How Democratic Progressives Survived a Landslide

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How Democratic Progressives Survived a Landslide

They ran against Wall Street and carried the white working class. The Democrats who shunned populism got clobbered.

February 11, 2015

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This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of  The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Ann Kirkpatrick was surely toast in 2014. The two-term Democrat represented one of the most sprawling and politically unpredictable House districts in the country, an Iowa-sized expanse of northern and eastern Arizona dotted with fiercely conservative small towns, heavily Democratic small cities like Flagstaff and Sedona, and 12 Native American tribal lands with varied political loyalties. An affable Anglo who grew up on the Fort Apache Reservation, where her father ran a general store, Kirkpatrick owed both her wins—in 2008 and 2012—to presidential-year turnout in the half-minority First District; without it, in 2010, she lost. No Democrat, in fact, had won a midterm election in this district, which was once represented by John McCain, since 1950.

After pulling off a 9,000-vote squeaker in 2012—Mitt Romney more than doubled her margin of victory as he also carried the district—Kirkpatrick landed immediately on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of the seven top Democratic targets for 2014. Which meant she would be facing not just another likely Republican wave, not just another whiter and older midterm electorate, and not just a powerful and well-connected opponent—Andy Tobin, Republican speaker of the state House—but a Dresden-level air assault from outside groups as well.

If you asked the political wizards of Washington, Kirkpatrick’s only hope would have been to sing from this year’s midterm hymnal: Run away from Obama and the “Democrat” label as hard and fast as humanly possible; vow to “fix” the Affordable Care Act rather than defend it; hit your opponent for being “anti-woman”; promise nothing but “bipartisanship” and deficit-reduction if you’re sent back to Congress—oh, and run a superior field operation to draw out the minority voters you’ve been ignoring with your Republican-Lite campaign. Model your campaign on Michelle Nunn’s “I’m as Republican as my opponent” run for Senate in Georgia, say, or Senator Kay Hagan’s Obama-dodging effort in North Carolina—two campaigns that Democratic strategists considered pure genius all the way to Election Day. (In a National Journal “Insider’s Poll” taken just before the midterms, both Democratic and Republican leaders deemed those the “best” Democratic campaigns of 2014 by a wide margin.) And if you must choose an issue to run on, follow Nunn’s and Hagan’s lead and try something inoffensive like “education,” or debt reduction. Just don’t wade into any pesky details.

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The One and Only Freshman Democrat: Michigan Senator Gary Peters, who ran as a progressive populist

Few Democrats in Congress were as well positioned as Kirkpatrick to undertake a campaign of Clinton-style triangulation. She voted “just” 89 percent with President Obama, according to the Sunlight Foundation—one of the lower partisan-purity tallies on the Hill. But Kirkpatrick had tried the “no-D Democratic” approach before, in 2010, when she spent the campaign on the defensive after voting for Obamacare, insisting she was actually a model of “independence” and pledging fiscal responsibility and aisle-crossing. She got whomped. So this year, Kirkpatrick made the curious strategic decision to run as herself: a deal-cutter who brings millions in grant money to her cash-starved district; an opponent of EPA regulations when they threaten local jobs, and an environmentalist otherwise; and, most important, a progressive populist on such defining issues as immigration reform, corporate taxation, and health-care reform. She’d talk about her independent streak, sure—because it’s real—but the meat of her campaign would be about what government can, and should, be doing for local folks in need. And rather than focus her efforts on conservative white voters, she would spend much of the campaign on tribal land, which accounted for 25 percent of Kirkpatrick’s total votes in 2012. (By contrast, her Republican opponent won only 3 percent of his votes on the reservations.) She’d invest in the most targeted effort to turn out Native Americans that anyone had seen. In sum, Kirkpatrick would—disaster alert!—play the role of herself in the campaign, and try to reassemble the minority coalition that elected her in 2008 and 2012.

This was not supposed to work in 2014. Nor were the defiantly populist campaigns of Senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon—along with Representative Gary Peters in Michigan, who logged untold miles on his motorcycle as he defended the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Senator Carl Levin. Like Kirkpatrick, these Democrats were being challenged by hand-picked Republican opponents—chosen for their “winnability”—and would be bombarded from spring to fall by outside dark-money groups that would invest millions to make the vulnerable Democrats look like the mirror images of Barack Obama himself. But while other top-of-the-ticket Democrats ran to the middle, these candidates planted their feet where they were. In the case of Kirkpatrick, the foot-planting would be literal as well as symbolic, and it would be a turning point in her unlikely campaign.

Kirkpatrick campaign advertisement

These Boots Are Made for Winnin’: Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (shown above right at a 2012 campaign event) was supposed to lose but didn’t.

As soon as the state House speaker secured the Republican nomination in late August, the bombardment commenced in earnest. The NRCC started with a slickly produced spot that showed, from the waist down, a well-dressed woman in high heels wheeling a suitcase back and forth. “When Ann Kirkpatrick comes back to Arizona from Washington, she carries a lot of baggage—President Obama’s baggage,” the voiceover began. The ad hit the congresswoman for “refusing to fix Obamacare,” and for voting to raise the debt ceiling. “She’s not independent; she just votes the party line,” the narrator concluded.

Kirkpatrick’s response was quick, funny, and defiant: a spot set on the orangey moonscape of her district, featuring a pair of boots the congresswoman had bought when she was 18 with money she’d saved from waitressing. “I still wear ’em,” she said. “They come in real handy in D.C.” Those boots were made for stomping out “perks” that members of Congress tried to give themselves, Kirkpatrick said—like paying members during shutdowns, or providing them with government-funded health care for life, both of which she had loudly opposed.

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Ann Kirkpatrick greets campaign supporter Tom Morello during an election night party in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Not since Jim Webb’s 2006 Senate campaign, when he trooped across Virginia in his son’s combat boots from Iraq, preaching an anti-war message, had footwear done so much for a Democrat. On the trail across her motley district, everybody wanted to see Kirkpatrick’s boots up close—they’re now held together by duct tape—and to hear from the lady who used them to stomp on fat cats. The congresswoman didn’t disappoint, especially when it came to the issue that was tying the tongues of Democrats everywhere. The Obamacare attack ads flew fast and furious, but Kirkpatrick didn’t flinch, pointing out that the law had benefited thousands of her constituents. “I talk to people almost on a daily basis who now have coverage they never had before,” she said in a September debate. “Thank heavens.” (Thank heavens for Obamacare? Smelling salts for the consultants, quick!) By being so unblinking and unapologetic about supporting the ACA, she put herself in a position to turn the issue on Tobin, who had opposed Arizona’s Medicaid expansion as House speaker. “He fought Medicaid expansion, and 21,000 people in my district just signed up for Medicaid,” she told a Phoenix radio host in September.

Kirkpatrick also celebrated pork, touting the transportation and infrastructure projects she’d brought and would continue to bring to the district. For good measure, in September and October, she rolled out three big chunks of grants, amounting to $20 million, for projects and services—tribal diabetes programs, STEM learning centers, regional airports, wind energy development, a hybrid bus fleet for the Navajo, and new roads for the Hopi. Kirkpatrick’s message was contrarian but clear: Government is not the people’s enemy—unless you hand it over to people who are only out to please big-money interests.

On November 4, while Republicans won big in Senate and House races across the country—and ran the table in Arizona’s statewide elections—Kirkpatrick’s unconventional campaign paid off handsomely. She won by five percentage points, nearly double her margin of victory in 2012, despite $6 million in outside spending against her. She was one of just two Democrats on the NRCC’s original target list to survive. The other was Rick Nolan, a congressman from the once staunchly Democratic, now conservative-trending, Iron Range of Minnesota. In one of the most expensive House campaigns in the country, Nolan held off a wealthy young businessman with one of the fieriest populist campaigns in the country. “He is, no mistake about it, a one-percenter who is there to represent the one percent, not the 99 percent,” Nolan had roared as the campaign commenced, and he spent the election year fulminating about trickle-down economics, pushing campaign-finance reform, and criticizing the Affordable Care Act for being too corporate-friendly. To the amazement of Democratic strategists in both D.C. and Minnesota who roundly criticized Nolan’s stubborn refusal to moderate himself, he survived.

After every election, the losing side naturally tends to brood over where and how things went wrong. For Democrats this year, there’s no shortage of theories about the party’s avalanche of key losses in Senate, House, and statehouse contests. Perhaps it was wrong to sideline President Obama so thoroughly. Perhaps they shouldn’t have run away from the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps they still haven’t found the formula for turning out young and minority voters in midterms. Maybe it was just a bad map that couldn’t be overcome. Or maybe there had been, as the pundits chorused, no “coherent national message” for Democrats to run on.

You can find shards of truth in these tidbits of conventional wisdom, but it’s a gauzy, overgeneralized kind of truth. It’s more instructive to take a long look at what did work in 2014—at the candidates and campaigns that overcame the Republican drift. How did Democrats beat their odds in Arizona, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Michigan even as they fell short in Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, and Colorado? The closer you look, the clearer the picture becomes: They did it the way Kirkpatrick did. They ran with their populist boots on.

 

(AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)

The Survivor: New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who indissolubly linked her GOP opponent to Wall Street

The most-watched elections of 2014—the ones that would determine whether Democrats could hold on to their Senate majority for Obama’s final two years—resulted in the party’s most notable cluster of beat-downs. Only five Democrats managed to defy the Republican surge in what were thought to be closely contested states. Four of them ran campaigns that were virtual doppelgangers—and that veered from the Democratic script just as dramatically as Kirkpatrick’s and Nolan’s.

The lone Democrat to prevail in a Senate campaign that was a toss-up from start to finish, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, is hardly a dusty-boots sort of populist. But as she faced a troublesome challenger with a Wall Street ATM—former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown—Shaheen did her best impression of a New England Huey Long. Despite Obama’s 38 percent approval rating in the state, Shaheen lauded Obamacare and doggedly focused her campaign on the ways that she could meet the specific economic needs of her constituents—“working to protect this shipyard, build that bridge, get a bill passed that helped this New Hampshire business,” as The Boston Globe put it.

Brown, who couldn’t hope to out–New Hampshire his opponent, did his darnedest to “nationalize” the race. Rarely did he open his mouth without repeating his claim that Shaheen had voted with Obama “more than 99 percent of the time.” (This was an exaggeration, but only a slight one.) Brown and Republican groups’ ads continually pictured the senator beaming next to the president, and he attacked her for working in tandem with Obama to stagnate the economy, to create the summer’s border crisis with undocumented children, to mis-underestimate the perils of ISIS—you name it, Jeanne was to blame. In the run-up to Election Day, Brown campaign yard signs bearing the message “Stand with Obama, Vote for Shaheen” were ubiquitous across the state. Even though Brown had to fight against the “carpetbagger” label that accompanied his convenient relocation to New Hampshire after losing his Senate seat in Massachusetts to Elizabeth Warren—“New Hampshire is not a consolation prize,” Shaheen said—his strategy was sound: In recent decades, New Hampshire has tended to blow with the national political winds more than most states.

“Localizing” one’s race, as Shaheen did, was another stratagem highly recommended by the Washington cognoscenti in 2014, and plenty of Democrats tried it. The idea was simple: If your voters don’t like Obama and those Washington Dems, maybe they’ll still punch their ballots for their own Dem who’s nothing like the rest of them. With a few exceptions in House races, this worked no better for Democrats this year than it did for Republicans in the Bush backlash of 2006. In the Iowa contest to fill Senator Tom Harkin’s vacated seat, Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley emphasized getting things done for his state by working across the aisle with Republicans and not “letting the extremists from either party get in the way.” What he didn’t do was make it personal for voters, as Shaheen and Kirkpatrick did with their “this bridge, that health clinic” campaigns.

Braley’s surprising loss to upstart Republican Joni Ernst, like Senator Mark Udall’s equally surprising defeat in Colorado, could not be chalked up to an overdose of centrist timidity; Braley and Udall both campaigned on a bumper crop of liberal priorities. But as Richard Kirsch, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, pointed out after the election, there was something missing: The two Democrats “ticked off a list of progressive issues—from minimum wage to pay equity to protecting Social Security—without providing any framing story to link them together. [They] left out who the villains were in the story.”

Shaheen didn’t make that mistake. A 60-second radio spot she aired in mid-September took dead aim at the villains in working-class and middle-class Americans’ bleak economic story. It’s worth quoting the whole script:

Wonder why Scott Brown lost re-election in Massachusetts? Well, he was working for Wall Street, not the people. Scott Brown blocked a major financial reform bill until he could water it down and save Wall Street $19 billion. Scott Brown really delivered for Wall Street, said The Boston Globe. Even after the bill passed, news reports show Brown was ‘secretly serving the interests of Wall Street, working behind the scenes to help the big banks, not consumers.’

Wall Street thanked Scott Brown by giving him more campaign contributions than any other candidate—$5.3 million. Now, Scott Brown wants New Hampshire to send him to Washington. Wall Street’s once again spending millions to help. Scott Brown says he really cares about New Hampshire. Come on, don’t be fooled. No matter where he lives, Scott Brown will always put Wall Street first. And that’s good for Scott Brown, but not New Hampshire.

In case you weren’t counting, that was seven “Wall Streets” in 60 seconds—all of them closely accompanied by a “Scott Brown.” While Republicans spent the year tying Democratic candidates to the word “Obama” and its close variant, “Obamacare,” Shaheen and the three other populist progressives who won their Senate races lifted up the “Wall Street” chant at every opportunity. In Oregon, a typical ad for Senator Jeff Merkley: “It is Jeff leading the fight to hold Wall Street and big banks accountable when they prey on working families and small businesses.” And here’s Minnesota’s junior senator, Al Franken, in one of his spots: “I work for all Minnesotans. Wall Street wasn’t happy about that. But I don’t work for Wall Street. I work for you.”

The populists also pounded relentlessly on those living embodiments of Republican Wall Street-iness, the infamous Koch brothers. In Michigan, the Kochs spent big (we’re talking more than $5 million) to boost Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, who was running against Democratic Representative Gary Peters. Peters portrayed this as his payback for daring to stand up to the Koch brothers; the previous summer, he’d played a major role in forcing Koch Carbon to remove massive piles of petroleum coke—a byproduct of oil-refining—it had dumped in Detroit, and which had blown black clouds of dust into neighboring Windsor, Canada. “I feel like I’m not really running against Terri Lynn Land. I feel like I’m running against the Koch brothers,” Peters told a campaign rally in Detroit this summer. “They care about their agenda, which is weakening environmental laws. It’s about being anti–middle class, about tax breaks for millionaires.”

(AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Andy Nelson)

The Democratic Wing: Elizabeth Warren campaigns with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.

Populism ain’t populism, after all, without an enemy—in particular, an enemy who’s coming for you, who wants to pollute your beloved river, outsource your job, keep your wages low, let the bridge you drive over every day crumble in disrepair, or prevent your kids from getting proper health care or decent public schooling. The populist progressives who won Senate races in purple states in 2014 had the “coherent message” that Democrats elsewhere—both progressives and moderates—lacked. There was a problem, symbolized by Wall Street and the Koch brothers, and there was a solution, which was activist government. Running against the Kochs, Merkley said, “created the contrast: I’m running saying I want to see a ‘We the people’ democracy, by and for the people and not by and for billionaires. That’s very different from my opponent, who signed on to a by-and-for-billionaires agenda.” Franken, Merkley, and Peters’s campaigns garnered little attention from the national media, precisely because they worked so well (with help, to be sure, from the disappointing campaigns of their highly touted and well-funded opponents). But the way they won should not be overlooked: All three breezed to victory in states that the Republicans had believed, with reason, they could take in 2014. 

And in a year when Democrats, nationally, hit rock-bottom with white, working-class voters—losing by 30 percentage points—the populists either won majorities of these voters (Shaheen, Merkley, and Franken) or came damn close (Peters). Exit polls showed Shaheen winning her state’s dominant white vote 51-48; Franken winning his even more comfortably; and Merkley running up a 16-point edge among whites. While white folks dismissed centrist candidates like Hagan, Nunn, and Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor (who couldn’t bring himself to wholeheartedly endorse the state’s minimum-wage referendum, which passed as he lost), the populists won them over with heaping doses of “class warfare” that could not have been more explicit. Economic populism is a tougher sell in the South, of course, thanks in part to the region’s weak labor traditions—and thanks even more to the fact that racial politics have often trumped economic concerns, especially in deepest Dixie. But mushy moderation has failed to convert many Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, even as it gives Democratic-leaners nothing special to get excited about.

The lone centrist who won a close Senate contest in 2014, Virginia’s Mark Warner, only proved the rule. Unlike Peters, Franken, Merkley, or Shaheen, Warner had been considered a lock to win by a landslide, just as he had in 2008, and he’d led by double digits in the polls for most of the fall. Warner is one of the most popular members of Congress back home, logging a 63 percent approval rating. Many of his admirers stayed home on Election Day, however, when he came within a whisker of losing to underfunded, roundly ignored Republican Ed Gillespie. (When Democrat Jim Webb won Virginia’s Senate race in the 2006 midterms, turnout was 53 percent statewide; this year, it was 42 percent.) Warner had given his supporters no reason to bother. The senator spent much of his campaign courting white voters in rural Virginia with messages of mushy moderation—and those voters, who had lifted Warner into the governor’s office in 2001 and into the Senate in 2008, soundly rejected him this time. Six years earlier, Warner had tallied 61 percent of the state’s rural votes; this time, he took 39 percent.

Warner’s great issues were Obamacare tweaks and bipartisan debt reduction—the farthest things possible from the concrete, government-can-help-you sales pitches of his populist counterparts. It was a campaign “designed to win in the late ’90s,” muttered a disgruntled Democratic operative. As Bloomberg’s David Weigel pointed out, the problem wasn’t bipartisanship per se—others, including Kirkpatrick and Peters, touted their aisle-crossing to good effect—it was the kind of bipartisanship Warner promised, on an issue—debt reduction—that’s abstract and directly relevant to no one’s real life, that nearly doomed him. Only Warner’s baked-in popularity saved him from the most embarrassing defeat of the cycle.

There’s considerable irony in all this, of course. The rationale for New Democrat–style centrism, co-created and honed to an art by Bill Clinton, was to win back white voters who’d been drifting into the Republican camp since the 1960s. (O.K., there was one other rationale: to convince Wall Street to give money to Democrats.) But by following the Clinton formula in countless campaigns since he left office, Democrats have steadily lost more and more white votes. The reason is obvious enough for those with eyes to see, as Senator Bernie Sanders told NPR after the election: “People look out and they say, ‘Gee, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well.’ And where are the Democrats? Do people see the Democratic Party standing up to Wall Street? Any of these guys going to jail? Not really. The average person is working longer hours, lower wages, and they do not see any political party standing up and fighting for their rights. What they see is a Republican Party becoming extremely right-wing, controlled by folks like the Koch brothers. But they do not see a party representing the working class of this country.

When white voters do catch a glimpse of a candidate who speaks in plain English to working- and middle-class worries, frustrations, and fears—and, crucially, offers a solution—it’s a whole different matter. White voters have tuned out New Democrats. But they are increasingly receptive to those who sound a lot like Old Democrats.

 

The Democratic Party’s salvation in 2014 was supposed to be the party’s superior turnout machine. Building on the combination of high-tech voter-targeting and old-fashioned door-knocking that gave Obama an edge in the purple states in both his elections, the Democrats rolled out a $60 million “Bannock Street Project” for the midterms. The name was inspired by the location of Denver field headquarters for Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who ran a state-of-the-art ground game that helped him weather the Tea Party storm of 2010—and who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2014. Guy Cecil, Bennet’s turnout mastermind in Colorado, took charge of the national project this time, pledging to invest more in the field than Democrats had in previous midterms. Bannock Street sent some 4,000 staffers into ten key states, pursuing an ambitious goal: Come as close as possible to replicating the Obama coalition in a midterm year. At least in the states with toss-up Senate races.

In some respects, in some places, it worked: In battleground states where Democrats invested heavily in field operations, including North Carolina and Colorado, turnout was higher than in 2010—up four points to 41 percent in North Carolina, up five points to 53 percent in Colorado. That’s a feat, considering that turnout nationally was the lowest since 1942, a paltry 36 percent. In states like Virginia and Maryland, where Democrats didn’t invest, turnout was abysmal. But Democratic senators still lost to Republican challengers in North Carolina and Colorado, despite the relatively high voting numbers in both states. The races where Democratic field operations actually spelled the difference between victory and defeat were few and far between—Connecticut, perhaps, where unpopular Governor Dan Malloy ran the most unstintingly populist (and pro-Obama) campaign in the country and narrowly prevailed. But even there, turnout was modest, at 42 percent.

Voters came out in healthier numbers in other states where the DSCC focused its resources: 49 percent in New Hampshire, nearly 70 percent in Oregon (with its mail-in balloting), and 51 percent in Minnesota. We shouldn’t read too much into those raw numbers; these states typically out-vote most others. And it wasn’t just Democrats who were getting their voters out; Republicans were making a far stronger effort than they made in 2012 to limit the Democrats’ advantages in the field.

As Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The New York Times, GOP strategists “devoured news reports about the [Bannock Street] project and scoured Federal Election Commission filings to learn as much as they could about how their rivals were structuring their turnout operations in battleground states.” The Koch brothers’ super PACs invested millions in field operations this time around, too.

Just as the skyrocketing, post–Citizens United spending on both sides has basically resulted in a partisan draw—with both parties becoming smarter about where to put their money, and when, and into what—neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to have a decisive advantage in field operations and voter technology going forward. Even when one party does best the other, a superior turnout machine can only swing an election that’s exceedingly close. In 2014, “the Republicans could have been printing their voter file list from a Commodore 64, and it would not have fundamentally changed the election,” Cecil said in the aftermath. “This was not a field election.”

The Democrats’ biggest turnout problem wasn’t so much with African Americans or Latinos. What stung the Democrats, as usual, was under-30 voters’ profound lack of interest in the proceedings—they made up 12 percent of voters in 2014, down a bit from 2012, and woeful when you consider that they make up 21 percent of the eligible voting population. Single women voted less overwhelmingly for Democrats than they did in 2012, as did Latinos. All of which means that Republicans fared marginally better among some key Democratic blocs, even as the Democrats continued to fare worse among Republican-leaning groups—particularly that biggest and baddest voting bloc of all, white people.

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Forgot to Give Democrats a Reason to Vote: Virginia’s Mark Warner, who barely survived

Beyond their super-duper turnout machine, the other Democratic edge in 2014 was going to stem from a strategy borrowed from Karl Rove’s evil-genius idea in 2004 to put same-sex marriage—then still sweepingly unpopular—on ballots in battleground states. Ballot measures would draw the Democratic faithful to the polls this year, as once they did the Republicans. This year, Democrats floated minimum-wage increases in four red states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota) and Illinois, along with background checks for guns in Washington state and a paid sick-leave mandate in Massachusetts. The measures all passed, but they did little to benefit Democratic candidates at the top of those states’ tickets. Republicans won the big races for Senate or governor in six of those seven states. In Arkansas, incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Pryor won just 39 percent of the vote, while the minimum-wage hike garnered 65 percent in favor. Clearly, plenty of Republicans said yes to higher pay while punching their ballots for the party that opposes it.

Turnout went down in other states where progressive measures had been expected to rev up more Democratic voters. In South Dakota, a successful minimum-wage initiative couldn’t prevent turnout from dropping from 62 percent in 2010 to 54 percent. And while Oregon’s 70 percent might look like powerful evidence that a marijuana-legalization measure stimulated turnout as hoped, it also represents a drop from 2010, when 72 percent of registered Oregonians mailed in their ballots.

The great lessons of 2014—drawn from the Democrats who lived to fight another day—proved to be mostly old-school and plainly commonsensical. Timid, consultant-scripted Democrats lost. Democrats who spent the campaign posturing as moderate Republicans lost. Bold, aggressively populist candidates—the few, the loud, the proud—won.

Of course, don’t try telling that to the ’90s nostalgists who continue to dictate so many Democrats’ election strategies no matter the results. Even as some of the votes were still being counted, Politico published a “Blueprint for Democratic Victory” by the high priest of triangulation, Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From. He advised his party that the way to look forward after the 2014 debacle was to look backward—to the supposed glory days of DLC hero Bill Clinton and his loyal band of Wall Street funders. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, From refused to acknowledge the reality that Clinton Democrats were approximately as popular as lepers in 2014, and that the candidates who followed his formula—which was most of them—were whipped in virtually every competitive race for Congress or governor.

Democrats’ “principal strategy this year,” From asserted, all facts to the contrary, “was a turnout strategy—to ‘fire up the base’ and turn out groups of voters—young millennials, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and women—who tend to vote Democratic. That strategy worked spectacularly in 2008 and 2012 with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Much of our campaign message was part of that strategy, directed at those Democratic constituencies. But this year, with the president not on the ballot and his approval ratings down, turnout favored the Republicans.”

Rage on, Mr. From, against the dying of the light. 

 

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