Diverse Democrats: What it Takes to Win
With Trump's approval numbers so low, Democrats have renewed hopes for their chances in 2018. But in order to win, they will need to forge a broad path. That means not writing off large swaths of voters or the country and understanding the concerns of people in states and districts that don’t look like traditionally blue ones.
Third Way hosted a standing-room-only breakfast discussion with some of the Democratic Members of Congress who understand this best: Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), Representative Emanuel Cleaver (MO-5), and Representative Suzan DelBene (WA-1).
Moderator Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way’s Vice President for Social Policy & Politics, opened the conversation by asking what lessons can be learned from Democrats that won in districts that voted for Trump by wide margins in 2016. Sen. Manchin replied that Democrats in those areas have to be clear that they plan on being independent and doing what’s right for their district or state, not necessarily their party.
“We do know how to win [in swing districts],” Rep. Cleaver told the crowd. “The problem is when a Democratic candidate is told they don’t pass certain litmus tests.” Democrats need ‘Blue Dog’-type candidates to win in red seats, he argued. “I don’t care the color of the dog if it’s friendly,” Rep. Cleaver quipped.
The three panelists agreed that engagement and openness, particularly in places that don’t look like traditionally blue districts, is necessary. “We’re missing a great opportunity when we ignore the rural areas of the country,” Rep. Cleaver said. “And Republicans will take those missed opportunities.” All noted that they’d had experiences with voters who wouldn’t shake their hands, but emphasized the importance of pursuing those conversations to draw out areas of commonality.
We can help our colleagues in bluer districts understand red and purple areas by telling our stories, Rep. DelBene said, referencing the fact that fewer than 100 of the 435 House seats are competitive. Sen. Manchin agreed, noting that it’s important for ideological purists to understand the different types of Democrats across the country. “I grew up socially conservative in a socially conservative state,” Sen. Manchin said. “But I have compassion.”
Rep. DelBene added that people in D.C. “make issues black and white here, but at home they’re not as black and white.” Pointing to immigration as an example that wasn’t as contentious in Washington state, she said, “My farmers, my tech community, [people] on my border—they all wanted immigration reform.”
Having more diverse districts made up of rural and urban constituents would make our politics better, Rep. DelBene argued, as Members would have to consider multiple viewpoints when making decisions.
Asked what advice the panelists have for new candidates who are not incumbents, Sen. Manchin highlighted three key qualities: independence, thoughtfulness, and caring. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he explained. Reps. Cleaver and DelBene both said that in swing districts, the candidate must match the constituency. The key is listening, Rep. DelBene said. “If you’re not there and present and listening, then I don’t think you can do your job to the best of your ability,” she said. “It’s not just about being polite, it’s about respect and earning trust.”
Democrats need to be more forceful about their policy goals and avoid commenting solely on America’s problems. “Let’s start telling people what we are for,” Rep. Cleaver said. ”People are always ready for inspiration from politicians, not insults, and as Democrats, we have to give it to them.”
Most people want to help Americans who are worse off, Rep. Cleaver continued, and Democrats just need to sell it in a way that appeals to people from all kinds of backgrounds.
“The best politics is good governing,” Sen. Manchin said. In this town, it’s easier to offer blame for something broken than to fix it, but Sen. Manchin argued that if Democrats can gain voters’ trust with pocketbook issues, they’ll be more likely to trust them on other things too. The main takeaway from the discussion was that there is no single type of voter, district, or candidate that can return Democrats to electoral majorities—and that’s why it’s so important to listen to diverse Democrats like Sen. Manchin, Rep. Cleaver, and Rep. DelBene. They exemplify the broad path strategy the Party will need to return to power, and their experiences can help the Party understand what it takes to win in places that don’t look like California or New York. This conversation is only just beginning—Democrats would do well to heed their advice.