Hey, readers! I got a great question this week from one of our readers, Miles, that I’ve thought about a fair amount in recent months. Keep ’em coming, and thanks again for being Prime members!
The political thinkers I trust seem to be pushing Dems toward a 2018 campaign/message strategy focused on economic populism, healthcare, inequality, taxes, etc. That seems largely on point to me, but when Republicans push the MS-13/xenophobia narrative, Dems need a response that addresses it without turning everything into a racial/culture war and drown out the economic populism. What kind of messaging are you seeing from Dem candidates that does this effectively? The line I keep coming back to, that I’d love to see out there in every political ad, is the LBJ line, “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice that you’re picking his pocket.” In other words, something that calls out the GOP race baiting for what it is—a political ploy to distract from their primary policy goal of cutting taxes for the rich and taking away health care and other social safety net benefits from everyone else.
This is definitely something Republicans have already been doing in a number of races, with plenty more to come. So far, however, it hasn’t worked all that well for them.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, a one-time champion of immigration reform and big-tent Republicanism, was the first major candidate to attempt this playbook in the Trump era — a development I followed closely last year. Dire warnings about MS-13 and sanctuary cities, and a call to protect Confederate monuments, were central to his campaign in the hope that they would motivate GOP base voters who weren’t enamored with him. His strategy partly worked — Republican turnout was fairly strong in the election. But it didn’t matter in Democratic-leaning Virginia; he got crushed, losing by a nine-point margin as Democrats turned out in record numbers.
In that race, now-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pushed back with ads of his own blasting Gillespie’s “fear mongering” while laying out his own credentials on crime.
Okay, that strategy worked in Democratic-trending Virginia. But what about in red states?
Well, Republicans have tried the same type of fear-mongering there as well. As they grew increasingly alarmed that now-Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) was going to win a special election this past spring in a largely rural, blue-collar district Trump had carried by 20 percentage points in 2016, Republicans gave up on their attempts to make the election a referendum on 2017’s December tax cut and pivoted to attacks like this one:
Lamb fired back, effectively highlighting his work as a prosecutor and time in the Marines.
It was enough to grind out a close win — and a major upset.
The common thread: The GOP attacks proved effective at firing up GOP base voters, but it wasn’t enough to pull off a victory.
Both Lamb and Northam had the track records to push back on those attacks: They were military veterans who could assert that they were tough on crime. They successfully turned Republicans’ fear-mongering against them by using it to fire up their own base voters, who are strongly turned off by Trump-style culture war attacks.
That’s not going to be true in every Democratic race. Democrats don’t have candidates with such strong resumes in every key race (though the party does have a bevy of vets running for office this time around). Candidates, especially in red states, will have to find their own ways of pushing back. But so far, GOP fear mongering hasn’t been enough to win the day.