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Are Democrats Getting Serious About 2018?

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Are Democrats Getting Serious About 2018?

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Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect.

Democrats have one big chance for a comeback, in 2018. There’s a path to a win—a narrow one—but they could blow it.

The Republican power stranglehold is tightening. The Supreme Court is theirs, for a generation. They’ve implemented onerous voting restrictions in several states, and the new Court majority will likely let them do it in more. They’ve taken strong unions out of the equation in Wisconsin and are trying to replicate that wherever they can; they’ll surely get a big boost when the Court rules next year on Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which could decimate the most politically potent unions. They’re filling federal jobs (executive, regulatory, and judicial) with partisans and zealots.

A GOP win in 2018 comparable to 2010 and 2014 could be irreversible. That’s their intention—they’re using the power they’ve gained strategically, in order to not have to relinquish it.

Democracy, and the movements that breathe life into it, are in peril.

Electoral tests of early 2017 have given rise to several schools of thought among Democrats about how to win next year, and beyond. Proponents cite the fragments of evidence at hand—four House special elections, the Virginia primary, even the elections in Britain and France, for their cases. The focus of most of these analyses is on policy: Should candidates run to the Left or to the Center? Many issues are in controversy: single-payer health care (favored by Rob Quist but not by Jon Ossoff), abortion (Omaha Mayoral candidate Heath Mello’s position turned off pro-choice advocates), and pipelines (dividing the Virginia contestants).

One school, relying on Labour’s strong showing under Jeremy Corbyn, argues that a populist politics of the left is Democrats’ formula for winning. But that’s not only an unproven hypothesis, it’s also not been tested in a general election for president since McGovern-Nixon in 1972.

The ideal policy posture is an unknown. However, there are enough “known knowns” to sketch the path to a win.

The Republicans govern today without a popular majority because they had and held Congress, but Democrats can’t push them out with less than a majority. Ours is a two-party system; in the contest for the nation’s fundamental direction, third parties are irrelevant. David Koch figured that out after getting a million votes on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, and has been spending his vast resources ever since on making the GOP win, and serve his interests. That’s exactly what Democrats need to do.

A narrow majority is insufficient. Narrow wins for president don’t yield majorities in Congress; likewise, the coattails of statewide winners in close races don’t tip legislatures. To win statewide—whether for governor, U.S. Senate, or presidential electors, campaigns tend to follow an efficiency rule: maximize base vote (which for Democrats is highly concentrated geographically), and pursue swing vote selectively.

To take power, to win legislative branch majorities, both state and federal, Democrats have to compete successfully outside their geographic strongholds.

The GOP saw its opportunities at the state level, and funded the Republican Governors Association and, for down-ballot, the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project through the first decade of this century. While national Democrats left state campaigns to fend for themselves in 2010, the RGA and RSLC invested big, and won big. Led by Scott Walker, Reince Priebus, and Ed Gillespie, they ushered in a new era of ruthless right-wing government. Funders like Art Pope in North Carolina and Rex Sinquefield in Missouri kept pushing the limits of the possible further to the right, as have Governors Bruce Rauner in Illinois, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Matt Bevin in Kentucky, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in Texas. As has, now, the Trump administration.

Democrats can rely on few checks and balances to constrain these forceful adversaries, though when compared with their efforts in the early days of the Reagan presidency, the Democrats have been remarkably united and disciplined in resisting Trump’s initiatives. Resistance doesn’t naturally evolve into a majority, however; the pendulum hasn’t swung back in Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. It requires a plan.

Party primaries are supposed to nominate the stronger candidate—inherently stronger, or stronger as a result of the experience. Not always—Republicans nominated Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Sharron Angle in Nevada, costing them three winnable seats and the chance to take back the Senate in the wave election of 2010.

Republicans repeated that mistake in 2012, nominating Todd Akin in Missouri. But they learned their lesson, and applied it in 2014. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell was primaried by the Tea Party’s Matt Bevin, who ran a bitterly personal campaign, giving Democrats confidence that their nominee, Alison Lundergan Grimes, could beat McConnell in the general. But the Tea Party voters came home. McConnell won by 15.4 percent and took over as Majority Leader. (He returned the favor in 2015, when Bevin won the primary for governor, stoking Democrats’ hopes for their candidate, Steve Conway, who led in the polls from July through October, until the GOP voter base came home.)

Party unity is largely up to the supporters of primary losers. If they stay home, cross over, or vote third party, as many unhappy Republicans did in the those lost Senate races, they doom the nominee.

The lesson applies with equal force to centrist Democrats and left Democrats. Neither tendency is large enough to win general elections if the other stays home. Richard Nixon benefited in 1968 from anti-war voters refusing to vote for Hubert Humphrey and in 1972 from centrists refusing to vote for George McGovern.

Every primary battle raises the unity challenge anew. On gubernatorial primary night in Virginia last month, GOP neo-Confederate loser Corey Stewart said “there is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’” But Democratic loser Tom Perriello tweeted “Congratulations to Ralph Northam. Let’s go win this thing—united.”

Republicans have tried to live by Ronald Reagan’s “eleventh commandment”—Thou Shalt not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican.

It’s a good principle, but it doesn’t go far enough to create victories. Democrats need their own commandment—Thou Shalt Support the Primary Winner. Not just a Big Tent; a battalion in which each wing does its part.

Trump wouldn’t be president if Republicans hadn’t closed ranks. They were clear about the opportunities for their own agendas afforded by a win, and the dangers of a loss.

The key to such victories is the parties. Rather than build up and rely on party structures, many prefer to invest in independent entities, like Americans for Prosperity on the right, and a host of organizations on the left. On the Democratic side, there are both the outgrowths of presidential campaigns (Organizing for America, Our Revolution) and independent expenditure entities based on constituencies with particular issue agendas.

These have undeniable benefits, both for the sponsors and for the party’s candidates. But the case for effective parties stands on its own. It resides in the mechanics of elections.

Just as Trump benefited from the instinctual unity of the Republican base, he also got a great boost from the operational improvements Priebus had built up in the Republican National Committee, like a sophisticated social media operation and a modern voter file. In contrast, the Clinton campaign didn’t (or couldn’t) rely on the DNC, in part because President Obama never made building a strong DNC a priority.

A well-run and well-resourced party is the means by which campaigns can build on what’s come before them rather than start from scratch.

There are many populations that can be targeted in the Democrats’ quest for voters who didn’t vote for Clinton; all of them, whether “base” or “swing,” require a persuasion strategy. A campaign that relies only on mobilization is unlikely to succeed.

But persuasion strategies rarely pay off quickly. Effective persuasion programs require organizing. And organizing success depends on credibility and consistency. These rules apply equally to strategies for driving a wedge into the opposition’s base, for attracting unaligned, disillusioned voters, and for engaging low-intensity or low-information base voters.

In other words, persuasion isn’t just about message. Getting the message right may be the least of it. It’s about messengers: For every dollar devoted to focus groups aimed at refining the message, Democrats need to invest 25 in organizing.

Many populations have been identified, post-election, for messaging and organizing work to expand the Democratic vote. The Prospect has filled a volume focused on the white working class. The DCCC has focused on rural, small-town, and exurban voters. Priorities USA has examined both drop-off voters and Obama-Trump voters. Seniors, Republican moderates, and disillusioned independents are also worthy of consideration. The search for the right message, and the debate about the implications of this year’s electoral tests, is as much about how to motivate likely Democrats who didn’t vote as about bringing back those who strayed to the other side. In fact, an argument is often made that the same economic message will work for both.

But Democrats lack credibility on economics. That became painfully obvious last November when Trump, with all his baggage, won the credibility battle on economics. But the Democrats’ problem is also that they have lost much of the infrastructure through which they once delivered an economic message, and worldview. In too much of America, the union hall is closed or quiet, the broadcast news comes from Fox or Sinclair, the ministers don’t preach the social gospel, the high school grads with liberal ideas have moved away, and people’s social media news feeds convey a completely different reality from that which liberals see.

As it is not known which constituencies will be responsive to Democratic organizing and persuasion, and can’t be known until it’s attempted, Democrats are obliged to explore each and every opportunity. That is an expensive proposition. Electoral campaigns won’t do it; they have to follow the rule of efficiency. The party could, but lacks the resources. Therefore, the responsibility falls to the independent non-party organizations.  Their tactical strengths will be tested as they find and measure which potential voters respond to which messages, and reinforce whatever seems likely to pay off in the 2018 cycle, without cutting off efforts that have the potential to pay off over a longer time frame.

There’s a path back to winning. People fight hardest when defending their families, their property, and the things they believe in and believed they could count on. Millions of Americans, alarmed by the havoc that many years of right-wing rule would wreak, are signing up for the battles ahead. The other side may have more money, but it no longer has more intensity and more activists. It may even have less unity.

David vanquished Goliath. Guerrillas have defeated conventional armies. Underdogs who prevail do it through two methods: strategically, by exploiting weaknesses and contradictions of their enemy, and by reliance on sources of strength other than the obvious, material forces (money and numbers). Those non-material forces include morale, discipline, training, experience, focus, and unity.

Despite all its advantages, today’s powerful right could be tomorrow’s losers.

Americans will have to endure many blows along the way. Republicans’ preponderance of power is so great that we shouldn’t expect repetitions of the blundering rollout of the Affordable Care Act repeal.

But the strength of the resistance runs deep: millions demonstrating on January 21, thousands at multiple town halls and airport protests. That intensity, if combined with unity, discipline, and the other “non-material” forces, will create other strengths. It can generate so many funds that the usual Republican financial advantage can be greatly diminished.

By naming itself the “resistance,” the opposition has chosen a powerfully motivating brand. It has the flavors of determination, selflessness, and moral superiority, like Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. But it doesn’t translate smoothly to the electoral challenge of 2018. For one thing, it’s only attractive to those who weren’t for Trump before. Its primary focus is the president himself, secondarily the defensive battles against the administration’s initiatives, and only remotely about governors or state legislatures.

To win in 2018, Democrats will need to re-focus the energy they’ve shown fighting Trump on state and congressional politics. Republicans will fund their campaigns lavishly. They’ll have control of the electoral apparatus in most states and counties. They’ll be enforcing post-Shelby voter-ID laws and other restrictions.

Governorships are the most important opportunities. Statewide races can’t be gerrymandered, and every Democratic gain loosens the GOP power stranglehold.

The narrow path to a robust majority requires unity, a well-run and well-resourced party, organizing and messaging that reaches and engages the voters who weren’t there in 2016, and the re-focused energies of the resistance.

With a few exceptions, the key 2018 elections will be in states and districts where base-vote mobilization isn’t sufficient to provide a win. Some of the candidates will be leftist Democrats, some will not. They all have to win. Democrats need to campaign for them all, and raise money for them all, as if our lives depended on it.

They do.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.
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27 Comments

  1. FireBaron July 8, 2017

    Unfortunately, whenever given the chance, the Democratic Party has always proven their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    Reply
    1. kep July 9, 2017

      Just keep doing what you have been doing. It’s what is best for America. Never another liberal in power. All seditious liberals should be deemed terrorists and deportrd or jailed.

      Reply
      1. A. D. Reed July 9, 2017

        You would love living in Turkey or Russia. You’re not welcome here, however, not in MY USA under MY Constitution.

        Reply
        1. kep July 9, 2017

          This IS MY COUNTRY. It’s seditious commie liberals that need to leave. You don’t deserve to be in America. Go back to your Mother Russia.

          Reply
          1. A. D. Reed July 9, 2017

            Shows that you haven’t the foggiest idea of what our Founding Fathers fought and died for. There is nothing seditious about political identity, despite what Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and other red-baiting Republicans have tried to do over the past 75 years. And it won’t work under your masters Trump and Sessions, either.

            We are a free nation, where everyone has the right to express his or her views without fear of being deemed terrorists by right-wing whacko nut-jobs who don’t believe in the rule of law and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

            So sad that you bow down to VoldeTrump, Kep.

            Reply
          2. kep July 9, 2017

            Seems to be liberals that are calling for a civil war. It is liberals that are rioting, looting, killing police officers. America does not need to have those trying to distroy her, residing here. You “people” should just get the hell out of MY country.

            Reply
          3. Bill P July 9, 2017

            No it’s not your country it belongs to all of us who were born and live along with those who moved here and still live here. I was born here, went to school here, served in the military here, married here and raised my children here. You or any of you right wing babbling twits have any right to tell me or anyone else to leave this country. You low information twits need to crawl back under the rocks you came from. As for liberals starting a civil war you have a memory problem. There have been a number of incidents where the police have been ambushed by those ever grave gun toting who don’t believe in the true meaning of this country. Was Timothy McVeigh a liberal, not in your wildest dreams.

            Reply
          4. kep July 11, 2017

            First thing to remember when dealing with liberals is that they do nothing but lie, so everything you say is suspect. It is doubtful you were ever born in Ametica, and extremely doubtful you were in any American military. There is no loyal American that has ever served that would be as seditious or traitorous enough to embrace the liberals doctrine of distroying America. You disgrace all veterns by just claiming you were in the American military. If you were in service, it was most likely for Putin in the Russian Army.

            Reply
          5. Bill P July 11, 2017

            Well coming from a lying babbling twit like you your comment is based on nothing. You are correct I wasn’t born in “Ametica” however I was born in America. Your totally inaccurate comment of “extremely doubtful you were in any American military. There is no loyal American that has ever served that would be as seditious or traitorous enough to embrace the liberals doctrine of distroying America. You disgrace all veterns by just claiming you were in the American military.” is a lie that seems to forget about people Like John Kerry who not only served but was awarded a Silver Star Medal or Tammy Duckworth who served in Iraq where she was wounded resulting in the loss parts of both legs. Here is a short list of military veterans who are Democrats Wesley Clark, Jimmy Carter, Bob Kerrey, Max Cleland, Jim Webb and more. What you believe is totally irrelevant since you never offer proof of your ignorant comments. The only disgrace to Veterans not “veterns” is you and your baseless claims.

            Reply
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      Reply
  2. dtgraham July 8, 2017

    In whatever direction that the Dems choose to rethink things, they need to seriously think about a different direction because what they’ve been doing since 1994 clearly hasn’t been working overall, with the exception of the odd victory here and there.

    Reminds me of an old Seinfeld episode called ‘the opposite’ where Jerry says to George, “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right”. The Dems may want to try the opposite. George later tries it and walks up to a pretty girl that he wouldn’t have before, and after some initial small talk says… “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” It worked. She’s attracted to him and wants to date him.

    Maybe the Democrats could try a version of that. They could knock on red state doors in the future and say… “Hi, we’re definitely center-left progressive liberals who are here to help you rebuild your shattered Republican-supporting lives.”

    What the hell. Give it a shot. What have they got to lose at this point? What are they clinging to?

    Reply
    1. Dapper Dan July 9, 2017

      Guns and their religion ?

      Reply
      1. dtgraham July 9, 2017

        lol. I think that’s the red staters who cling to that. We cling to lattes and health care.

        Reply
    2. TZToronto July 9, 2017

      First, Democrats have to stop being principled. Principle means sticking to one’s beliefs. Many progressives refused to vote for Hillary Clinton out of principle–their guy was the only candidate they would support. For them, Hillary Clinton was worse than Donald Trump because she beat their guy for the nomination. Republicans, on the other hand, are much more pragmatic. If they can’t get their guy, they’ll support anyone who isn’t a liberal if it comes down to that. For them, a centrist Republican, a RINO, is better than anyone who might be associated with liberals–like a Democrat. In short, Democrats need to drop principles and look to the goal, which is to rip control of the federal government from people who are still fighting the Civil War, who revere traitors and cry when monuments to them are removed, who have a documented history of racial discrimination, who are xenophobes, who would deny women the right to control their own bodies, who see science as a fake, liberal conspiracy, and who want to run other people’s lives according to the often-contradictory rules supposedly written by an old man with a long, white beard who lives in the sky.

      Reply
      1. dtgraham July 9, 2017

        I’m not entirely convinced at all that Hillary lost because of left wing principles. I haven’t checked in a while, but I seem to recall Gary Johnston and the Libertarians getting about twice the support last November than the Green party did. Libertarians tend to theoretically take votes away from Republicans and Greens theoretically take them away from Democrats. There were Republicans who couldn’t stomach Trump and voted Libertarian, and in larger numbers than Democrats to Green. So there’s that.

        I think one must also remember that Bernie Sanders was a very unique Democratic Presidential candidate. He got people involved that had never been involved before because the Democratic party just didn’t inspire them. Those are the kind of people who would vote for Jill Stein normally IF they voted at all. So, were those really Democratic voters who stayed home last November or voted Green? I would argue that they were phantom Democrats who were really just Bernie Sanders voters, and Bernie alone. Voters who had never shown up for any other Democratic candidate in the past, and are not likely to in the future. You can’t expect people on either the far right or left to chuck every principle and belief that they have, and do their solemn duty for a party that they don’t really believe in.

        I think we both know that if there were only two parties (or two viable parties) in Canada tomorrow, the Liberals couldn’t count on every former New Democrat and Greenie suddenly showing up to the polls and voting Liberal. There are still significant differences. Less these days with Trudeau, but still…

        Reply
  3. Dominick Vila July 9, 2017

    Historic political trends, and the bizarre behavior and statements made routinely by Donald Trump, would suggest substantial Democratic gains in 2018. Unfortunately, the opposite is likely to happen. The DNC has proven, time and again, that it is incapable of capitalizing on the weaknesses of the opposition, and worst of all, it continues to focus on an agenda that mainstream Americans either reject or ignore. We either change our narrative, and find new blood to run the party and run against GOP candidates on their own turf, or the Democratic party is likely to be relegated to an irrelevant minority party for many years to come. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few young candidates here and there, there are no signs the DNC has learned anything from the debacles we have endured during the last two decades. We simply don’t have a message that appeals to mainstream Americans, don’t have charismatic candidates, and don’t seem to have anyone of stature running the party.

    Reply
    1. dbtheonly July 9, 2017

      GM Dom,

      Do you run the risk of trying to run “liberal” candidates, with each defeat being chalked up to the candidate “not being liberal enough”?

      Isn’t that part of the point of the article, that the quest for the perfect message is equivalent to the Quest for the Holy Grail? There is no perfect message.

      I don’t recall George McGovern as being extremely leftist. I do recall pissing off a number of centerists. But McGovern himself was not as radical as portrayed by Nixon.

      Reply
  4. Dapper Dan July 9, 2017

    One would think the Democrats will make some major inroads next year. Even moderate republicans are dismayed by the radical direction their party has taken. If the GOP does the unthinkable and solidifies their majority this will end the America we know and love. It’s already being reshaped by Russia and believe me the freedoms we’ve always assumed we’ll have for the remainder of our days will be gone forever. I always thought it was Country before party not the other way around

    Reply
    1. Eleanore Whitaker July 9, 2017

      Wake up Dan. How do you make inroads when the CIA reported an increase in the number of Russian spies who were allowed by the Trump White House to enter the US? You trust them not to hack future elections?

      According to several election experts, the Russian hackers were only 18 months away from being able to hack into voting machines.

      Reply
      1. kep July 9, 2017

        You are a Russian spy. What are YOU doing in America? Oh, you aren’t, are you?

        Reply
        1. Eleanore Whitaker July 10, 2017

          Nice Try Russian troll…We all know the “K” in your name stands for “Kreng” …the Russian for carcass of a whale.

          I can prove whom “I” am..you don’t dare prove who you are. That’s how I know you are paid by Putin and Lard Ass to get onto these threads where NO ONE WANTS you.

          Why else hang onto social media sites you know you are only here to try and Putinize? After all, there are plenty of sites Putin has PAID for like Patriot News and others. Now take your Russian ass and get the hell out of our country.

          We are about to get rid of the Lard Ass Traitor in Chief. He has shown what a coward POS he really is when he takes Putin’s side, Putin the assassin of 41 journalists in Russia over less than half a decade. Putin the asshat who has Traitor Boy in Chief in the palm of his hand.

          NO We will NOT make deals the an enemy of the US. Traitors do that. Trump is going down and when we are done with him, you lying traitor bastards are next.

          Reply
          1. kep July 10, 2017

            Lol. I can always count on you to be entertaining. Stupid, nasty, vile, but entertaining. You know everything you say is a lie, yet you continue to embarass yourself by spouting the most absurd things. If there are any traitors, and there are, ut is liberals that want to distroy America with their failed vision of a liberal utopia. If anyone is getting rounded up, it will be liberal terrorists. I cant wait to see your name listed as those arrested for sedition. I’ll help to that end as much as I can, Elie.

            Reply
      2. Dapper Dan July 9, 2017

        Regrettably I am awake and that’s why I said one would think. It was more of a hope that we can turn things around but I’m quickly losing hope we will. Of course Russia wants to bring the United States down the way we helped orchestrate the demise of the former Soviet Union. To this day Putin is very vocal and angry at our part in their collapse and is now returning the favor. It’s payback time and him sticking us with Trump is a shot thru the heart of our democracy

        Reply
  5. Eleanore Whitaker July 9, 2017

    I love how the right loves to try and downgrade the efforts of the Dem Party. Does the sit in on the floor of Congress by angry Dems in the House and Senate sound like they are NOT serious?

    The reality is that Trump’s travel ban had a secondary purpose: Trump total control over allowing more Russians into the US to spy and to undo our 2018 and 2020 election. Why else would both Pence and Trump be seeking “campaign donations” 7 months into their so called “election” to office.

    What is most dangerous now is that Korbach is demanding the White House have access to our voter information and history going back 10 years. Over my dead body!

    First of all, the White House knows it cannot just take any voter information that isn’t already public. That’s the law. So what they hell does the White House want that much voter information for without any guidelines as to how they will protect the security of that information?

    You know why Trump wants that information. Or more aptly, why Putin wants it. Trump claims there has been 5 million fraudulent votes. Korbach’s own state won’t turn over that information and has a record of ONLY 6 votes that appear to be illegal. Count ’em SIX. And so the rest of us have to worry that the last 4 digits of our SS numbers the White House is asking for won’t end up some where on the streets of a 3rd world country where it buys months worth of food?

    Reply
  6. jabber1 July 9, 2017

    Based on past records and continued support of republican-light economic policies, the democrats will continue to lose election after election until they are nothing but a footnote in history.

    Reply
    1. dtgraham July 9, 2017

      I hear you jabber. I know what you’re saying, but when there are only two parties, I don’t think either one is ever going away for good. The Dems will eventually have their day again if they can ever overcome gerrymandering. The question is, what will they do with it?

      Reply

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