Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Garfld986/Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I think Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is on the wrong track. He may do an excellent job of figuring out what House Democrats did wrong in 2016, but by all indications he’s making a miscalculation about how to approach the future.

His basic insight after doing an extensive review is that the Democrats are doing worse in areas where they have traditionally won and winning in areas where they have traditionally lost.

“We can win where we used to struggle and we’re struggling a bit where we used to win,” Maloney said in an hour-long interview here at the Democratic policy retreat, on the eve of a 90-minute presentation he made Thursday afternoon.

He means that there are House districts that Democrats have competed in, or even represented for a long time, that have moved so sharply away from Democrats that they need to reassess whether to compete there ever again. Yet there is also an emerging set of districts that have long been held by Republicans that are now bending toward Democrats faster than even the most optimistic strategists envisioned.

You know which seats have moved against the Democrats. They’re rural and they’re monolithically white. They also are more conservatively and culturally religious than average.

The seats where the Democrats are newly competitive are suburban.

In private they admit they realized too late that Trump was speeding up the shift of well-educated suburbanites toward the Democrats, leaving too many Republicans facing inferior opponents last year in what should have been competitive races.

The takeaway seems to be that the Democrats should help this process along by giving up on more rural seats and making stronger efforts on candidate recruitment in suburban seats.

But this trend has been a calamity for Democratic hopes of winning back control of the House of Representatives. It has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of winning state legislatures. And it’s even been failing on the statewide level, which can be seen not only from Trump’s rural-driven wins in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, but also in the fact that the GOP has recently won governors races in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, Maryland, and all the aforementioned Midwestern states. Other than a surprise win in Louisiana, the Democrats have made no corresponding gubernatorial inroads into red country.

The Democrats need to win in rural areas. Period.

But they won’t if they push the accelerator on a realignment that heavily disfavors them.

What’s also discouraging is that so many Democrats frame the question this way:

The question neither Maloney nor [DCCC chairman, Rep. Ben Ray] Lujan (D-N.M.) will answer is if they should recruit moderate to conservative candidates to compete in rural districts or just abandon them altogether.

They may not answer that question but I can tell which they’re leaning by the way they see the 2016 elections as a story about misappropriating resources. Salvation won’t come from abandoning old Democratic districts or in recruiting “moderate to conservative candidates,” whatever that means. It will come from defining a clear economic program that convinces these once-Democratic voters that the party (or, at least the candidate) is on their side.

Abandoning these voters and these districts is basically abandoning all hope that the left will ever recover in this country.

It is the worst lesson possible to learn from the 2016 fiasco.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at