Lessons from Tuesday – And a Possible Democratic Strategy Going Forward

Michelle Lujan Grisham, re-elected on Nov. 6 as the second Hispanic congresswoman in US history. Photo courtesy of United States Congress.

by Zachary Mossburg

The long anticipated elections this past Tuesday brought us a divided government once again. While Republicans were able to cement their lead in the Senate, the Democrats commandingly took back the House of Representatives and won in the majority of Governor’s races. With many predicting that this election was going to be a “blue wave,” some in the media and in policy circles are voicing their dissatisfaction with the results. Let there be no doubt: the Democrats could have and should have won even more seats on Tuesday, and some losses are harder to take than others. But there is also no question that this was a huge win for Democrats. Not only will there now be an effective legislative check on President Trump and his administration’s excesses, but the results on Tuesday also gave the Democrats a blueprint to follow in the next two years.

The results on Tuesday would be more appropriately called a “blue ripple” rather than a “blue wave,” as each soaring victory was matched with a crushing loss. For each congressional seat the Democrats won in a solid red district, there was a Senate seat that flipped from blue to red, or Republican Governor winning in a deep-blue New England state. One huge takeaway from the night, however, should be that President Trump is not the political mastermind that he wants you to believe he is, and that Trumpism is not the all-powerful force he would have you think it is. There were a plethora of examples that debunked these myths. Take races in Nevada, where President Trump asked GOP Senate nominee Danny Tarkanian to step aside, run for a congressional seat in-state, and let Republican Senator Dean Heller have an easy path in the general election. Not only did Mr. Heller lose his Senate seat to Democrat Jacky Rosen by 5%, but Mr. Tarkanian lost his election as well, also to a female Democrat, Susie Lee, by 9%. Another example is a congressional seat in deep-red South Carolina. On June 12th, President Trump tweeted the following: “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!” The next day, Mrs. Arrington won her primary against Mr. Sanford, and Trump proclaimed it as a huge victory for his political style. On Tuesday, Mrs. Arrington lost SC-01 to Democrat Joe Cunningham, an African American man who won 50.7% of the vote. One more example from the deep-red state of Kansas. On August 6th, President Trump tweeted “Kris Kobach, a strong and early supporter of mine, is running for Governor of the Great State of Kansas.  He is a fantastic guy who loves his State and our Country – he will be a GREAT Governor and has my full & total Endorsement! Strong on Crime, Border & Military. VOTE TUESDAY!” Mr. Kobach is notorious for being strong on voter fraud, a phenomenon that has been proven to barely exist. Mr. Kobach has been a strong ally of Mr. Trump’s from the beginning and ran his campaign as a “Trump of Kansas” kind of figure by being extremely hardline on immigration and playing into rural America’s racial resentments. On Tuesday, Mr. Kobach lost the Governor’s race by over 4% to Democrat Laura Kelly, also a woman.

The reason I emphasized identity so much in the last paragraph is because Democrats need to start to embrace it more as well. A record number of women won this year, and the results on Tuesday show that the public is just as likely to vote for a woman as they are a man. This election cycle sent a record number of females to the House of Representatives, saw the first openly gay Governor, Jared Polis, elected in Colorado, and on top of that, New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham will become the second Hispanic woman Governor in American history.

The lesson to be gleaned here is this: people want to elect representatives that are like themselves. Jane Mayer writes in The New Yorker that Mrs. Kelly won in Kansas by ignoring “provocative bait and focus[ed] on proverbial ‘kitchen table’ issues that had nothing to do with Trump. Instead of engaging with Trumpist tropes about immigration and voter fraud, or on the issue of Trump himself, she studiously focussed on education, Medicaid expansion, and the woeful fiscal condition that the state had been left in by its unpopular former governor.” When candidates build up local movements and focus on issues that are of utmost importance to their constituents, they will more often than not win (at least in a fair election; more on this later).

This same lesson can be seen in the election of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City. As a young, progressive Latina with a working class background, many in her community saw themselves in her campaign. While she ran on a very far leftist campaign of wealth redistribution, abolishing ICE, medicare for all, and other policies from DSA’s platform, these were policies that her community were desperate for and in strong support of. Not only did she win on this seemingly radical platform, but she essentially wiped the floor with her Democratic primary challenger, Joe Crowley, who was one of the most senior and well-known Democrats in congress. Mr. Crowley started his term in the House in 1999, when Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was only 10 years old. In June, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez beat Mr. Crowley with over 57% of the vote.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory brings up another very important lesson. The Democratic party needs to abandon its centrist, corporatist ways and start relying on people’s movements: get out the vote operations, buses to the polls, grassroots organizing, and small donor networks. This is the strategy the Democrats need to rely on going forward.

The party structure is still extremely disorganized and inefficient, which is why we saw things like a Democratic gubernatorial candidate losing by double digits in deep-blue Maryland, and why numerous New England states elected or re-elected Republican Governors.  In the case of Maryland, numerous prominent state Democrats threw their own candidate under the bus in support of “moderate” Republican Larry Hogan, who has proven to not care about criminal justice reform, climate change, or returning Maryland to the top of public education in our country.

It was candidates like Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and Beto O’Rourke who really helped to show this inefficiency, and the need for a change in strategy. All three ran in red states and came closer than a Democrat has come to winning in those states in some time. Hell, we were a couple percentage points away from having a Democratic Senator in Texas! While he did not win, Mr. O’Rourke left his mark in a way no other Texas Democrat has been able to, as did all of these popular progressives running in the deep South.

The classic line parrotted by many in the corporate media arena is that the Democrats’ fault has been being too progressive, and that candidates like Mr. Gillum or Mrs. Abrams could never win in such conservative states. But this mantra does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny. First off, some of the most devastating losses for Democrats last night were centrist Senators losing in red states, such as Heidi Heitkamp losing in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill losing in Missouri. Let’s also look at Florida, where very progressive Andrew Gillum and corporatist Democrat Bill Nelson BOTH lost their bid for election. If the American populace were truly turned off by progressivism, you would not see these results. Instead, the corporatist Democrats would have potentially been able to retain their seats, and Bill Nelson would have noticeably outperformed Andrew Gillum in Florida. But this was not the case.

Further proof that the Democrats need to turn away from corporatism and embrace progressivism is that the presence of these progressive candidates and the enthusiasm behind them proved to be a boon for down-ticket Democrats and progressive initiatives. Texas saw a wild shift to blue in down-ballot contests, including the victory of 19 female African American judges in the Houston area. Another perfect example of this is Georgia’s 6th congressional district. Last year, record amounts of money were poured into a special election between centrist Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Handel eked out a victory against Ossoff, only to lose this year to Lucy McBath, a black activist whose son was murdered by gun violence and who has taken a staunch anti-gun stance. This victory, and the victory of African American judges in Houston, and the victories of all sorts of down-ballot progressive candidates, are all because of the overlapping of activist circles that were activated this election cycle. Groups that tried to help elect Stacy Abrams are the same groups that worked for the election of Lucy McBath, just as the groups who worked in Florida to try and elect Andrew Gillum are the same ones who helped pass Proposition 4 in that state. Speaking of Proposition 4, the success of progressive ballot initiatives across the country is proof that the electorate does want progressive policies; they just do not necessarily trust the Democratic party to bring about these changes. Here is a list of just some of the ballot initiatives approved on Tuesday: Proposition 4 in Florida, which restores voting rights to over 1 million felons who have served their time; Amendment 1 in Nashville, TN, which greatly increases police accountability and oversight; Question 2 in Massachusetts, which placed limits on corporations’ campaign spending; Amendment 2 in Louisiana, which threw out the Jim Crow-era practice of allowing non-unanimous juries; various ballot initiatives expanding medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah; and various ballot initiatives limiting gerrymandering in Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri.

The elections on Tuesday have offered the Democratic party and American progressives with a rough blueprint of how they can win in 2020. But there is still one massive blockade in their efforts: intentional voter suppression. In Texas, Florida, Georgia, and other (but mostly Southern) states around the country, state legislatures have made it purposefully hard to vote, especially if you are a minority. This is by design, says Adam Serwer of The Atlantic: “their implementation is part of a national GOP strategy of maintaining political control through scorched-earth culture-war campaigns that target historically disfavored minorities and the disenfranchisement of the populations whose growth and influence could challenge that control. It is a consciously counter-majoritarian strategy for a party that wants to maintain its power indefinitely, even if most of the American electorate opposes it.” As opposed to the Jim Crow era when voter suppression was more blatantly racist, this new form of voter suppression works just as well without being as obvious. This is why the losses of Stacy Abrams, Bill Nelson, and Andrew Gillum are extremely troubling. Both Florida and Georgia had reports on election day of numerous malfunctions in the voting system, including people not being able to vote or being turned away, voting machines shutting down completely, and lines as long as 5 hours in some areas. As Mr. Serwer succinctly puts it, “The future of the Republican Party relies on its ability to prevent or deter people of color from exercising the franchise.”

The Democrats need to keep this in mind when formulating a strategy for 2020. The Republican party is not going to slow down its suppression efforts, for they cannot if they wish to keep winning elections. Even with the re-enfranchisement of 1.4 million people in Florida, the victory of racist Ron DeSantis as Governor means that it is almost inevitable that not all of these people will see their franchise returned.

All this adds up to mean that the core of the Democratic strategy needs to be making voting as easy as possible. As shown by all of the progressive measures passed across the country this Tuesday, Americans are clamoring for progressive policies, and they know that progressive policies will benefit their communities. The Democrats need to resist returning to their corporatist centrism, and learn from Gillum, O’Rourke, and Abrams. All of these candidates focused their get out to vote strategy on mobilizing normally low-propensity voters who do not engage in politics, and by building a bloc of volunteers and low-dollar donors. Essentially, a grassroots movement of the people. This is what the Democratic Party needs to take away from Tuesday. The party needs candidates that are not simply anti-Trump talking figures, or charismatic leaders. The party needs organizers who can get an enthusiastic base behind them that want to see their candidate elected more than the candidate themselves. The party needs candidates to present concrete policy platforms that will actually improve their communities and are not weighed down by useless political jargon. Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke, and Stacey Abrams may have lost on Tuesday, but it was not because of anything lacking on their parts – it was due to systematic blockades that have been in place for decades, and will not crumble overnight. The Democratic party would be wise to accept these rising stars, and these truths, as the future going into 2020.

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