COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Democrat has a good shot at winning in a special election Tuesday in an Ohio congressional district surrounding Columbus that hasn’t elected a Democrat since the 1980s. But as different kinds of Democrats across the country are picking up steam in unexpected places, this win could look a lot more like Conor Lamb’s than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s.
Danny O’Connor, the Democrat on the ballot Tuesday, doesn’t support any of the newly popular ideas within the Democratic Party — Medicare-for-all, abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and tuition-free college. He says outright, “We need to fight for capitalism.” He describes himself as a pragmatist from deep-red rural Ohio and is even engaged to a Republican.
He dismisses “Medicare-for-all” specifically as a slogan focus-grouped in Washington, DC. “Right now, people want to take away health care,” O’Connor said. “I have an opponent who wants to take away Medicaid expansion.”
He’s also on the growing list of Democratic candidates (25 or so) who say they won’t back Nancy Pelosi as leader of the party.
O’Connor is running against Republican Troy Balderson to replace retiring Rep. Patrick Tiberi in Ohio’s wealthiest congressional district. So far, polling has the race in a dead heat, and Donald Trump was campaigning for Balderson the weekend before the special election, in a sign of GOP concerns about the race.
The Democrats I talked to here are feeling confident about the upcoming election. They’re also more receptive to the left’s new ideas than O’Connor is.
There was wide support among the dozen or so Democrats I talked to for Medicare-for-all. And 81-year-old Barbara Grunwell didn’t even hesitate when I asked about abolishing ICE. “Oh, absolutely.” But most of the Democrats I talked to didn’t mind that they were further to the left than O’Connor. They just want to win now.
To do that, the bet the party is making across the country in districts like this one is to run more candidates like O’Connor — moderate, inoffensive, vying for crossover voters in historically GOP districts. But if voters across the country are swinging further to the left, or if stalwart Republicans just can’t be budged, that may just be a bad wager.
How Ohio Democrats really feel about socialism
The Columbus area is so representative of America that retailers will test-run new concepts here. In central Ohio, Democrats who cared enough to vote early in a special election were open to the party’s leftward turn — expressing support for single-payer health care and abolishing ICE and a free college education for every American.
Eileen, a 32-year-old schoolteacher, is excited to see that the Democratic Socialists of America, who are enjoying new relevance after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary victory in the Bronx, have a bigger voice in the party.
“I think democratic socialists have really thoughtful ideas and a party that’s gaining a seat at the bigger seat of the table,” she said. Eileen said when she heard “Abolish ICE,” she didn’t take it literally — and she did appreciate the value of a simple and aspirational message.
“I think the core issue with ‘Abolish ICE’ — it’s not so much about really abolishing ICE because a lot of people don’t have a full understanding of what it is, what it does,” she said. “What we really want is people being treated humanely. It’s a way of simplifying an idea that a lot of people support.”
Chuck Stringham put it a little more succinctly. “We have to look for the answers that will attract the millennials. They’re a lot more idealistic than a lot of us old farts.”
Medicare-for-all, the left’s marquee issue and a proposal (or at least a slogan) that has the support of nearly two-thirds of Americans, was maybe even more popular with the Ohioans I interviewed. One man outside the Franklin County board of elections was totally on board. America couldn’t pass a Canada-like single-payer system fast enough for him.
Sieglinde Martin, who has lived in Columbus for 50 years since she immigrated from Germany, laughed off claims that single-payer health care would be scary socialism. “It’s compassion to your neighbor,” she said.
Danny O’Connor is moderate, like a lot of candidates running in districts Democrats want to target
O’Connor, at 32, was elected the Franklin County Recorder in 2016, and worked in the county prosecutor’s office and then at a private law firm before that. He talks proudly about a program he started that keeps track of homeless people’s paperwork, making it easier for them to apply for government assistance.
He grew up in Shelby County, in Western Ohio, what is now dark-red Jim Jordan country. Next year, he is marrying a Republican, a fianceé he actually met a political event, and has the endorsement of the traditionally conservative Columbus Dispatch.
“I think people want someone who’s focused on actually solving problems instead of going to the partisan corners,” he said. “We run into so many Republicans who are voting for me. People aren’t as partisan as some people want them to be.”
Even if he’s skeptical of single-payer, O’Connor talks a lot about expanding access to health care. In his campaign office, almost every sign adorning the walls is about stopping the GOP war on Medicaid or protecting the Affordable Care Act. His mom is a cancer survivor, and he is focused on protecting preexisting conditions. Balderson, the Republican in the race, opposed Ohio’s Medicaid expansion and is running on repealing Obamacare.
O’Connor’s own ideas for expanding health care are allowing insurance sales across state lines (something you usually hear about from Republicans; policy experts don’t think would really make much of a difference) and realigning open enrollment around tax season to get more people signed up under Obamacare (a worthwhile if incremental policy).
“I haven’t seen a [single-payer] proposal that’s gonna move the needle, whether it’s budgetarily or coverage-wise,” he said. “I think voters here are more focused on protecting their access now, not the political jargon and all these catchphrases that have been poll-tested and are proposed by people in Washington, DC — which is what that is.”
He also scoffs at the Abolish ICE push. “No one’s mentioned ICE to me at a door or in a cafe. It just does not happen,” O’Connor said. “I don’t support abolishing ICE. ... Oversimplifying things is not going to solve our immigration problem.”
But where O’Connor differs from moderate Democrats of the past — and from Republican now — is he refuses to entertain cuts to Social Security and Medicare; his campaign ads hit Balderson over GOP proposals to do so. He’s proud of his F-rating from the National Rifle Association.
But all of O’Connor’s moderation may not earn as many Republicans as he’d like. “I’m not looking for Danny to be a quasi-Republican,” said conservative Bill Smart, who likes some of Trump’s policies even if he doesn’t always like Trump. “Danny might be a nice guy, but he’s a Democrat.”
A postponed reckoning for democratic socialists and centrist pragmatists
O’Connor has a good shot winning, both Tuesday and in November. If he does, he could be joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Conor Lamb and Kara Eastman. O’Connor uses the old cliche that the Democratic Party can be “a big tent.” A freshman class that includes him and Ocasio-Cortez would certainly put that proposition to the test.
They differ on a lot of the new things, but there are some bedrocks of unqualified unity for the party: Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct. The new tax law favors corporations over the middle class. Gun control is an issue to take more seriously.
In the long term, Democrats who think health care is a human right and therefore nothing less than Medicare-for-all single-payer is acceptable may have to find common ground with those like O’Connor, who hear a focus-grouped slogan and believe in the free market.
But those debates feel far away today. For now, Democrats know they just need to win.
“It seems silly to pretend at this point that there’s a lot of nuance” between Democrats and Republicans, Eileen, the teacher, told me. “There’s not.”