Democrats should stop agonizing over a national message for 2018

Democrats should stop agonizing over a national message for 2018
© Greg Nash

Approaching the six-month mark before the congressional midterm elections, pundits and activists continue to fulminate over when Democrats will unveil their message. In cable television studios, Capitol Hill offices and New York City cocktail parties, the message seems to be that there’s no message. Or that there’s no message other than the three R’s: Russia, Russia, Russia.

Meanwhile, the electoral battlefield has expanded to more than 60 competitive districts that are likely to shift, be toss-ups, or lean in one direction or the other. Republicans are currently defending more than 50 of those districts, in places that are rural red and suburban purple. The close special election in Arizona’s heavily Republican 8th district may further expand the battlefield into red districts.

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When the math is so strong for Democrats, the message becomes problematic. How do you design a national war cry that stretches across the entire electoral battlefield but also fits snugly into districts as diverse as coastal suburban and heartland rural?

You don’t. What sounds pitch perfect in Miami, Florida, may be out of tune in Miami County, Kansas. Which is exactly why Democrats should stop agonizing over what to say and heed former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s mantra: “All politics is local.”

There are examples of message success for Democrats. Steve Bullock of Montana, one of only two Democratic governors to win Trump states, appealed to crossover voters by highlighting his opponent’s position on access to fishing in streams. That’s not exactly dinnertime conversation in New York’s 11th district, which includes Staten Island and Brooklyn, unless one wants to fish in the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal.

Or consider my former colleague, Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonDemocrats should stop agonizing over a national message for 2018 House Republicans reserve millions in early air time Path to Dem majority lies in well-educated districts MORE (D-Minn.). I remember him flying his own plane to meet with constituents in a sprawling Minnesota district carried by Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJuan Williams: Trump gives life to the left Kennedy retirement rumors shift into overdrive Pompeo to outline post-deal strategy on Iran MORE. Peterson’s message was standing up for family farmers. In the Long Island district I once represented, we stand up in the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s.

That’s not to say that House Democrats can win midterm elections with their mouths closed and their fingers pointing at Trump. They’ll need to give swing voters in swing districts something to vote for, not just someone to vote against. Yet, an effective message must be not only local but well-timed. The one energizing principle that currently unites the Democrats in diverse districts is opposition to Trump.

Why force a template that will pull Democrats to their frequent state of disagreement? Why put out a message in May that the Koch brothers, gun manufacturers and Trump’s own super PAC can attack for the next six months? Democrats don’t need to build the message platform from which they’ll be hanged, then shot at and stabbed by Republicans.

This isn’t about lip service. It’s not about making a point but about picking up seats. We have a moral imperative to save our country from a Republican midterm victory that vindicates Trump and chastens the few GOP moderates who are left, in both senses of the word.

The only way to take back the House is taking back red-leaning districts in the exurbs of New York, suburbs of Philadelphia and Denver, in sprawling Orange County, California, and in Republican bell-weather electorates in Michigan, Ohio and Florida. Messaging in those media markets must be finely targeted to land on receptive ears. Instead of putting words in people’s mouths, let candidates speak to their hearts.

Some of my progressive friends reject my argument, insisting that Democrats must define who we are. They say we need a soul, and if there are election districts in heaven, maybe so. But in the gritty media markets that will make a House majority, Democrats need a win.

That was the path to the majority in 2006. It worked then and will work now. With so much at stake, Democrats should put aside the pressure for a “one size fits all” message. Except this: Just win. Then we’ll talk.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelWe can change the trend of fatal shootings by voting in November Dems step up efforts to avoid California primary shutouts The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump makes history with foreign policy decisions MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. His latest novel, “Big Guns,” was published by Simon & Schuster in April. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.