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A Conor Lamb supporter cheers during Lamb’s election night victory rally in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on March 14, 2018.
A Conor Lamb supporter cheers during Lamb’s election night victory rally in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on March 14, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Democrats are running to the middle to win the midterms

The left is fired up, but Democrats are still relying on centrists in the 2018 campaign.

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Democratic success in the 2018 midterms hinges significantly on candidates who don’t run on Medicare-for-all or abolishing ICE — the best hope the party has of taking back Congress is if a lot of center-left candidates win.

Amid Trump ramping up rhetoric about dangerous criminals streaming over the Mexican border, Democrats are relying on moderate candidates to carry them to victory in many of the most competitive races in the 2018 midterms.

Ken Harbaugh is a military veteran running in Ohio’s deep-red Seventh Congressional District against Republican Bob Gibbs. Though Gibbs has held the seat for more than a decade, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics recently slid the race from Safe Republican into the Likely Republican category based on Harbaugh’s strong fundraising and profile. Harbaugh is far from a lefty, but he was probably the Democratic Party’s only shot to take this solidly red district that Trump won by 30 points.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, (R-Oh.) (center), with Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) and Rep. Tim Griffin, (R-Ar.) on the Senate steps of the Capitol before a partial government shutdown on September 29, 2013.
Cliff Owen/AP

Democrats are trading ideological purity for electoral viability in many campaigns — much more so than the Republican Party, which seems to be sliding further and further to the right. A plurality of Republican voters now describe themselves as “very” conservative.

It’s true that in 2018, more progressive candidates are running and winning primaries than ever before. But they are still just one faction of the party. Though much of the party’s base is fired up about left-wing policies, many of its candidates are busy trying to reach across the aisle.

The raw numbers show moderate strength in 2018’s House elections

To win the House this year, Democrats need to win on Republican terrain. Cook Political Report rates 113 races as potentially competitive in 2018; of those, 100 of them are held by Republicans. Democrats need to flip at least 24.

If you look just at the Republican-held toss-up races, they are almost all in districts that should be favorable ground for the GOP. Cook, which rates districts based on how much more Republican or Democratic they are than the country as a whole, classifies most of the districts as somewhere between R+2 and R+10. But Democrats also have their eyes on Lean Republican districts — which are even stronger Republican-leaning. Ohio’s Seventh, where Harbaugh is running, is R+12. These are seats where Republicans have a built-in advantage.

In the most competitive House races, particularly in districts that lean toward Republicans, researchers at the Brookings Institution ran the numbers and concluded that Democrats are relying more on moderate candidates in those districts over self-identified progressives.

Brookings Institution

“The steady success of establishment candidates calls into question whether the Democrats are being pulled to the left,” researchers Elaine Kamarck and Alexander Podkul wrote.

A different data set points to the same conclusion: In the 69 most competitive House districts, only 15 Democratic candidates have endorsed Medicare-for-all, the policy pillar of the left’s enthusiasm, according to an analysis by Forbes-Tate, a DC-based lobbying firm. At the same time, more than half expressed their support for Obamacare’s protections for preexisting conditions, the research found.

You can also see it in the tenor of the campaigns. Harbaugh, again, is telling. The Democratic candidate in Ohio’s Seventh launched his campaign focusing on his personal narrative about his military service and the founding of Team Rubicon, a veterans group that helps respond to natural disasters. He promised to put “country over party” if he makes it to Congress. He’s focused on protecting preexisting conditions, the economy, and Social Security — not the newer policy ideas animating the left.

Harbaugh is also one of a number of notable Democratic candidates who have suggested they wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for House speaker if elected. While the progressive wing of the party has its frustrations with its current leadership, most of the candidates who have distanced themselves from Democratic leadership in Washington are running in Republican-leaning districts in Arkansas, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. (Pelosi’s team is confident that winning candidates will come around and support her, and she has indicated she would serve as a “transitional” leader.)

Conor Lamb paved the road for that playbook in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District this spring, where he triumphed in a rural district that Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

The move could wind up being nothing more than a campaign gesture once January 2019 rolls around. But it’s one Democrats are betting can win help them win back the House; several of the candidates who suggested they wouldn’t back Pelosi, including Harbaugh have still been identified by national Democrats as premium pickup opportunities.

The path to a Democratic Senate is also through centrists

If centrists are important to the Democratic chances of winning the House, they will be absolutely essential if the party is to defy the odds and take over the Senate too.

In Indiana, the home of Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Joe Donnelly is relentlessly hammering his bipartisan credentials. He voted to fund Trump’s border wall, he reminds voters, but he also voted to protect the Affordable Care Act.

His campaign regularly sends out press releases designed to convince whoever is reading that Donnelly is a base-bucking Democrat with wide support from Republicans because he’s willing to split with his party. “Joe further proves his effective leadership in the Senate as his 50th bipartisan legislative proposal is signed into law by President Trump,” one representative email reads.

Donnelly made the metaphorical split literal in an unforgettable campaign ad that shows him chopping wood while bragging about voting to fund Trump’s border wall and bucking the left by supporting increased military spending.

The polling is incredibly tight, but Donnelly led his Republican opponent, state legislator Mike Braun, by 2 points in a recent Marist poll. Going into Election Day, he is looking like the slight favorite, a somewhat shocking outcome, after his somewhat fluky 2012 win against a candidate who said pregnancy from rape was “something God intended to happen.”

His crossover appeal seems to be working: Donnelly was pulling 54 percent of independents, 61 percent of moderates, and 41 percent of white non-college graduates in the Marist poll — a rather respectable showing with a group that still largely likes Trump.

Donnelly is just one vulnerable center-left Democrat up for reelection this year:

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) ran a recent radio spot that says, “Claire’s not one of those crazy Democrats. She works right in the middle and finds compromise.”
  • Sen. Joe Manchin was the only Democrat to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (though he wasn’t the deciding vote) and looks like he looks like nearly a lock for reelection going into Election Day.
  • Sen. Joe Tester, a throwback populist and Montana farmer, has seen his race tighten recently but remained the favorite throughout the year thanks to the blue-collar personal brand he’s built back home.
  • Democrats have an unexpected chance to win a Senate seat in Tennessee thanks to the state’s lingering fondness for moderate ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who cut Medicaid as governor and who says he would have voted for Kavanaugh’s confirmation if he had been in the Senate.
  • Democratic nominee Kyrsten Sinema is playing to the middle for retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat — in spite of some well-documented flirtations with the left — in her Senate campaign against Republican Martha McSally. She’s highlighted that she voted with Trump 60 percent of the time, one of the highest rankings among House Democrats.

The ideological future of the Democratic Party is murkier than it seems

The centrist drift of Democratic candidates this year may simply reflect Democratic voters.

According to the Brooking researchers, 32 percent of Democratic primary voters identified as moderate and another 34 percent said they were “somewhat” liberal, versus 26 percent who said they were “very liberal.” Another 8 percent of Democrats said they were either somewhat or very conservative.

Brookings Institution

None of this minimizes the left’s successes in 2018. More candidates than ever before identified as progressive and endorsed previously fringe ideas like single-payer health care. Progressive Democrats next year will be further to the left than any recent caucus before it.

Democratic socialist superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is quickly becoming the face of the Democratic Party: younger, more diverse, and more progressive. Populist incumbents in Ohio and Wisconsin look set to cruise to reelection in states Trump won. Black progressives Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, running for governor in Georgia and Florida, are two of 2018’s biggest breakout stars.

The left looks to be as strong as it’s been in decades heading into the 2020 presidential campaign. But the Democratic Party is still a broad coalition.

The slate of moderates who have a serious chance of winning prove it. And the priority for Democratic voters right now is just winning. The party base does seem willing to go further left than its leaders or its candidates. I met Democratic volunteers in Columbus, Ohio, who said they supported Medicare-for-all and abolishing ICE.

But they were still enthusiastic about voting for the moderate Democrat in their race, Danny O’Connor.

Yet if the country is so polarized, all this bipartisan posturing and hedging to the middle still might not be enough. North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is polling hopelessly behind Republican Kevin Cramer, despite her strong moderate credentials and her opponent’s habit of sticking his foot in his mouth. If Heitkamp loses and shamelessly progressive Beto O’Rourke wins in Texas, Democrats will have to reevaluate the conventional wisdom that only moderates can win in red states.

But in the meantime, Democrats have bet on the big tent. They are betting they can be the party of Joe Donnelly and Elizabeth Warren, of Conor Lamb and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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