Democrat Jason Kander delivered a well-received message to a room full of party faithful: He almost won a Senate race in Republican Missouri because he didn’t shy away from being a liberal.
“In a red state that President Trump carried by 19 points, I came within 3 points of turning the Senate seat blue,” Kander said at a recent meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Atlanta. “And by the way, I didn’t do it by pretending to be a moderate Republican or hugging the middle.”
After losing the 2016 presidential election in dramatic fashion, notching only meager gains in Congress and failing to relax the GOP’s vise-like grip on statehouses across the country, Democrats are promising changes to the way they conduct campaigns. Special elections in 2017 and midterm congressional contests in 2018 will see new messages, and, leaders say, better turnout operations and campaign organization.
Not coming are changes to the party’s policy platform, despite calls from Democrats’ centrist wing.
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“The Democratic values are the right values, and they command a majority among the American people when you ask them about the issues,” Pete Buttigieg, a rising star in the Democratic Party, told reporters last month at the DNC meeting. “So the problem clearly has to do with our organizing. Obviously, there are some things we can do with the way we talk about our values.”
But this unwillingness to reassess what the party stands for is driving some more moderate Democrats mad. The centrist think tank Third Way warns that the party’s liberal wing is misinterpreting President Donald Trump’s 2016 success as a sign that voters care less about policy than they do about message.
“The lesson that many Democrats have learned from this election is policy doesn’t matter, because Donald Trump doesn’t have policies,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way. “From that, they’ve assumed what Democrats need is more bluster, not more policy, and the policy is pretty much irrelevant.”
Last month, Third Way published a report – co-authored by Erickson Hatalsky – warning Democrats that they need to increase their popularity among white voters, who still make up overwhelming majorities of the electorate in may key states.
To do so, the report suggested, the party needs to recalibrate its policies in a way that appeals to more than just liberals.
But progressive leaders counter that backing down reduces enthusiasm among the party’s core voters while doing little to win over moderates.
It’s a theory advocated by Jon Ossoff, the leading Democratic candidate in a suburban Atlanta special election for Congress. Ossoff, who has become a star among liberal activists across the country, says he will reach out to every voter, no matter how conservative.
But he also says he won’t modify his positions on sensitive subjects, including abortion rights, even if they’re out of step with the rest of the district. Ossoff is running in a Georgia congressional district that hasn’t voted for a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in more than 30 years.
“There are some people who might . . . back away from tough stands like that,” Ossoff said at a recent campaign rally. “But if there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the last few years it’s that Democrats running for office in tough districts are going to face the same attacks whether we stand on our principles or not.”
In Ossoff’s telling, Hillary Clinton’s failure to talk to every voter and her campaign’s message – or lack thereof – explains why she lost to a deeply unpopular opponent like Trump.
That sentiment is a common one among Democrats.
“I think most Democrats would agree we’re right and they’re wrong on the economy,” said Steve Murphy, a veteran Democratic strategist. “We just didn’t say it in the last election.”
Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blamed Clinton’s defeat on her message. It’s a mistake he promised the party won’t repeat.
“When you asked average voters who didn’t like Trump and were not particularly fond of Hillary, ‘What did the Democratic Party . . . stand for that will help you?’ they couldn’t name anything,” he said in an interview with NPR. “In 2018, they’re going to name a bunch of things because we’re going to have a strong plan.”
Democrats will get an early test of this approach’s effectiveness in April, when Ossoff runs in the special election. The district has not traditionally been a favorable one to Democrats, but conditions don’t get any better for them in the 2018 midterm elections.
Next year, the party has to defend Senate seats in 10 states that Trump won. The House is not much easier for Democrats, whose path back to a majority runs through a handful of seats that lean Republican.
Kander addressed the DNC meeting last month because of his near-victory in one of those red states, Missouri, where he narrowly lost to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. At the time, his campaign attracted attention for a widely viewed TV ad in which he assembled a rifle blindfolded. Kander also opposed parts of his party’s agenda, such as the Iranian nuclear agreement.
His message to his fellow Democrats, however, focused on his embrace of party values.
“What we demonstrated is that when Democrats make our argument, then we have a chance to win,” Kander said. “That is my message to you: We should make our argument.”