Red State Voters Approve Democratic Policies While Rejecting Their Candidates

Current discussions about whether or not the 2018 midterms can be classified as a blue wave tend to focus exclusively on the candidates who were elected. But it is interesting to note what happened with ballot initiatives—especially in red states.

  • Medicaid expansion was approved in Utah, Nebraska and Idaho.
  • Raising the minimum wage was approved in Arkansas and Missouri.
  • Medical marijuana was approved in Utah.
  • Voting rights were restored to felons in Florida.

One could argue, especially with the state-wide recounts currently underway, that Florida is more purple than red. But the restoration of voting rights for felons passed by about a 2-1 margin, meaning that a lot of Florida Republicans voted for it—even as their party embraces a strategy of voter suppression.

What this demonstrates is that a lot of Republicans, especially in red states, voted for progressive policies. Combine that with polling suggesting that even Republican voters weren’t that impressed with the GOP’s tax cuts for the wealthy and a picture emerges in which they tend to support Democratic policies, but not their candidates. What gives?

There are a couple of answers to that question. First of all, Republican candidates haven’t been running on policy issues, especially in recent elections. They know that tax cuts for the wealthy and a repeal of Obamacare are unpopular, even in red states. So instead, they opted for fear mongering about crime, immigrants and refugees.

Secondly, when it comes to voting for Democratic candidates, Andrew Levison noted how culture plays a role.

Casual conversations with friends, Facebook messages and e-mails from relatives, and jokes passed among co-workers all reinforce the sense that Democrats are the “other” and lead people who once supported Democrats to mute their views, creating what sociologists call a “spiral of silence.”  The result makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.

This last, most intimate level of influence is the most important because it validates and provides the “proof” that what the conservative national and local media are saying is actually right. In this environment, political life ceases to be a debate or dialog between candidates or parties. Instead people come to accept that you would have to be completely out of your mind to ever vote for a Democrat.

While Republican candidates spread their conspiracy theories, people who live in red states tend to be surrounded by friends, relatives, and co-workers who assume that “you would have to be completely out of your mind to ever vote for a Democrat,” even as there is fairly strong support for Democratic policies. That dissonance is obscured by a consumption of right wing media at the national and local level.

For Democrats to make any headway in red states, particularly in small rural communities, that is the challenge that must be addressed. The 50-state strategy promoted initially by Howard Dean, and expanded by current DNC Chair Tom Perez in his efforts to compete in every zip code, is perhaps the most powerful tool for addressing that challenge. Without an opposition candidate, a discussion of issues and policies doesn’t take place. We saw some headway on that in these midterms with excellent candidate recruitment. But as I noted on Monday, the kind of realignment that is necessary is a longer term process that won’t be successful in one electoral cycle. It has to be sustained over time.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .