Democrats need someone in ‘the Ojeda lane’

Surrounded by investigations, dogged by an approval rating that hasn’t climbed out of the 40s, and facing 2020 with a majority of voters who prefer someone else in the White House, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification MORE still might be reelected. How? Because in the places that matter most — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — the Democratic Party brand is trash. Condescending, out of touch, coastal. When you ask voters what they think about the party, many will tell you in different ways that they don’t see themselves in it.

And that’s why, when you look at the research, voters who support Democratic policy positions on most but not all issues tend to vote Republican. If they aren’t with us on both social and economic issues, they don’t feel like they fit, and they go elsewhere. This isn’t an issue of where you fall on an ideological left-right spectrum; it’s an issue of culture. And it’s the biggest thing standing between Democrats and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

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So how do we overcome it?  

I served as an adviser to retired Army Maj. Richard Ojeda’s promising but short-lived presidential campaign. Working with Ojeda, a former state senator from West Virginia, starting with his congressional race and continuing into his presidential run, I saw something remarkable. A lot of people who didn’t agree with his positions on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and Trump, voted for Ojeda anyway. It’s the  opposite of what typically happens with Democrats. Though he lost the general election, in the end Ojeda achieved the largest partisan shift in the country, moving his congressional district more than 36 points from Republican to Democrat.

The key to Ojeda’s success was culture. He had a lot of leftist positions but he looked, sounded and acted like where he was from. When people saw him, their first read often was: “This guy’s like me.”

I saw the same thing with J.D. Scholten, a fifth-generation Iowa farm boy who nearly achieved the impossible feat of unseating Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Like Ojeda, Scholten pulled off one of the largest partisan shifts in the country, in large part because he came across as an acceptable hyperlocal alternative to a congressman in office since 2003.

Scholten liked to say that the average member of Congress was a millionaire and that he was about a million dollars shy of being in the club. He didn’t need a D.C. consultant to tell him how to talk to his community. He knew without a poll that monopolies were a bigger issue for farmers than trade, and he knew that he needed to show up and look people in the eye and make the case in his soft-spoken Iowan way. He also knew that people in his district didn’t like King’s offensive statements and that King was off on international junkets, rather than serving on the Ag conference committee or holding local town hall meetings. And Scholten wasn’t afraid to invite Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton O'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina MORE (I-Vt.) into the district to campaign with him.

Now, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about democratic socialism and the Green New Deal and progressive, leftist economics and whether Democrats are going to get pushed “too far left.” This concern largely is misplaced. These populist economic positions are popular. What is not popular is being lectured about morality by someone with a lot of money and a fancy degree from a part of the country that feels like it may as well be another planet.

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I always chuckled when I read news coverage of Ojeda that described him as “moderate.” Indeed, he did appeal to more conservative Democrats, the type who have been drifting away from the party. But it wasn’t because he was moderate. (The man called for requiring all public servants to donate their net wealth over $1 million to charity, for goodness sake.) No, it was because he had a gun and a West Virginia accent and knew what it was like to have to check your bank balance before withdrawing cash from an ATM.

We may not like it, but the reality is that although the message matters, the messenger matters even more.

Just to be clear, this isn’t code for “we need to run a white guy.” In fact, if we are talking about the real American working class, it is majority female and disproportionately people of color. 

Now we’re building a huge field of presidential contenders. Someone jumps in every week, it seems. But as of today, what I call “the Ojeda lane” is wide open. Ojeda dropped out mostly because he lacked name identification, and the challenges of getting initial donors on board. But the lane for the gun-toting, working-class, FDR union-radical lefty is wide open — and it’s a great lane. The field is waiting for someone who can embrace the economic policies of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezPlaying the Green New Deal numbers game Ocasio-Cortez calls out elite Stuyvesant High School for admitting only 7 black students Personal responsibility is not enough to fix climate change MORE (D-N.Y.) with a regional accent that roots them in, say, Georgia rather than Norway. Someone who can fire a weapon with confidence, and talk credibly about gun reform without freaking people out that you’re coming for their guns.

In a time when the Democratic Party — the party that is supposed to be fighting for the working class — has become associated with creative class elites, we need a candidate who is living the economic reality of working-class Americans. Not only could such a candidate win the primary and then beat Trump, he or she could start to pull rural and urban voters back together again. Such a person, in other words, could just save America … and the world.  

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.