Democrats Deliver Populist Pitches to Win Back Trump Country

Candidates from Iowa to Maine are tapping into the same economic angst that propelled the president in 2016.

Courtesy of Finkenauer for Congress
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Oct. 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

AMANA, Iowa—At an Oktoberfest celebration in this German-colony-turned-rural-village, Abby Finkenauer ticked through reasons why she ran for Congress.

There was the longtime John Deere employee she recently met who struggles to cover the $10,000 monthly cost of his cancer medication. There's her sister and brother-in-law, corn and soybean farmers who are worried about the ongoing trade war. And there’s her mother, a Dubuque public school secretary who retired at age 62 because she was afraid the government might raise the minimum age for Social Security eligibility.

“I decided to run for Congress because it was so dang personal,” Finkenauer told a couple of dozen Iowa County Democrats sipping locally brewed beer. “There are folks just like my mother all over this district and all over this country that live with that anxiety every single day.”

Those are just a few of several stories she tells on the campaign trail and in TV ads that address precisely the kind of economic angst that propelled President Trump to victory in Iowa's predominantly white and rural northeastern congressional district. And while she rarely mentions him by name, the argument is clear: Two years into Trump’s administration, the average Iowan is still struggling.

“Washington isn’t paying attention to what's going on here. They are passing policies that favor the 1 percent, which aren’t Iowans,” she said later in an interview. “It’s very clear to me that working families have been an afterthought in D.C.”

Finkenauer is one of several Democrats running in demographically similar districts, from northern Maine to Minnesota’s Iron Range, that have found a way to tap into Trump’s appeal. Their campaigns offer a playbook for a party eager for electoral success in white, working-class areas: unapologetic economic populism paired with an authenticity that the blue-blooded president lacked.

And Finkenauer’s campaign is notable for how well it appears to be working. Despite President Obama’s two double-digit wins in the district, Democrats have twice failed to defeat Republican Rep. Rod Blum, who scored a shock upset in 2014 and then coasted to another surprising victory two years later.

Republican strategists see only a narrow path to victory for the congressman this time. Finkenauer, a 29-year-old state representative, has outraised him the past several quarters, and though the race has recently tightened she has yet to trail the incumbent in most public and private Democratic polling conducted since the June primary.

Iowa Democrats say she’s running a different kind of campaign than the previous two nominees, one that hinges on her connection to working families.

At the state Democratic Party’s fall gala this month, she brought dozens of people to a roaring standing ovation with an impassioned speech describing the pain she felt as the daughter of a union pipefitter-welder when the state legislature voted to gut collective bargaining.

"I tell my story, too, about growing up in poverty with a single-parent mom," said Rep. Dave Loebsack, the only Democrat in Iowa's congressional delegation. "They get that I came from there and I’m not forgetting about those people, and Abby is the same way."

In several other House battlegrounds, including some of the 20 or so that swung from Obama to Trump, Democratic nominees are also highlighting their humble backgrounds to broadcast a populist message geared toward the working class. Party strategists say their laser focus on economic concerns, such as health care costs and crop prices, could be the key to success.

Polling and outside spending indicate close races in many of these districts. And while the House will likely be won or lost in the suburbs, the size of a Democratic majority could be decided in more rural seats like these.

The party has two high-profile populist candidates in Richard Ojeda, a pro-coal state senator in West Virginia, and Randy Bryce, an ironworker in Wisconsin, who cast themselves as fierce defenders of the working class.

Other examples fall in seats that swung heavily from Obama to Trump. In Maine’s rural 2nd District, Democrat Jared Golden talks about working multiple low-wage jobs and night shifts to pay bills, and calls his opponent, Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a hedge-fund millionaire beholden to special interests.

In an open seat in northeastern Minnesota, Joe Radinovich, who describes himself as the fourth generation of a family of miners and electricians, casts himself as pro-worker with his openness to copper-nickel mining.

And Brendan Kelly, a prosecutor running in southern Illinois, rails against big banks and pharmaceutical companies that leave a feeling among the “middle-class, blue-collar working poor that no matter how hard they work, the way the system is set up seems to work against them.”

Democrats have made an effort this cycle to understand their recent decline in white, working-class regions. Focus groups revealed voter concerns over the tariffs and health-care cuts, and polls have found Trump underwater in many districts that he won. Yet, unlike 2016, few top Democratic nominees have made the president a campaign centerpiece.

“These candidates are also smart enough to know that you don’t go in and just badmouth the president,” said Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos, whose Illinois district also swung from Obama to Trump. “People voted for Donald Trump because they were frustrated. They heard too many Democrats act like everything was good in every part of the county.”

Bustos, who mentors several candidates in the Midwest, released a report in January on how her party can improve their electoral chances in the region. A key finding of her research: Democrats sometimes focus too much on divisive social issues and not enough on the harsh economic realities of rural areas, which could explain why Trump found success in the Heartland.

“I think these people were just willing to try Donald Trump,” Bustos said. “What they see two years into this is that he has treated way too many of these congressional districts like they are flyover county.”

In Iowa, Finkenauer is banking on that. She frequently tells a story about a schoolmate-turned-ironworker who twice voted for Obama before supporting Trump. But now, she said, he was aghast at the disparity of the GOP tax cut: “He looked at me and he said, ‘Abby, those folks at the top are getting Ferraris. And I’m barely able to pay for this lunch here.’”

Trump’s popularity likely boosted Blum last cycle, and the congressman concedes the election is somewhat of a referendum on the new administration. But unlike other vulnerable members, Blum has linked himself closely to Trump. At a debate this month, he billed the tax overhaul as helpful to the middle class, and on tariffs he said farmers are “willing to hang in there for long-term prosperity.”

“I disagree with my opponent saying that he hasn’t done anything,” Blum said. “I think in spite of a resistance movement, what he’s accomplished is nothing short of phenomenal.”

Yet while Blum's stance may invigorate his base, Finkenauer is courting the middle.

"If you’re a Democrat, you want to be like Chet Culver or Tom Vilsack where you’re not just extreme Left and where these rural Iowans can find something they like, said Craig Robinson, a former state GOP political director, referencing Iowa’s most recent Democratic governors. "When I see her messaging, I think Abby is trying to project that."

Private GOP polling conducted before Labor Day found Blum trailing by a significant margin and that about one-fifth of Republicans had a favorable view of Finkenauer, according to a source with knowledge of the data. The numbers indicated to party operatives at the time that though she might boast some crossover appeal, she was relatively undefined and there was opportunity to drive up her negatives.

But Finkenauer and Democratic allies have now been on the air twice as much as Blum, according to media-buying data. And it seems unlikely that GOP groups come in on his behalf in the final stretch—though the congressman does have the ability to self-fund.

Some party strategists are privately irritated with Blum over what they see as a series of unforced errors that tarnished his earned media. In May 2017, he stormed out of a TV interview after a question about a town-hall event. He is also under investigation by the House Ethics Committee after failing to disclose his role in a business that helps companies bury FDA violations in internet searches.

And while some Republicans knock Finkenauer’s messaging as thin on policy specifics, her allies feel that selling cultural understanding of a working-class life could be more effective than a partisan alignment.

"She is the district. She looks like the district," said Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran Iowa operative advising the Finkenauer campaign. "People respond to her because they know her. Even if they’ve never met her, they know her."

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