Against the Grain

Democrats Learning the Limits of Base-First Politics

A tale of two Senate races: Despite Beto O’Rourke’s historic money haul, Democrats aren’t optimistic he can win in Texas, but in Tennessee, a centrist former governor is putting a surprising race in play.

Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke (second from right) posing for a photo at a restaurant in Falfurrias, Texas, on Jan. 7
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

The brewing debate over the Democrats’ path forward is being litigated in two separate red-state Senate races, in which their candidates are utilizing dramatically different strategies. In Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen is running as a moderate willing to work with President Trump and is touting his pro-business record to court moderate Republicans to his side. In Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke is running as a true-blue progressive, calling for a single-payer health care system and an assault-weapons ban, and even soliciting a fundraising appeal from Elizabeth Warren.

The aggressively progressive O’Rourke is the candidate raising a lot more money. In fact, his $6.7 million raised last quarter is the most of any Senate candidate this year. But the pragmatic Bredesen is the Democratic candidate who is proving he’s got the better message to win a red-state race.

Democrats will soon find out that, to win elections in the many competitive GOP-leaning states and districts across the country, message matters a lot more than money—and sounding like a card-carrying member of the anti-Trump resistance outside the liberal coasts isn’t a smart strategy. Indeed, if you wanted to design a political-science experiment proving the point, following the outcomes of these two races will be very instructive. In this rough environment for Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz is beatable. His job-approval rating has been underwhelming, and the vote-rich suburbs in his home state swung in a decidedly Democratic direction in the last presidential election.

But Cruz couldn’t ask for a better political gift than an opponent like O’Rourke, who’s willing to proudly brag about his progressive credentials in a way that’s bound to turn off the persuadable GOP-friendly suburbanites who refused to vote for Trump in the last election. All the money in the world can’t change that reality.

Part of the base-first argument rests on liberal candidates being able to turn out new voters who don’t typically participate in midterm elections. But in many Hispanic-heavy areas, O’Rourke badly underachieved in the March primary, winning just 62 percent of the vote against two obscure candidates—and losing majority-Hispanic counties along the border.

In Tennessee, Bredesen theoretically faces the more difficult challenge. Running in a state where Trump won 61 percent of the vote, he can’t rely on his old coalition to win in these polarized times. His Republican opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, is one of her party’s strongest Senate fundraisers, and her campaign is blessed by the GOP leadership and grassroots alike. But Bredesen’s refreshingly independent record—he’s a budget hawk and Obamacare critic—is single-handedly putting the race in play. “I was actually a Democrat who had issues with how the Affordable Care Act was structured, and those issues are starting to play out,” Bredesen (a former health care executive) said in a recent C-SPAN interview.

Bredesen’s friendship with retiring Sen. Bob Corker is also making things awkward for GOP officials. Corker’s persistent refusal to even mention Blackburn’s name in interviews raises the prospect of an intraparty rift between the GOP’s business allies and the predominant populist grassroots. Despite the state’s conservatism, Republicans there have elected a series of moderate pragmatists to the Senate—Lamar Alexander, Bill Frist, and Corker among them—not ideological bomb-throwers. Bredesen is running on that legacy, even if it costs him with his party’s own ideologues.

Early polling shows both races competitive: A recent Quinnipiac survey gave Cruz a surprisingly narrow 3-point lead over O’Rourke. Blackburn trails Bredesen in one early public poll. Neither result reflects how the races will evolve when the campaigns begin—with hard-hitting ads moving many voters back in their partisan corners. Ultimately, these races will be decided by the number of typical Republican voters willing to defect and support the Democratic nominee.

For all the focus on the energy of the Democratic base in the Trump era, the looming anti-Trump wave is actually rejuvenating the party with much-needed moderation. From Ralph Northam’s decisive win in the Virginia governor’s race, to Doug Jones’s stunning Senate upset in Alabama, to Conor Lamb’s victory in the heart of Trump country, the biggest Democratic victories have come from centrist candidates. By contrast, Democrats suffered their worst loss in the Trump era when running a congressional candidate in Georgia (Jon Ossoff) who offered little to anyone outside the liberal base.

Bredesen and O’Rourke represent two competing philosophies that the party needs to choose between going forward: building a broad coalition incorporating moderate suburbanites or catering to a base-first mentality that risks alienating a growing swath of persuadable voters. The only reason Democrats have an outside chance to compete for a Senate majority is the resilience of members in deeply conservative states. Going down a left-wing path risks their irrelevance not just in Texas, but in the race to win a governing majority.

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