2018 Lessons from 2020 Early Primary States

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The 2020 Iowa Caucus will take place in 368 days. New Hampshire will quickly follow, then voters in Nevada and South Carolina will get their chance to weigh in on who should go up against Donald Trump in the biggest election of our lifetimes. The Democratic political world is already shifting its focus to what is to come in these early primary states. But what just happened in these places in 2018? And what lessons should the bevy of potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates take from those midterm results about both the path to the nomination and how to beat Trump?

There were six top U.S. House races across Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in 2018. Democrats won all six. We dug into each of these races to see how Democrats ran and won both in the primary and the general. What united this diverse group of Democrats—gay and straight, black and white, three men and three women—was a thoughtful brand of pragmatism and a focus on healthcare and expanding economic opportunity for the people of their district.

What Kind of Democrats Won in the Early Primary States?

In 2018, Democrats won all six competitive House races in the four early primary states. Three of these wins were Democratic pickups: Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s First Congressional District (IA-01), Cindy Axne in Iowa’s Third Congressional District (IA-03), and Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s First Congressional District (SC-01). The other three were Democratic holds: Susie Lee in Nevada’s Third Congressional District (NV-03), Steven Horsford in Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District (NV-04), and Chris Pappas in New Hampshire’s First Congressional District (NH-01).

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Not a single one of these winning candidates was a far-left populist. Five of six affiliated with the moderate New Democrat Coalition in their campaigns, and the sixth, Abby Finkenauer, shared similar positions on critical issues like healthcare and the economy.1 They ran not on a Democratic Socialist agenda but on mainstream and moderate solutions to the problems that most vex their constituents: healthcare affordability and access, expanding economic opportunity, and fixing our political process to better represent the people.

Abby Finkenauer (IA-01)

In the state that will kick off the primary contest in 2020, 30-year-old Abby Finkenauer ran and won in IA-01, which covers the northeast quadrant of Iowa, by championing a unifying, values-based message and pragmatic solutions to the day-to-day challenges facing her constituents. She did so in a working class and rural district. Only 25% of adults in her district have a college degree, and one in four households do not have access to broadband. The median household income is below the national average, but at the same time, just 7% of households are below the poverty line.2

True to her district, Finkenauer centered her candidacy on the unifying values of hard work and opportunity, labeling herself as a “staunch defender” of working families.3 She introduced herself to voters with a TV ad that proclaimed, “Iowans don’t want handouts – heck I’m still paying off student loans – they just want a chance to live good lives.”4 And instead of framing herself as reflexively against the other party, Finkenauer led with a message that she was for Iowa families.

When it came to one of Republicans’ top attacks against Finkenauer—immigration—she emphasized a bipartisan approach that was consistent with American values over more polarizing options. A stunning 46% of all ads Republicans ran in this race were attacks on Finkenauer on immigration.5 In response, she criticized both parties for playing politics on the issue and called for comprehensive immigration reform that included protecting Dreamers. She explicitly rejected abolishing ICE.6 This approach allowed Finkenauer to overcome Republicans’ divisive and sometimes even racist attacks.

“Iowans don’t want handouts – heck I’m still paying off student loans – they just want a chance to live good lives.”

Iowa voters gravitated to Finkenauer’s unifying message and pragmatic approach—in both the primary and the general election. In the primary, she won 64% of the vote in a four-way field that included a former Bernie Sanders delegate.7 Then she beat Republican incumbent Rod Blum by five points in the general election.8

Cindy Axne (IA-03)

Meanwhile, in another part of the crucial primary state of Iowa, Cindy Axne, a first-time candidate and fifth-generation Iowan, challenged and defeated David Young in IA-03. Axne prevailed in the state’s most contested Democratic congressional primary, then again in the general election, by keeping a laser focus on the core issues that voters care about and advocating for modern and pragmatic solutions to address them. The district, which includes Iowa’s largest city (Des Moines), is the state’s most urban and economically dynamic place. Thirty-two percent of adults have a college degree, and it has the highest broadband access and housing occupancy rate in the state.9 Although it differs in those ways from Finkenauer’s district, these Iowa primary and general election voters picked a strikingly similar person to represent them—a mainstream Democrat over both a far-left and a Republican candidate.

Axne framed her politics through the lens of equity and getting things done. She relayed how she became active in politics after learning that not all children in West Des Moines public schools could attend full-day kindergarten. After encountering this inequity, Axne spent a year advocating for full-day kindergarten for all before school officials relented. And she did the same on the most salient issues of the 2018 election by calling for “leveling the playing field” through good-paying jobs and pushing for credible solutions to improve our healthcare system.

On healthcare, Axne didn’t settle for the status quo or try to sell voters on a single-payer system. Instead, she called for actionable steps that Congress could actually achieve, such as improving the Affordable Care Act, and creating a public option where people younger than 65 would have access to buy into Medicare.10 And she communicated her positions by sharing personal experiences; specifically, relaying how her family had been dropped by their healthcare provider three times in four years.

Axne won a hotly contested Democratic primary in IA-03. She faced off against Pete D'Alessandro, a top staffer for Bernie Sanders’s Iowa campaign in 2016, and businessman Eddie Mauro. Sanders and national allies went all-in in support of D'Alessandro. National groups Our Revolution and Justice Democrats endorsed D'Alessandro, and Sanders headlined a rally on his behalf.11 Ultimately, Axne won the primary with 56%, while D'Alessandro finished in third with 15%. She then went on to defeat Republican Representative Young by two points in November.12 

Chris Pappas (NH-01)

It is clear that Iowans picked mainstream Democrats in their primaries, and those candidates were successful in the general (in a state that Trump won by nine points in 2016)—but what about voters who will determine the results of the nation’s first official primary in 2020? Zoom in on New Hampshire, where the results were strikingly similar. Despite his young age of 38, Chris Pappas began his congressional bid in NH-01 with extensive experience as an elected official. He got his start as a state representative in 2002 and later served as a New Hampshire executive councilor.13 In 2018, he emphasized his pragmatic, results-oriented approach to addressing the state’s biggest challenges, and this helped him win over voters in this district that is doing well overall—the median household income is $68,000—but that features both areas that are doing great, like Portsmouth, and struggling communities like Rochester.14

Pappas’s pitch to voters was his pragmatic approach and track record of results. Specifically, he pointed to how he is willing to tackle the most important issues and get things done for New Hampshirites. In one ad, he highlighted how he helped enact Medicaid expansion in New Hampshire, saying “as an executive councilor, I fought to fund Planned Parenthood and worked in a bipartisan way to expand healthcare to more than 50,000 people.”

Pappas’s pragmatic brand of politics helped him break through in a crowded, 11-candidate Democratic primary. He faced off against some Democrats from the far left of the Party, including Bernie Sanders’s son Levi, while his main rival was mainstream Democrat Maura Sullivan. And while some of his primary opponents ran on single-payer healthcare and free college, Pappas proposed credible solutions like a public option and improved career and technical education. In the 11-person primary, Pappas defeated Sullivan by 12 points with 42% of the vote, while Levi Sanders finished in seventh place with 2%. In the general election, Pappas comfortably defeated Republican Eddie Edwards by nine points.15

“I fought to fund Planned Parenthood and worked in a bipartisan way to expand healthcare to more than 50,000 people.”

 

Susie Lee (NV-03)

Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are significantly whiter than the Democratic electorate nationwide. So what happened in an early primary state that looks more like the whole of America? The storyline of pragmatic, mainstream Democrats defeating challengers both to their left and to their right continued. Susie Lee kept NV-03 in Democratic hands, defeating Trump-style Republican Danny Tarkanian in the general election, by campaigning on a unifying message of bringing people together to address our biggest challenges. The district, which stretches south from Las Vegas and includes the suburban hub of Henderson, is Nevada’s most economically vibrant. Almost one in three people have a college degree, the median household income is above the national average, and fewer than 7% of households are below the poverty line (compared to 13% of households statewide).16

Lee championed a unifying message on the campaign trail and used it to draw a contrast with the “dysfunction and gridlock” in Washington.17 This narrative was on display in one of Lee’s major ads, with the narrator proclaiming “For a fresh start Susie Lee . . . she shakes things up, works with anyone, gets the job done. Susie Lee, what Washington needs.” Rather than focus on maligning her opponents, Lee took aim at Washington’s failure to get results and made a persuasive pitch about how she could help get things done for her constituents.

A vital issue in this race that tested Lee’s approach to politics was the Trump tax cuts. One-third of all Republican ads in the race attacked Lee for her opposition to the tax cuts. To combat this argument, Lee focused her economic message on creating opportunity and standing up for the bargain we’ve made with seniors. She advocated for increasing opportunity for working families through tax cuts for the middle class and investments in local communities, and she called for protecting Social Security and Medicare now and for future generations.18

@SusieLeeNV focused her economic message on creating opportunity and standing up for the bargain we’ve made with seniors.

Lee easily cleared a seven-person primary field with 67% of the vote.19 Primary opponents like Michael Weiss and Eric Stoltz tried to gain momentum by running on far-left proposals, like single payer and free college, but Lee’s pragmatic platform of protecting and improving the Affordable Care Act, creating more good-paying jobs, and expanding the Pell Grant program won over Democratic voters.20 In the general election, Lee beat Tarkanian by nine points in this district that narrowly backed Trump in 2016.21

Steven Horsford (NV-04)

Susie Lee wasn’t the only mainstream Democrat to prevail in the key 2020 primary state of Nevada. Democrat Steven Horsford, who previously represented NV-04 from 2013–2015, defeated Republican Crescent Hardy, who beat Horsford in 2014 before losing himself in 2016. Similar to Lee, Horsford ran on a unifying message of fighting for all Nevadans and against the “reckless agenda” of Trump and congressional Republicans.22 The principal population base in this working-class district is North Las Vegas, but it also extends north to cover half of the state. The district’s median household income is below the national average, and fewer than 1 in 5 adults have a college degree.23

Horsford used his own life story to communicate a message that unified voters and exposed his opponents. He shared how having to work job after job as a teenager taught him the importance of career development programs, and how family members who spent decades in assisted living informed his view that Republicans’ attacks on Social Security and Medicare were unacceptable. By elevating his own lived experience, Horsford helped insulate himself from Republicans’ attacks and prevail with an opportunity-focused message.24

While some voters were familiar with Horsford from his previous tenure representing the district, he still had to contend with a six-person Democratic primary.25 Horsford’s top rivals were state Senator Pat Spearman, who drew support from some mainstream progressive groups, and far-left candidate Amy Vilela, who was endorsed by Our Revolution and Justice Democrats.26 In the primary, Horford ended up carrying 62% of the vote, while Spearman won 15% and Vilela nabbed just 9%. In the general election, Horsford defeated Hardy by eight points, after losing to him by three points in 2014.27

Joe Cunningham (SC-01)

South Carolina may not be a battleground state for the general election in a presidential race, but it carries huge heft in a Democratic primary, as the fourth contest and the first that gives potential nominees an opportunity to prove their appeal to African American voters—who have long been the true base of the Democratic Party. In this early primary state, moderate candidate Joe Cunningham became one of the breakout stars of 2018—beating Republican Katie Arrington in a district that backed Trump by 13 points in 2016.28 He won over voters in this conservative-leaning district, which includes parts of Charleston and resort towns as well as working-class communities, by positioning himself as a pragmatic problem-solver focused on local voters’ core issues. Thirty-eight percent of adults in this district have a college degree, and the median household income is just above the national average.29

To overcome the conservative tilt of the district, Cunningham emphasized he would put country over party and reject the “us versus them” partisanship that has led to gridlock in Washington.30 In one campaign ad, a series of local Republican officials endorsed Cunningham, saying “Joe’s honest, trustworthy, he’s a good man, I know Joe’s going to put country over party.”31 Cunningham ran as a strong Democrat on environmental policies, accepting no corporate PAC money, and supporting accessible, affordable healthcare as well as women’s health, but he did so in a way that was broadly appealing across this challenging district.32

And true to his pledge to focus on solving local problems, Cunningham made the issue of offshore drilling the primary issue in his campaign. Specifically, he promised to fight Trump’s plan to initiate offshore drilling off South Carolina’s coast. In one memorable ad, Cunningham swam in the ocean to highlight his opponent’s support for offshore drilling and the adverse effects on the district’s climate and economy. Cunningham elevated an issue that resonated deeply across the community, rather than one that was important to just one slice of the electorate.

Cunningham easily won the Democratic primary with 72% of the vote.33 In the general election, he faced off against Arrington, a Trump-style Republican who had defeated incumbent Mark Sanford in the primary. On election night, Cunningham defeated Arrington by a narrow two-point margin.34 Republicans helped put this district in play by nominating a Trump-style candidate on the partisan extreme, while Cunningham used a pragmatic message and focus on core issues to win over a broad coalition of voters.

True to his pledge to focus on solving local problems, Cunningham made the issue of offshore drilling the primary issue in his campaign.

How Did These Pragmatic Progressives Perform?

These six mainstream and moderate Democrats blew past Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performances in their districts—by an average of six points. Their over-performances ranged from 11 points for Cunningham in SC-01 to two points for Horsford in NV-04.35

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These Democrats illustrated that if you run as a pragmatic progressive with an agenda deeply rooted in voters’ core interests, you can both defeat far-left candidates in a primary and forge a broad coalition of support that can win in purple and red places in a general election.

What Did They Run On?

These six Democrats campaigned on the core issues that voters care about most, as well as some that uniquely impacted their communities. One of the best ways to evaluate the issue priorities of campaigns is to analyze what they highlighted in campaign ads. The graphic below, which features Kantar Media political ad data, illustrates the share of ads that mentioned key issues across the six races. Note that the total adds up to more than 100% because some ads highlight multiple issue areas.

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Healthcare dominated, and every single one of these successful Democrats focused on voters’ core interests like access and reducing cost, as well as preserving seniors’ earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare. None of the six supported single-payer healthcare. Their economic messages focused not on Democratic socialism but on expanding opportunity through good-paying jobs and investments in local communities.

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In addition to the issues that were salient nationally, these candidates also elevated what mattered locally. Joe Cunningham won in a Trump +13 district, which had been represented by a Republican since 1981, by relentlessly going after his opponent on offshore drilling. Cunningham didn’t ignore healthcare and taxes, but his campaign and outside groups on air in the district featured environmental messaging in 44% of all ads aired in the race.36

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In the same way, Susie Lee and Steven Horsford elevated secondary education and skills training, Chris Pappas addressed the opioid crisis, and Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne highlighted workers’ rights in a state that has been ravaged by far-right statewide governance, as well as early childhood education.

Conclusion

The six winning Democratic House candidates featured here illuminate a path forward for presidential hopefuls who hope to woo the same voters in early primary states. Five of the six formally allied with the moderate New Democrats in their campaigns, and they all positioned themselves as the mainstream choice in their races—and five of the six defeated far-left alternatives in their primaries. All six victors elevated issues that matter to voters in their daily lives—such as healthcare and the economy—and also honed in on a few local matters that have an outsized impact in specific communities. And not a single one advanced a far-left agenda. Instead, they all took mainstream positions like bolstering Obamacare over embracing proposals like single-payer healthcare.

The lesson for 2020 presidential aspirants is clear: there’s a broad coalition out there waiting to be engaged, and Democratic voters in the states that will be influential in the primary process want a candidate who will bring the country together around a mainstream agenda and advocate on behalf of their core economic interests. Six amazing Democratic candidates have already led the way—let’s hope the 2020 field follows in their footsteps.

Ad data: Copyright 2018 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All Rights Reserved

Endnotes

  1. NewDemPAC, “Endorsed Candidates,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: http://www.newdempac.com; See also, Abby Finkenauer for Congress, “Fighting for access to quality and affordable healthcare,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.abbyfinkenauer.com/issues/fighting-for-access-to-quality-and-affordable-healthcare/.

  2. U.S. Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

  3. Abby Finkenauer for Congress, “Meet Abby Finkenauer,” Accessed December 4, 2018. Available at: https://www.abbyfinkenauer.com/about/.

  4. Ad data: Copyright 2018 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All Rights Reserved.

  5. Ad data: Copyright 2018 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All Rights Reserved.

  6. Abby Finkenauer for Congress, “Bipartisan Immigration Reform,” Accessed December 4, 2018. Available at: https://www.abbyfinkenauer.com/issues/bipartisan-immigration-reform/.

  7. Iowa Secretary of State, “Election Results & Statistics,” Accessed December 4, 2018. Available at: https://sos.iowa.gov/elections/results/#17. See also, Bleeding Heartland, “IA-01: Democrat Courtney Rowe may challenge Rod Blum,” January 28, 2017. Available at: https://www.bleedingheartland.com/2017/01/28/ia-01-democrat-courtney-rowe-may-challenge-rod-blum/.

  8. POLITICO, “Iowa Election Results 2018,” Accessed December 4, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/iowa/.

  9. U.S. Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

  10. Cindy Axne for Congress, “Issues,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://cindyaxneforcongress.com/issues/.

  11. Pete for Iowa, “Endorsed By,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: http://peteforiowa.com/. See also, Josh Voorhees, “After the Bernie Buzz,” Slate, May 31, 2018, Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/05/bernie-endorsed-pete-dalessandro-limps-to-the-finish-in-iowas-3rd-district.html.

  12. Iowa Secretary of State, “2018 Election Results,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://sos.iowa.gov/elections/results/#17. See also, POLITICO, “Iowa Election Results 2018,” Accessed December 4, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/iowa/.

  13. Chris Pappas for Congress, “About Chris,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.chrispappas.org/about-chris/.

  14. U.S. Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

  15. New Hampshire Secretary of State, “2018 Primary Election Results - September 11, 2018,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: http://sos.nh.gov/Elections/Election_Information/2018_Election/2018_Primary_Election_Results_-_September_11,_2018.aspx. See also, POLITICO, “New Hampshire Election Results,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/new-hampshire/.

  16. U.S. Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

  17. Susie Lee for Congress, “Susie's Story,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://susieleeforcongress.com/susies-story.

  18. Susie Lee for Congress, “Economic Opportunity,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://susieleeforcongress.com/economic-opportunity.

  19. Nevada Secretary of State, “Election Night Results 2018,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://www.nvsos.gov/silverstate2018pri/USCongress/.

  20. Weiss for Nevada, “Issues and Platform,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://www.weissfornevada.com/issues-and-platform. See also, Eric Stoltz for Nevada’s 3rd District, “In 2016,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://stoltz1420.com/#/. See also, Susie Lee for Congress, “Values,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://susieleeforcongress.com/values.

  21. POLITICO, “Nevada Election Results,” Accessed December 17, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/nevada/.

  22. Facebook, “Steven Horsford: Fighting For All Of Us,” Accessed December 10, 2018. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/stevenhorsford/.

  23. U.S. Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” Accessed December 10, 2018. Available at: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

  24. Ad data: Copyright 2018 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All Rights Reserved; See also, Office of the U.S. House Historian, “Horsford, Steven,” Accessed December 17, 2018. Available at: https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/15032387263.

  25. Nevada Secretary of State, “Election Night Results 2018,” Accessed December 9, 2018. Available at: https://www.nvsos.gov/silverstate2018pri/USCongress/.

  26. Pat Spearman for Congress, “Endorsements,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://spearman4nevada.com/. See also, Justice Democrats, “2018-Slate for Justice,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.justicedemocrats.com/candidates/. See also, Our Revolution, “2018 Election Results,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://ourrevolution.com/results/.

  27. Nevada Secretary of State, “Election Night Results 2018,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: http://www.silverstateelection.com/. See also, Nevada Secretary of State, “Election Night Results 2014,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.nvsos.gov/silverstate2014gen/USCongress/.

  28. Daily Kos, “Daily Kos Elections' presidential results by congressional district for 2016, 2012, and 2008,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/11/19/1163009/-Daily-Kos-Elections-presidential-results-by-congressional-district-for-the-2012-2008-elections.

  29. U.S. Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” Accessed December 5, 2018. Available at: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

  30. Joe Cunningham for Congress, “Get to know Joe,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.joecunninghamforcongress.com/. See also, Joe Cunningham for Congress, “Meet Joe,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.joecunninghamforcongress.com/meet-joe.

  31. Ad data: Copyright 2018 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All Rights Reserved.

  32. Joe Cunningham for Congress, “Issues,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.joecunninghamforcongress.com/myvalues.

  33. South Carolina Election Commission, “2018 Statewide Primaries,” Accessed December 12, 2018. Available at: http://www.enr-scvotes.org/SC/75708/Web02-state.203322/#/.

  34. POLITICO, “South Carolina Election Results 2018,” Accessed December 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/south-carolina/.

  35. Daily Kos, “Daily Kos Elections' presidential results by congressional district for 2016, 2012, and 2008,” Accessed December 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/11/19/1163009/-Daily-Kos-Elections-presidential-results-by-congressional-district-for-the-2012-2008-elections.

  36. Ad data: Copyright 2018 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All Rights Reserved.