at the Senate maps for the next two cycles. Republicans are likely to expand their majority next year even in a poor political environment because they’re hardly defending any seats next year. Even if they only win a few red-state races, their majority could easily be sustainable even beyond the next presidential election.

Consider: The Senate map for Democrats doesn’t get much friendlier in 2020. Most of the Republicans elected in the 2014 wave hail from conservative states that were once held by (now-extinct) moderate Democrats. Republicans will face challenges holding seats in North Carolina, Colorado, and Iowa—but after that, the pickings are slim. Even if Republicans net just one Senate seat next year, their long-term future looks pretty good. (And Democrats won’t be able to blame gerrymandering for future Senate woes.)

One of the few Democratic officials to understand that Democrats can’t simply shun Trump as a way back to power is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As The New York Times reported, Cuomo has gone out of his way to avoid criticizing Trump—despite frequently clashing publicly with the progressive mayor of New York City. The strategy has annoyed many Democrats in the deeply Democratic state, befuddled at the strategy.

These Cuomo critics should take a closer look at their state’s political map, where Democrats are contesting at least four GOP-held House districts that Trump carried in last year’s presidential election. These swing districts, from Long Island up to Syracuse, all sent a clear message about liberal overreach in rejecting their former home-state senator in favor of Trump. Cuomo, the son of a liberal icon, heard last year’s election results loud and clear. But he’s increasingly a lonely voice in a party that’s putting progressivism ahead of pragmatism.

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