In July of 2016, Senator Chuck Schumer made a statement that will go down as one of the greatest political miscalculations in modern history: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
This strategy undergirded every decision of the doomed Clinton campaign, from ignoring the white working class in her Rust Belt firewall, to chasing suburban Republican women in Missouri and the South. It is a strategy that establishment Democratic operatives continue to pursue to this day.
That same strategy may well have cost Democrats a House seat in last night’s special elections, where Democrat Jon Ossoff underperformed expectations in a loss in Georgia’s 6th district, while the more ideologically aggressive Democrat Archie Parnell dramatically overperformed expectations in a loss in South Carolina’s 5th.
The two districts in play last night that could not have better mirrored the dilemma facing Democrats over whether to pursue Trump-averse Republican suburban voters, or working class whites and Obama-Trump switchers. Georgia’s 6th District is full of the former: a traditionally heavy Republican district, it veered away from Donald Trump because its residents are less attuned to Trump’s economic populism and—it was believed—his appeals to bigotry. These are the very voters Clinton and Schumer salivated over, and the national Democratic Party pushed very hard for the seat, spending upwards of $5 million.
South Carolina’s 5th district is much more rural and hardscrabble, and was much more favorable to Trump. Establishment Democrats mostly ignored the race, spending no money there.
In GA-06, Jon Ossoff ran a deliberately anti-ideological campaign. Centrist think tank Third Way bragged that Ossoff used a “centrist message aimed at attracting disillusioned Republican voters.” South Carolina’s Parnell, despite his Goldman Sachs background, ran a much more hard-charging campaign of Democratic values.
In the end, Steve Kornacki told the tale, referencing not only Parnell’s surprisingly strong showing, but also the strong performances of other populist Democrats around the country.
The lesson of the special elections around the country is clear: Democratic House candidates can dramatically outperform Clinton in deep red rural areas by running ideological, populist campaigns rooted in progressive areas. Poorer working class voters who pulled the lever for Trump can be swayed back to the left in surprisingly large numbers—perhaps not enough to win in places like Kansas, Montana and South Carolina, but certainly in other more welcoming climes. Nor is there a need to subvert Democratic principles of social justice in order to accomplish this: none of the Democrats who overperformed Clinton’s numbers in these districts curried favor with bigots in order to accomplish it.
But candidates like Clinton and Ossoff who try to run inoffensive and anti-ideological campaigns in an attempt to win over supposedly sensible, wealthier, bourgeois suburban David-Brooks-reading Republican Romney voters will find that they lose by surprisingly wide margins. There is no Democrat so seemingly non-partisan that Romney Republicans will be tempted to cross the aisle in enough numbers to make a difference.
The way forward for Democrats lies to the left, and with the working classes. It lies with a firm ideological commitment to progressive values, and in winning back the Obama voters Democrats lost to Trump in 2016 without giving ground on commitments to social justice. It does not lie in the wealthy suburbs that voted for Romney over Obama in 2012, or in ideological self-effacement on core economic concerns.