In 2018, suburban districts that were once the exclusive domain of the GOP, showed a willingness to support a Democrat for Congress. From Orange County, California to suburban Houston and Dallas, Texas, Democrats picked up districts that pre-Trump had never been serious Democratic targets. Of the 43 districts Democrats carried in 2018, half (22) were in seats Republican Mitt Romney had carried in 2012. Just eight of the pick-ups came from Obama-Trump districts.
The message those voters sent to the GOP was clear: they did not like the way President Trump operated. It didn't matter that the economy was booming in many of these (already well-off) areas. And, they shrugged off the apocalyptic warnings from Republicans of a socialist takeover of Congress by the new Democratic majority.
We also know that the president is uninterested in winning those voters back. No one — even the most naive and optimistic Republicans — believe that the president will buckle down and spend the next year focused on driving an economic message. Instead, he (and many around him) continue to believe that his base is big enough to overwhelm any new defections from suburbia. Keep the base angry and engaged — on immigration, and race and "real Americans"— and they win just like they did in 2016.
Many Democrats argue that this one-trick pony act has already failed. In the waning days of the 2018 campaign, Trump zeroed in on a caravan of migrants making its way across Mexico toward the U.S. border hoping to rally conservatives and paint Democrats as weak-kneed on national security. But, most Democratic House candidates refused to take the bait, dismissing calls by some on the left to abolish ICE. Pelosi also admonished her candidates to stay focused on health care, the issue that was putting so many GOP members back on their heels.
At the time, some in the party and punditry wanted to see a more fulsome engagement by Democrats on the issue. The New York Times' David Leonhardt wrote in late October: "The problem with ignoring the issue is that it plays into the Republicans' midterm strategy. It makes Democrats sound squishy and insecure on immigration. It makes it sound as if Democrats aren't really sure whether they believe that this country should have immigration laws. That's a gift to Republicans. It offers a reason for some dissatisfied Trump voters from 2016 to forget about their dissatisfaction and vote Republican again this year."
Others worried that Trump would be able to exploit Democrats' lack of a coherent or unified message on immigration enforcement. One strategist bemoaned to the Washington Post that "The notion we shouldn't be talking about the central issue this president has talked about for three years is crazy."
In retrospect, the hand-wringing over refusing to engage Trump on the immigration debate looks overwrought (and flat-out wrong). But, this isn't 2018 anymore.
First, the caravan crisis was theoretical. Today, the flood of refugees on the border is not. In 2018, Democrats didn't NEED to have their own plan for fixing the border. They weren't in control of any part of the government. Republicans had all three branches. Today, Democrats are the majority in the House and are asking voters to put them in charge of the executive branch. Just being 'against' what Trump is doing and what he stands for isn't enough. Democrats need to offer voters a vision and a plan for the problem.
Which leads to another big difference between now and 2018. Back then, not only did Democrats have the luxury to avoid engaging with Trump on the immigration debate, but they were also disciplined enough not to give their Republican opponents any fodder to paint them as 'extremists" or 'out of touch' with these swing districts.
That's not happening now. In their very first candidate debate last month, Democratic candidates have already provided the Trump campaign with plenty of attack ad material.
This week, I talked to a couple of Democratic strategists with long-track records of helping candidates in battleground districts. One told me that he expects to see the image of candidates raising their hands in support of providing undocumented immigrants health care insurance, in lots of attacks ads next fall. Also included in that reel will be the image of all the hands raised in support of decriminalizing illegal border crossing. Vice President Biden has since walked back his 'finger raised,' saying in a subsequent CNN interview that he does not support the policy.
It's not just suburban voters that Democrats should worry about alienating with these positions. The New York Times' Tom Edsall, using data provided by the AFL-CIO's political director Michael Podhorzer, argues that there is a small, but substantial group of white working-class voters that are up for grabs. But, he writes, 'there are big hurdles' to Democrats capturing them. On issues of racial discrimination and immigration, these voters side more with Republican white, working class voters than Democrats. But, "on health care and economic matters, there is far more overlap between the views of Democrats as a whole and independent white working class voters." These voters are also disproportionately represented in battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Trump believes that he won in 2016 because of — not in spite of — his rhetoric, divisiveness and open hostility to minorities and immigrants. His instincts have been further rewarded by a GOP that has failed to criticize him. It's easy to understand, then, why he believes he can win this way again.
There's plenty of evidence (like, say the 2018 midterms) that voters are ready to turn the page from Trump. But, if Trump can make the election a choice instead of a referendum, he has a chance to succeed. No, he can't make it a referendum on "the Squad" (as much as he's trying to make that happen). We know that Trump lacks the discipline to keep the debate and conversation on policy. He wants to make it personal. But, he can push the debate onto the terrain where he's most comfortable — culture, race, immigration — and force Democrats to make unforced errors.
The voters who supported Democrats in 2018 — and who remain wary of Trump today — said one Democratic strategist — 'would prefer to vote against Trump." But, this person said, they also "aren't giving their vote away" to just anyone. Furthermore, says this Democrat, the idea that Democrats have an either/or choice in 2020: pick an establishment candidate to win over suburban/white working class voters or pick an outsider to rally younger voters and voters of color, is a false narrative. "There is nothing we can do to win suburban voters," this Democrat said, "that will turn young people off. Trump is the best motivator."
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