Before delving into this, a quick disclaimer: I’m basically in agreement with those voices that do not believe Democrats need some kind of unified, national, top-down message ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Given the structural barriers to taking back both houses of Congress — and, thus, the need to run a diverse slate of candidates — it’s wiser to let each individual tailor campaign messages to their specific states and districts. Still, there are a number of issues that most Democratic candidates can and should talk about on the campaign trail.
Also, because state-level races such as governor and state legislator often revolve around unique, state-by-state issues, this agenda will mainly be geared toward candidates seeking federal office.
So, without further delay, here is my advice for Democratic candidates running across the country. The following is adapted and slightly updated from a memo I wrote back in March.
Democrats have been a little on edge in recent weeks. We’ve seen a slew of indicators that have suddenly thrown into question the party’s chances of enjoying a wave election this fall that could sweep them back into power. President Trump’s approval rating has ticked up slightly. Democrats’ lead in the generic congressional ballot — which measures whether voters will support Democrats or Republicans in a generic congressional election — has shrunk. Some are questioning whether the “blue wave” reached its peak too soon.
Let’s get this out of the way: there are still plenty of reasons for Democrats to be encouraged. Despite Trump’s improving numbers, he’s still very unpopular, and his recent improvement is only marginal (and, largely, stuck in place). When one digs below the surface, many of these surveys show that the intensity of opposition to Trump is far greater than the intensity of support for him.
Moreover, anti-Trump sentiment has been manifesting itself over the past year in very favorable ways for Democrats: massive turnout and shocking performances in the Virginia off-year election; significant Democratic overperformance in special elections across the country; higher-than-usual Democratic turnout in recent midterm primaries. All these data points are great harbingers of Democratic enthusiasm ahead of the fall midterms. As Ted Cruz acknowledged, Democrats “will crawl over broken glass in November to vote.”
However, both the party and its voters would also be wise not to assume a #BlueWave2018 is a foregone conclusion, lest they repeat the same mistakes (and endure the same misery) of 2016. Additionally, while anti-Trump sentiment is certain to drive a lot of voters to the polls in November — especially among the party’s rank-and-file members — Democrats need a massive wave election in order to (a) loudly rebuke the rise and acceptance of Trumpism and (b) overcome potentially serious electoral barriers, including the rigged GOP maps for congressional and state-legislative districts in some states and a historically unfavorable Senate map. They will need to rely on more than opposition to Trump; they must be prepared to offer their own agenda.
So, the key question on the mind of every Democratic operative is, what kind of agenda will turn out voters at levels necessary to realize a wave election? I submit that the two previously mentioned themes — opposition to Trump and support of Democratic ideas — can be tied together fairly easily: Democrats should run against the chaos and corruption of the Trump White House and lack of accountability from the Republican Congress, which have lowered voters’ trust in government and distracted from the real issues that matter to them.
Against Trump & Congressional Republicans
Democrats who aren’t running in solidly red districts or states (see: Manchin, Joe) should absolutely take advantage of the strong anti-Trump sentiment among the public and remind voters why we cannot afford to put Republicans back in power this November.
Americans are worried about the instability consuming the White House, especially in such precarious times. In fact, a recent POLITICO survey found that 62% of respondents believe Trump’s White House is chaotic. As one journalist noted:
That chaos percentage is actually up from two months ago, when only 54 percent agreed with the statement.
And it makes sense. Trump has effectively purged his administration of all stabilizing forces. Just weeks away from a potential meeting with Kim Jong Un, this volatility concerns voters, who fear everything from checking their phone in the mornings and seeing Trump’s latest tweet to the safety of their children and grandchildren in a world facing growing nuclear proliferation. And yet, congressional Republicans have mostly tried to ignore this reality, leaving an opening for Democrats to make the case for returning oversight powers to them.
On an almost daily basis, we hear stories of impropriety within the president’s cabinet and inner circle. There are numerous instances of waste and abuse in Trump’s administration, such as $31,000 dining sets, $139,000 doors, a $43,000 sound-proof phone booth, and Jared Kushner’s questionable use of power for personal gain. Trump also continues to benefit financially from his position, and Republicans helped him force through a giant tax cut, which benefited many of them (including the president) and for which they received generous campaign contributions.
(If you want more examples, here’s just a sampling.)
Research has shown this argument resonates with voters and has significant potential as an attack against Republican officials, whom voters disproportionately view as willing to use government to personally enrich themselves and their donors. Relatedly, voters believe Republicans are likelier to push policies that will primarily benefit the party and the wealthy:
As Nancy Pelosi recently said, “Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp.” And Republicans are helping him the whole way. Which leads to…
The Democratic answer
Instead of standing up to Trump’s abuse of power, Republicans in Congress have been sitting idly by — or, more often, have been complicit — in the hopes that resisting calls to challenge him will be politically advantageous for them. However, this strategy is may very well backfire: a March USA Today poll showed that, by a whopping two-to-one margin, voters want to elect a Congress this November that will stand up to Trump, including 87% of Democrats and 62% of independents.
Democrats can and should run on the message that they will serve as a check on this president — that they will hold him accountable — as Republicans in Congress have abdicated their responsibility to serve as a co-equal branch of government. This theme also allows candidates to also push back on Trump’s increasing abuses of power, and can provide them with an answer for voters who care about the Russia investigation, without letting it become the central issue of their campaign.
In Favor of Democratic Ideas
Although it is important to highlight Trump’s abuses and to show how Democrats will manage them, the constant media coverage of his chaos and corruption has meant that other, deeply important issues have not received the attention they should — issues that Americans care a lot about. Moreover, as we saw in the 2010 midterms, “Yeah, but have you seen the Republicans?” is not enough to win. Democrats therefore need their own, positive message to offer voters as an alternative.
One messaging frame that can capture much of the party’s agenda, as well as its mission to check the president, is this: Restoring trust in the government by making it work for the people.
Trump capitalized on Americans’ sour views of Washington to win the presidency. However, since assuming office, he has exacerbated those concerns. Voters continue to rate dissatisfaction with government among their top issues. Democrats are the party that believes government can be a force for good in people’s lives, but that message will only resonate so long as people have faith in their leaders.
A winning issue in this realm is campaign-finance reform. The majority of voters support it — in particular, Democrats and independents — and it reinforces the idea that government should work on behalf of the people, not corporate donors. It’s an issue that is important to the party’s base, and some of the party’s prospective 2020 candidates have already taken steps in this direction. Moreover, it falls under the “accountability” theme — passing such reforms makes elected officials more accountable to their voters.
Democrats can also use this platform to call for reform in areas such as voting rights, election security, and conflict-of-interest laws.
Fighting for the poor, working, and middle classes
Democrats must reclaim the mantle of being the party that fights for economic fairness. It behooves them to point out where Trump and Republicans are failing the country in this regard and to say what they will do differently. While Republicans have pledged to cut Medicare and Medicaid and repeal the Affordable Care Act, Democrats will work to shore up these programs and promote universal coverage. Whereas Republicans slashed taxes on the wealthy, Democrats will re-institute them and raise teacher pay. Wages are still flat, so Democrats will push for a higher minimum wage and equal pay.
The country is with Democrats on all these issues. One way to message them is under the perennially used (and with good reason) “opportunity” theme. If people can’t afford healthcare, or if they’re not paid a living wage, they don’t have the same opportunity as the wealthier families who disproportionately benefited from the GOP tax law (and who weren’t already worrying about their healthcare or wages).
This agenda can help the party restore faith in government by fulfilling the promise that it will serve average Americans — not cater to the rich.
Fighting to keep Americans safe
Two key issues on voters’ minds, and particularly among Democrats, are immigration and guns. Democrats are the party that advocates for protecting the vulnerable — especially children — and on this front Republicans have failed. They refused to stand up to the president’s ill-conceived repeal of DACA, which irresponsibly threw the legal status of hundreds of thousands of children into jeopardy, and they have refused to stand up to the NRA after each new shooting. (Protecting kids from future school shootings could very well become a single-issue cause for parents in suburban and urban areas.)
Voters overwhelmingly support Democrats on both issues, offering the party a chance to deliver a values-based alternative to Republican governance — one that emphasizes the need for safety for the most vulnerable among us. Pushing for progress in these areas shows the people their government is receptive to their concerns, and strengthens the bonds between the two.
Two other, easy issues to be on the right side of
Net neutrality. As Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz said recently, “Here’s the thing: I’m not suggesting that this [issue] is going to move the majority of voters. What I’m telling you is that for millions of motivated and infrequent voters, this is a top issue.” On the other side of the issue are large telecom companies, so it’s easy to tie this into this theme of fighting for policies that protect average Americans, not the rich, thus fulfilling a promise to be more accountable. Moreover, very few voters are going to be motivated to support candidates who oppose net neutrality.
Marijuana. Besides the ever-increasing support for decriminalizing/ legalizing the drug, it’s another issue for which voters on one side are — well, at least in theory — extremely motivated on this one issue. (Let Bill Maher demonstrate.) And, although some voters may be wary of this idea, they are likely not people who will feel compelled to get to the polls just to counteract it. There’s also some concern that if Democrats don’t pounce on this issue, Republicans might.
The above outlined messaging frame allows Democrats to both run against Trump and offer their own, substantive agenda. It gives candidates the flexibility to emphasize certain issues that are the most relevant to their district or state. Promoting an agenda that prioritizes ordinary Americans and vowing to bring an end to the chaos and corruption of Trump and the Republican Congress is the way back to the majority for Democrats.