Congress Blog

Democrats should not expect a blue wave in mid-term elections

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Democrats are dreaming if they expect a Democratic blue wave in the 2018 mid-term elections to carry them to majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. 

Democratic leaders live in an anti-Trump bubble and obsess about Trump's misbehavior. They believe most voters share their dismay about Trump's outrageous conduct and thus won't vote for his Republican candidates in the upcoming elections.

They believe Democratic candidates can stress anti-Trump sentiments, expound on socially progressive ideas and identity politics, brand themselves as strong Democrats and win elections. Party leaders are badly mistaken. All politics is local. A winning candidate needs a local focus.

Two recent congressional races illustrate the two paths that Democrat candidates can take. Jon Ossoff ran in a conservative district in Georgia and lost. His campaign did not reflect local issues and values. The campaign stressed opposition to Trump, identity politics, and progressive cultural positions that bumped-up against politically and socially conservative outlooks. 

In Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb ran and won in a conservative, working class district that had given Trump a 20-point margin in 2016. His campaign focused on local issues, concerns and values. He stressed the economic wellbeing of his district and promised to fight to protect coal-miner worker pensions, Social Security and Medicare.

The Ossoff- style and campaign narrative reflected the new Democrat - the one who abandoned the working and middle class in favor of the young, affluent, diverse, well educated, and successful in the new digital economy.  While this may be the majority of the future, today it is reflective only of the West Coast and the Northeast that have prospered in the high-tech economy. 

Elections throughout the 50 states will be won by focusing on the working and middle class and by proposing ideas that appeal locally, especially in districts and states that traditionally have supported Republicans.

Republicans are in an advantageous position to keep their majority in the Senate.  In the midterm elections, they will be defending eight seats. Democrats will defend 26.  Nevada is the one vulnerable Republican Senate seat. The Democrats, on the other hand, have several Senate seats that are in jeopardy in conservative states that supported Trump and other Republicans. These include Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnnelly in Indiana, and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. 

If Republicans want to win, they should nominate popular, mainstream candidates.

In the House, the Republicans are more vulnerable and could lose their majority -- despite their substantial gerrymandering advantage. Many Republican House members are retiring, and open seats are more likely to be successfully challenged by the opposition party. If Democrats want to win, they will have to run Conor Lamb-style candidates.

To win in the mid-terms, Democrats need to leave the anti-Trump bubble and conviction that a new majority of young, millennial, affluent, diverse and socially progressive voters will magically emerge in red states. Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama was a gift to the Democratic Party. He was discredited and lost. Nevertheless, Democrats should not expect many such gifts. 

Instead, Democrats must reconnect with the middle- and working-class voters.  They can do this with a broad inclusive message coupled with stress on individual state and congressional district concerns.

Polling on the generic ballot, indicating which party voters would support in a congressional election, show the Democratic Party ahead by 4 percent. This is down from 12 percent and means a more difficult path for Democrats to overcome the advantage Republicans have in Congress.

With the exception of the reelection of Barak Obama in 2012, Democrats have done poorly over the last four election cycles. To break the pattern requires letting go of their flawed and often demeaning attitude about working-class and red state voters.  They need to address voters with understanding and appreciation of their concerns and values. And they need to remember all politics is local. 

Joshua Sandman, Ph.D. is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven, where he has studied the presidency and Congressional politics for 50 years.