If Joe Biden wants to fulfill the promise of a Joe Biden presidency, Democrats need to take control of the Senate. So it was notable that the Democratic National Convention found time for everyone from Hillary Clinton to Andrew Yang to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to John Kasich to speak, but almost none for Democrats running to flip Republican Senate seats.
That’s probably for the best given the overall tenor of the convention.
Democrats who have won in Republican territory in recent years pitch messages that emphasize popular policies, like better health care, job creation, and raising the minimum wage, while deemphasizing race, immigration, gender, and other cultural values.
Biden himself has stumped for this type of candidate and tends to practice a moderate style of politics. The convention certainly took the time to display Republican speakers vouching personally for his character, but it mostly highlighted ideas that resonate with Democrats’ base in large, diverse urban areas.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, the vice presidential nominee who is clearly being positioned as the future of the party, situated herself in the tradition of “women like Mary Church Terrell and Mary McCleod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash, Constance Baker Motley and Shirley Chisholm” while further name-checking her mother, who “raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.”
Red-state Democrats don’t talk like this — a contrast that’s about political style and points of rhetorical emphasis, rather than policy. To pick up marginal voters who are typically white and not college-educated, they zero in relentlessly on the idea that they are bringing concrete, material assistance to people in need rather than their candidacy being an avatar of cultural or demographic change.
And if Biden wants to deliver on his promise that “we’ll not only build it back, we’ll build it back better,” he’s going to need wins for red-state Democrats. Building requires Congress. And while Trump’s flailing response to the pandemic has made a Biden victory clearly the more likely scenario, there’s a real risk that complacency and ideological self-satisfaction could cost Democrats their shot at the congressional majority they need.
The Senate map is bad
To secure a majority in the Senate, Democrats need to pick up three seats on net.
Sara Gideon of Maine, who did speak at the convention, was the exception that proves the rule. She’s in the unusual position of getting to run in a clearly blue state, but faced with the obstacle that her opponent, Susan Collins, is a widely popular moderate Republican. In Gideon’s case, that path to victory is rallying the Democratic faithful, polarizing the election, and letting the fact that Maine voted Democratic in the last seven presidential elections carry her to victory.
Democrats also need John Hickenlooper to win in Colorado, where a similar strategy should work.
But getting the third seat is trickier. The most likely pickup is Arizona, a right-of-center state where FiveThirtyEight says Biden has a 56 percent chance of winning, in part because his national lead is so large.
The bigger problem is that Democrats currently hold a Senate seat in Alabama, and this time around, Doug Jones doesn’t have the luxury of running against Roy Moore.
If Jones loses, Democrats need to make up for it with a win in North Carolina (where they give Trump a 51 percent chance of winning), Georgia (Trump 67 percent), Texas (Trump 74 percent), or else the very red state of Montana (Trump 88 percent), where Democrats have a strong candidate in incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock and a track record of winning statewide despite poor performance in presidential races. This is not impossible. But it’s not a gimme even in a very favorable national political climate.
The current state of the race gives Biden a large lead over Trump, but not large enough to be favored in enough states to be confident of a Senate majority. Either Biden needs to expand his appeal to more right-of-center voters or Democratic Senate candidates need to separate themselves from the national party brand in order to appeal to more right-of-center voters.
Rank-and-file Democrats are not right-of-center voters. Neither are Democratic Party donors. Nor are the kinds of people who staff Democratic Party campaigns, congressional offices, or para-party nonprofit institutions. Nor, for that matter, are the kinds of people who write about politics on the internet.
In their hearts, they don’t want to cater to right-of-center voters’ preferences and sensibilities, in part because they feel it’s unfair that they should have to. And it really is unfair! Polling averages suggest that North Carolina, the Senate tipping-point state, is about 7 points to the right of the country. The Senate badly underrepresents nonwhite citizens and overrepresents white voters without a college degree.
The racial bias of the US Senate is by some margin the clearest and most significant example of “structural racism” in American life: Nonwhite people’s views and interests simply don’t count as much as white people’s. And the gap is large — so large that, according to Data for Progress co-founder Colin McAuliffe’s math, even making DC and Puerto Rico into states would not fully equalize the racial representation gap.
That in turn creates two problems. One is that to remediate the structural racism of the Senate, you need to win a majority first. The other is that precisely because the structural racism is present, talking about “structural racism” on the trail is probably not a good way to win the marginal seats that Democrats need in order to govern. If they want a role model for how to win difficult Senate races in right-of-center states that overrepresent non-college-educated white people, Democrats should pay attention to the brief speech delivered by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), one of the few speakers at the convention who’s actually done it.
The wisdom of Tammy Baldwin
My colleague German Lopez hailed Baldwin’s speech as an example of why she was seriously considered for a VP roles, striking “many of the themes Democrats have tried to highlight throughout the convention.”
Her central theme was health care policy, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the interplay between the two — a sober political analysis driven by the fact that surveys say the virus is voters’ No. 1 concern and that health care is the policy issue where voters trust the Democratic Party over the GOP by the largest margin.
But what’s also interesting about Baldwin’s speech is what she didn’t say.
Unlike Kamala Harris, who spoke at some length on the historic nature of a Black woman and the child of immigrants on a national ticket, Baldwin didn’t mention anything about her own path-breaking career. She’s the first openly gay person elected to the United States Senate, and at the time she won her House seat, she was the first openly gay woman to serve there.
The Democratic Party base — by which I mean not necessarily the most left-wing people in the country but the people most personally invested in the party — cares, a lot, about this kind of thing. It is a key reason Harris was selected and in turn a key reason her selection has been such a fundraising hit.
But Baldwin wins in a modestly right-of-center state that has a disproportionately large number of non-college-educated white voters by downplaying these kinds of concerns. Not by throwing LGBTQ people — or racial minorities or any other significant demographic group — under the bus on policy, where she has a solidly left-wing record, but by choosing to emphasize issues like health care where the Democratic Party is very broadly popular and by running goofy ads about her service to the Wisconsin dairy industry.
A national convention serves many purposes, and it’s no surprise that Democrats at times veered off the strict logic of election-winning. But, to some extent, the party needs to choose between whether it wants to emphasize the message that maximizes its odds of being able to govern in 2021 or emphasize the message that most appeals to its partisans.
Campaign to win
The opposite of Baldwin’s speech, more or less, was the entire third day of the convention, which opened with a paean to gun control activists, moved on to the virtues of immigration, took a detour into Barack Obama warning that American democracy itself will perish if Trump wins reelection, and concluded with Harris warning that “there’s no vaccine for racism; we have to do the work.”
These are all important issues. (I have a book coming out next month that’s largely about the virtues of immigration.) They very much speak to things that motivate Democratic Party loyalists to be Democrats. Gun control, immigration, and anti-racism are not what wins over non-college-educated white swing voters in the Midwest.
But they also don’t appear to be what matters most to marginal Black and Latino voters. Democrats would do well to listen to Chuck Rocha, who led Bernie Sanders’s incredibly successful Hispanic outreach. He says “an anti-Trump message is useful — after all, the president is a disaster for Latinos — but Latinos don’t know what a Biden administration would mean for their families. We need to tell them how Mr. Biden’s recently announced Latino agenda would inject their small businesses with capital, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and eliminate the minimum tipped wage, which would greatly benefit Latino restaurant workers.”
Hispanic voters are US citizens. And like everyone else, they want to know how politicians are going to improve their lives in concrete ways. An August Latino Decisions poll found that the top issues for Hispanic voters are the coronavirus, health care costs, and jobs, while Equis Research’s message testing found that talking about “plans to expand access to health care, tackle climate change, and finally make it possible for any American to get their college degree without plunging into years of debt” outperformed one that framed Biden as a leader on DACA and an opponent of “immoral practices that separate families and keep kids in cages.”
After John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential election, Democrats vowed to stop losing elections over gun control issues. In 2006 and 2008, it worked. But when the Sandy Hook mass shooting happened in the wake of Obama’s reelection, they decided enough was enough and they had to do something.
But reinjecting the issue into national politics didn’t lead to any national policy change. Even though many individual gun control measures poll well, the truth is that in a high-level choice over what’s more important to voters in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota — to say nothing of North Carolina, Montana, Georgia, or West Virginia — choose protecting gun rights.
It’s also telling that despite the popularity of background checks and the extremism of the NRA, the Republicans have a 5-point advantage in the polls as the party better situated to address gun policy.
Which is just to say that Democrats know perfectly well in their calmer moments that even if they do really well in 2020, they aren’t going to eliminate the filibuster and then get Joe Manchin and Jon Tester to agree to back sweeping new gun regulations.
Democratic Party professionals want to talk about gun regulation at their convention because it’s something they, personally, care a lot about (the fact that major donor Mike Bloomberg also cares a lot doesn’t hurt), which is a legitimate reason to talk about it. But if you want to do things, you need to win the election, secure a Senate majority, and then fill the executive branch and judiciary with appointees who will quietly accomplish what can be accomplished in a world where the prospects for legislative action are bleak.
If democracy is at stake, act like it
To anyone who has watched the arc of Obama’s five Democratic National Convention speeches, there was something striking about his Wednesday night address. The values he espouses have stayed rock solid since the Boston speech that made him a political superstar. But “hope and change” were incredibly absent from his address from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Instead, Obama was alarming, warning that if Trump gets reelected, we’ll see a world where “democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.”
He said that solving America’s big problems would take time and take work, “but any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election.”
And I think he means it. The administration’s habit of weaponizing law enforcement and the regulatory state against Trump’s perceived critics and enemies isn’t going to get better if he’s reelected. But taking that idea seriously means a bit more than scolding non-voters about the importance of making a plan to vote. It means taking seriously the fact that there are lots of people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. And many then flipped back to support down-ballot Democrats in 2018. There are many Montanans who voted for Trump in 2016 and on that very same day helped Bullock win his reelection race as governor, and those voters’ choice this November could very well decide the balance of power in the Senate.
Catering to the views and priorities of people who don’t see the obvious awfulness of Trump and who exercise undeserved power thanks to unearned privilege is a bitter pill to swallow. But if democracy really is at stake, then the only reasonable course of action is to act like it and campaign a bit more like Tammy Baldwin and a bit less the way that comes most naturally to Democrats.
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