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A top Clinton aide believes Democrats’ best hope still lies with wealthy suburbanites

Call it the “Panera theory” of the 2018 midterms.

Democratic Candidate For Georgia's 6th District Leading In Polls On Election Day Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 2016, Democrats lost Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District by 24 points. In Tuesday’s special election, Democrat Jon Ossoff came in first place and captured 48 percent of vote in the district — not the 50-point victory he needed to avoid a two-way runoff this summer, but still a huge improvement in the wealthy Atlanta suburb.

Top Democratic strategist Brian Fallon thinks Ossoff’s strong showing is a sign of the kind of Republican House seat that the party has the best chance to flip. Hillary Clinton’s press secretary during the presidential campaign, Fallon even coined a term for the strategy, arguing that Democrats’ path to the House “runs through the Panera Breads of America” in districts like Ossoff’s:

Fallon’s argument is that the most winnable districts for House Democrats are those that largely fit the profile of the Georgia Sixth — suburban, affluent, and full of voters who may be traditionally Republican but who voted against Donald Trump this fall. (Clinton only lost Ossoff’s district by one point.)

“There’s no doubt in where you start in forming the target list — it will be those 23 districts that switched from [Mitt] Romney to Clinton that look a lot, demographically, like the one in Georgia tonight,” Fallon, now serving as a senior adviser to the Priorities USA Super PAC, said in an interview.

Left-wing critics and Bernie Sanders supporters have argued that this is the wrong way to view the Democratic Party’s main pickup opportunities. To them, Jim Thompson’s stunning 24-point improvement of Democrats’ results in Kansas’s Fourth Congressional District — a campaign that, unlike Ossoff’s, received no help from national Democrats — suggests the party can start winning immediately in white working-class districts, if they’re willing to embrace their populist soul.

That’s not how Fallon framed the party’s choices. A lightly edited transcript of our phone interview on Tuesday night follows.

Jeff Stein

I wanted to ask you to explain the thinking behind something you tweeted tonight, which was that Jon Ossoff showed Democrats would win back the House through the “Panera Breads of America.”

Brian Fallon

Well, it may be an inexact shorthand — I haven’t done a study to try to locate the Paneras in the country and the correlation that may exist versus another chain in the 23 districts that went from Romney to Clinton.

From a presidential election standpoint, we have to compete for all different swaths of voters — from white working-class voters in the Upper Midwest that we lost in 2016 to better motivating base voters where we saw a drop-off in 2016.

But the one trend we did see in 2016 was that concern about Trump’s temperament and fitness to be president of the United States enabled the Democrat to peel off a lot of Republican-leaning voters in suburban districts that went for Mitt Romney in large numbers in 2012, but [that] either went to Hillary Clinton or in which Trump vastly underperformed Romney.

The result of that trend was 23 House districts that are today represented by a Republican member of Congress but that Hillary Clinton won. It’s districts like the Virginia 10, where Barbara Comstock is. A couple in California, like Orange County. A couple in Pennsylvania, and a few in Florida and in Texas, like Will Hurd and Pete Sessions’s districts.

Jeff Stein

The thing with that is that Democrats in Kansas outperformed Clinton by something like 20 points, and yet Ossoff didn’t appear to do that much better than Clinton did in the district.

How do you account for Democrats’ huge overperformance in the Kansas Fourth, which is much more heavily white working-class? Why shouldn’t Democrats view these working-class districts as their best opportunities?

Brian Fallon

Trump’s nearly 40 percent approval is, on the one hand, historically low. But the other way of looking at it is that it’s surprisingly sticky — he’s shown a lot of resilience with those core Trump supporters. These are working-class voters who supported him and are still unwilling to tell pollsters they regret their choice.

We have to, over the next two to four years, message to those voters who are economic-minded voters who thought his success in the business world would translate.

But on the 2018 timetable, most of those districts, like in Georgia’s Sixth tonight, many of those districts that Hillary Clinton won or are even more attainable than the Georgia Sixth — those voters are already disillusioned with Trump or are already saying that they disapprove of his job performance.

While I suspect the results from Kansas and in Georgia tonight will spawn a great recruiting wave in seats all across this country, there’s no doubt in where you start in forming the target list — it will be those 23 districts that switched from Romney to Clinton that look a lot, demographically, like the one in Georgia tonight.

Jeff Stein

The criticism leveled against Clinton by the left was that pursuing these moderate, affluent suburban voters is in some ways incompatible with clearly defining the party as fighting on behalf of the poor and working class of this country — that pursuing these moderate Republican voters, even if some of them were more likely to support Clinton in 2016, is not the party’s long-term answer.

Brian Fallon

Look, the Montana special election [where a Bernie Sanders–style candidate named Rob Quist is launching an insurgent bid] is a race that is completely outside the trend I’m describing — and I think it’s a race people should be paying attention to, too. The nature of the Trump backlash is that there will be opportunities everywhere. In Montana, it’s completely prairie-style populism, totally different [from] what we saw in the Georgia Sixth.

I’m not saying it’s exclusively through suburban districts that went [from] Romney to Clinton. But if in November 2018, we have succeeded in taking back the House, a lot of those 23 will probably have been among those that flipped.

These are very localized House races that are happening. A Democrat running in the Virginia 10th District will be seeking to appeal to voters in suburban Loudoun County, but a Montana Democrat will appeal to voters who are completely different.

I don’t think it’s either-or. We should be competing everywhere and fielding candidates who are natural fits for their district.

What you’re talking about is a national election in four years — by that time, I totally agree with you that whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will have to have a message that resonates on economic issues, and they still might benefit from the backlash among suburban, Republican-leaning voters toward Trump. To win a state back like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan — yes, they’ll absolutely have to fit the profile you’re describing.

Jeff Stein

But why wait until the presidential election? It seems like there’s a bit of self-fulfilling logic going on here: “Clinton ran for these voters, then Clinton did better in these seats, and therefore these are now also the most winnable seats for other Democrats.”

Brian Fallon

The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] will invest in a wide swath of races, but the list begins with races where the Republican House members are in Democratic-behaving districts as of the 2016 election.

I don’t think Clinton ran an either-or style campaign, and I don’t think Democrats should either. My point is that if you have districts that have voted Republican in each of the last consecutive cycles, versus districts where they voted Democrat in the most recent election — those will be on the top of any Charlie Cook or Dave Wasserman list of Republicans who are most vulnerable. It’s a point about how handicappers will size up the vulnerability of relative incumbent Republicans.

The observation is not about how a Democrat running in a Romney-Clinton district should behave. It’s about how much the Republican-registered voters in those districts loathe Trump. You could have a very populist-sounding candidate running in one of these 23 House districts — and they’d be a very viable candidate. I think standing up to Trump is enough to be able to ride that anti-Trump fervor that exists among those suburban district voters.