Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: A retreat from the center

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, November 18, 2018

As the final provisional ballots from the 2018 midterm elections are counted, and the forecasted Democratic wave in the House becomes more precise (most likely a gain of at least 37 seats), the electoral significance can be parsed. Certainly, exit polls from the House have already revealed concrete changes in the electorate that led to the Democrats’ triumph, such as their massive gains among women and increased turnout. When the vote tallies are finalized, Democrats will have won the House popular vote by between 7 and 8 percentage points — the largest disparity since 2006, and larger than either Republican wave in 2010 or 1994. For most everyone (New York Times columnist Bret Stephens notwithstanding), there is little question that this was a “wave election,” at least in the House.

However, it is elsewhere that the significance of national politics must be more rigorously examined. Democrats faced a difficult Senate map in 2018, with seven incumbents running in states that voted for President Trump in 2016. As Democrats look to 2020 and beyond, they would do well to learn from their senatorial and gubernatorial races in Trump states: Rather than run quasi-conservative campaigns to persuade the elusive “Obama-Trump” voter, they should turn to progressive candidates who inspire the base and boost turnout.

In Texas and Georgia, the benefits of a progressive candidate were manifest in both turnout and down-ballot results. While former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) lost his senatorial bid, and Stacy Abrams is likely to lose her gubernatorial race, the significance of the results extends beyond the binary outcome of the headline races. Up and down the ballot in Texas, the “Beto effect” could be seen; voter turnout spiked to 46.1 percent, leaps and bounds above the dismal 28.3 percent turnout rate from 2014, according to Elect Project. Voters who turned out in droves for Beto helped elect Democrats down the ballot in Texas; the party flipped two seats in Republican districts and came within a hair of unseating another Republican (Will Hurd) in the 23rd district.

In the Peach State, Abrams’ campaign remained firmly progressive, even while running against arch-conservative Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Despite fairly comprehensive reports of voter suppression, she came within two percentage points of winning. According to the Times, she garnered over 1.9 million votes — the highest Democratic vote total in the state’s history. Similar to the races in Texas, the downstream effect of Abrams’ campaign netted substantial gains for Democrats. They flipped a House seat in Georgia’s 6th district, came within 800 votes of unseating Rep. Rob Woodall in the 7th district and gained 13 seats in the state house. A more orthodox political strategy would have advised for a centrist campaign. Georgia is both ideologically and politically red; moreover, her opponent happily aligned himself with national Republicans, identifying as a “proud, hardcore Trump conservative” in a campaign ad. By valuing a coherent campaign message, even at the cost of alienating a fraction of moderate voters, Abrams juiced turnout to 55 percent (up from 38.6 percent in 2014), boosted other Georgia Democratic candidates and set a high-water mark for liberal success in the state. Though Abrams ultimately conceded the governorship, her success in energizing the Democratic base shows that progressive values can find traction in conservative states.

Elsewhere in the country, the failure of moderate Democratic incumbents underscored the fallacy of a centrist campaign. In Indiana, lame duck Sen. Joe Donnelly ran a confusing campaign as a “Trump Democrat.” His ads tried to highlight his streaks of conservatism: “I split with my party,” Donnelly says in one commercial, “to support funding for Trump’s border wall.” He quotes former President Reagan in a different ad and brags about being called “the most moderate Democrat in the Senate” in yet another. On election day, Donnelly was trounced by GOP challenger Mike Braun; though he polled as a slight favorite, Donnelly ended up losing by six percentage points, according to the Times. In Missouri, outgoing Sen. Claire McCaskill’s similarly moderate campaign resulted in an identical six percentage point loss to challenger Josh Hawley. And North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — who possesses an A rating from the National Rifle Association — was decimated in her re-election bid, losing to Rep. Kevin Cramer by 11 percentage points. These three outgoing Democrats had a moderate voting record to match their campaign rhetoric. Per FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump Score,” Donnelly, McCaskill and Heitkamp voted with Trump more than any Democratic senator aside from West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

As the outgoing incumbents learned, Democratic campaign strategy ought to focus on accentuating turnout, not converting moderate voters. Donnelly’s confusing centrism fell flat with the younger coalition in the electorate — voters between ages 18 and 29 voted for Donnelly by a slim margin of 48 to 45 percent, compared to a 67 to 32 percent nationwide disparity in youth support for Democrats as CNN reported in their midterm election coverage. Turnout in Indiana, typically a fairly active state, was just 46.1 percent, falling below the national average. Rather than trying to craft a clear message promoting liberal values, Donnelly fell into the old paradigm and ran a risk-averse campaign. Fearful of alienating any one voter, he failed to see the potential gains to be had by inspiring progressive, young voters. Ultimately, the success of Democrats who held fast to an uncompromising message of progressivism hints at a 2020 plan. This extends beyond O’Rourke and Abrams — Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin both easily secured re-election in states that voted for Trump. Indeed, as the next round of elections approaches, Democrats should recognize this lesson from 2018: As a campaign strategy, coherent progressive messaging is superior to performative conservatism.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.