Next year’s midterm elections could help answer a major question dividing Democrats: Should they focus more on winning back Obama-Trump voters, or lean hard into traditional Republican voters who went for Clinton last election?
The Trump era has injected new urgency in the years-old party fight about whether Democrats should focus on regaining the ground they’ve lost in older, whiter, less educated and more rural areas or push to boost their numbers in the diversifying, largely suburban areas that have been trending their way.
The bad news for Democrats: They need to improve significantly in both places to win back any real power in Washington. The good news: The next election will test both theories, with House and Senate strategists facing nearly opposite approaches.
‘Weird Accident Of History’
The competitive Senate map is tilted heavily towards more rural, less educated, poorer, whiter states this election cycle, where Democrats were a dying breed through the Obama era. On the flip side, many of House Democrats’ best targets are in traditionally Republican districts where well-educated white voters abandoned Trump in droves, and where fast-growing minority communities are quickly changing the landscape.
“We’re just in this weird accident of history,” said Democratic strategist John Hagner, who is working on both House and Senate races this cycle. “The party isn’t choosing to fight these type of seats, the map is giving them to us. We have no choice.”
The underlying ideological question that drives much of the current party split is whether Democrats should stress cultural or economic liberalism to get back to power — and how much to stomach moderates on those issues.
The Bernie Sanders wing of the party wants a much heavier emphasis on a populist economic agenda, and many downscale Democrats agree, with an emphasis on trade and other pocketbook issues and avoiding the hot-button social fault lines that have hurt them in those places for decades.
Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), all facing reelection, sound more like their party when they’re talking about Social Security and health care than the NRA or immigration.
So far, Democrats have focused more on the economic message this cycle — as evidenced by their “better deal” slogan.
But people in wealthier, better educated, more diverse and urban parts of the country are especially livid at Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, his hesitance to condemn white supremacists, his ditching the Paris climate accords, his threats to pull transgender soldiers out of the military, and the GOP’s attempts to defund Planned Parenthood — not to mention Russia.
Senate Democrats need to run up their numbers with the former group, while House Democrats plan to emphasize the latter, largely out of necessity.
Even with Trump’s plunging numbers, Democrats still need a lot of things to break the right way to overcome a maxed-out Senate map with few targets and a heavily gerrymandered House map.
House Dems Can Sprawl Into Suburbia On Social Issues
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has ranked 29 Republican-held House seats that Democrats have at least a decent chance of winning — either pure tossups or races that lean Republican.
In more than two-thirds of those seats (20 of 29), a higher percentage of people have a college degree than the national average of 30.6 percent, with many of the targeted districts well above that figure, according to Census data analyzed by TPM. Many are in the Sun Belt suburbs, like Reps. Darrel Issa (R-CA), Pete Sessions (R-TX) and the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
Republicans only hold 41 seats that are more diverse than the national average, a tiny fraction of their 240-seat majority. Ten of those are top Democratic targets, including 6 of the 17 GOP-held seats that are at least one-third Hispanic.
Eighteen of these 29 districts have fewer people 65 or older than the national average of 15.2 percent.
The most important driver of all: Clinton carried 18 of these 29 seats last fall, and Trump was held below 50 percent in all but three of them. Democrats need to net 24 seats next fall to take back the House.
“Out of necessity we are competing hard in the 23 districts that Hillary Clinton carried as well as districts where President Trump did well,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law told TPM. “Clearly, there are many highly educated suburban areas that have become more diverse, more Democratic, and where voters are disillusioned with today’s Republican Party.”
Senate Dems Stake Their Fate On Populism
The Senate, where Democrats are mostly playing defense, is a very different picture.
There are a dozen Senate seats in play at this point: A pair of GOP-held seats in Arizona and Nevada and 10 Democrat-held seats in states Trump won.
Those states are mostly less diverse, less educated and older than the nation as a whole.
In all 12 of those states, fewer people have a college degree than the national average.
Nine of the 12 are whiter than the national average — and in all nine of those at least 75 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, compared to the national share of 61.3 percent. Nine of the twelve states also have more than the average number of senior citizens.
In 11 of the 12 states, Clinton underperformed Obama, and in five (Indiana, Missouri, Montana North Dakota and West Virginia) she won less than 40 percent of the vote.
On issues like trade and Social Security, Democrats often sound more like Trump than Clinton in those places.
“Taking a populist view of the issues and making sure you’re sticking up for Main Street, that works,” said one Senate Democratic strategist. “Trump joined the fight that Senate Democrats on many issues had been working on for a long time. The way he talks about trade and outsourcing is the cleanest cut example of that.”
‘All Of The Above’
Democratic strategists all argue they need to push hard to win both types of places — and that issues like Obamacare repeal help them across the country. Democrats are already up with ads hammering Republicans for trying to charge people more for insurance while giving tax cuts to the rich.
But they say party loyalists and major donors must embrace diversity of opinions, especially after heated intra-party fights about whether the Democratic establishment should back candidates who oppose abortion rights.
“Anyone who says we can focus only on Romney-Clinton seats or only on Obama-Trump seats hasn’t looked at the 2018 landscape. We have to push on both,” said Jesse Ferguson, an alum of the Clinton campaign and House race veteran. “An all-of-the-above approach is going to mean that there will be candidates on both economic issues and on social issues who may not agree with the party platform all the time. And we have to be comfortable with that.”
Democrats are cautiously optimistic about early returns.
While they’re still smarting over an expensive loss in an upscale open Georgia House seat and a missed opportunity to seriously contest an open seat in populist Montana, there have been signs of a shift towards Democrats, especially in more rural populist areas — like a big special election win in an Iowa statehouse seat last week that Trump had carried by 20 points.
For now, Democrats are taking an all-of-the-above approach. But if money gets tight near next year’s election, it will be telling to see which type of terrain they spend more heavily on.
“There’s been this huge bounce back in some of the battleground rural areas,” said Hagner. “Right now the answer is invest in all of them, get the best candidates you get in all of them. Next year it’ll be an interesting question of which of them are better targets.”