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The Senate in 2018 and 2020, and What to Do About Red State Politics

There’s a lot of doom and gloom on the Democratic side about the Senate. Losing multiple Senate seats is rough, and not winning the Texas race where it seemed like there was so much turnout momentum by people of color and young folks is especially tough to take. It makes taking the Senate back in 2020 considerably harder.

Some people are also despairing in general about the future of the Senate, over all those rural, heavily white red states with shrinking populations and yet with the same number of senators as rapidly growing, more populous states. But I’m here to tell you not to lose hope: there is a path to victory. I firmly believe that we can compete in red states. The strategic question is how.

In 2018, we saw three different strategies to winning in red state America. The first was to run as a conservative, separating yourself from the Democratic label as far as possible, even play into Trump’s race baiting to an extent. This was the approach of Bredesen, Donnelly, Manchin, and McCaskill. They advocated for some combination of things like Kavanaugh’s confirmation or Trump’s immigration policy, and to label progressive Democrats as extreme or crazy. Manchin won doing this (he is uniquely West Virginian), but the other three got beat far worse than expected. All were rated as dead heat toss-ups throughout the campaign, all had dozens of polls right up to the end that were even or within the margin of error. But McCaskill lost by 6, Donnelly by 7, and Bredesen by 11... not even close.

The second strategy was what I would call the independent Democrat strategy. To show your independence in a variety of ways; to emphasize the bills you are passing that Trump signed; but not to diss other Democrats or signal that you are moving to the right. Two Democrats went with this approach: Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Jon Tester in Montana. We were 1-1 with this approach. Heitkamp lost by a little less than 11%, but North Dakota is arguably the most Republican state in the country right now, and Heidi had been trailing in the polls by double digits for a long time, well before the Kavanaugh vote. But Jon Tester pulled out another hard-fought victory.

Finally, you have the Beto strategy. The last time a Democrat won statewide in Texas was 1994, and no one had ever come close in all that time. Texas has been one of the most Republican states in the country for a long time, deep ruby red. Every other Democrat candidate for governor and senator in all those years had run as a centrist or conservative Democrat, but Beto went with a completely different strategy, not shading in any way to the center even on controversial social issues, running as an open and proud progressive. And he almost pulled it off, coming within 1.5%. He did so well because he inspired people, and as a result, he had all the money, volunteers, social media, and person-to-person organizing that he needed. Turnout among Democratic base groups skyrocketed and it almost pulled off what would have been the biggest upset of the year.

Based on these results, as well as the results from a number of other red state races over the last couple of cycles where Democrats ran as conservatives (like Evan Bayh’s failed comeback in Indiana in 2016, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Mark Pryor in Arkansas in 2014), I would argue that the worst strategy we can pursue is for Democrats in red states to run as a conservative. I think the results and numbers analysis generally show that distancing yourself that much from the party depresses base turnout, and drives down volunteerism, small dollar contributions, social media enthusiasm, and person-to-person engagement.

I come from Nebraska, and have been involved in a lot of races over the years in states like South Dakota and Montana, so I get the challenges of being a red state Democrat. I don’t think everyone can win with the Beto strategy -- he is a supremely talented politician in a state where the demographics are more Democratic than the voting population, so an enthusiasm strategy fits better there than in some red states. And more Democrats should experiment with some version of it: it was a strategy that kicked ass for him. But, sure, In those small Western and Midwestern red states, you do have to show and emphasize your independence from coastal Democrats.

However, Democrats can still win in red America. Contrary to conventional wisdom, rural America actually moved more away from the Republican Party percentage-wise than the suburbs did. We won the gubernatorial race in Kansas, and came damn close in South Dakota. In Montana, we won the Senate race, and came within five points of winning the House race with an underfunded candidate. Not to mention that MT Governor Steve Bullock is currently the most popular governor in America. We picked up a congressional seat in Oklahoma that no one had targeted, and ran a respectable race for governor. We picked up two congressional districts in Iowa with a lot of rural turf, came very close to winning the Governorship, and almost beat Steve King in a district that had gone for Trump by 28%. Don’t let any of your big city liberal friends get you down: Democrats are perfectly capable of competing in rural America.

Most fundamentally, the way we win in red states is to connect with working people again, to focus on the values, stories, and issues that matter the most to them. If we show ourselves to be genuine about fighting for what matters to working people in red America, we will win a lot more of their votes.

Looking at the Senate map in 2020, we’ll have to compete in a lot of red states again. It’s a lot better map for us than this year’s awful map was, but we still have some tough places to compete. The good news is that Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina are all on the list, states that are purple or even a little bluish. But the way you build a wave election and win a majority is to have a bigger map rather than a smaller one. That we were seriously competing this cycle in close to a hundred races made winning 30+ a lot easier. So don’t write off all the red states:

  • This year proved Georgia is turning ever more purple. We can win a Senate race against David “Cotton-picking” Perdue.

  • Alaska has had a lot of close races and some Democratic victories in the last several years.

  • Kansas will have a Democratic governor and two new Democratic Members of Congress. The Republican Party there is badly split and burned by the disastrous tenure of Sam Brownback as governor.

  • Only some seriously dumb campaign decisions by Grimes kept hers from being a very competitive race last time. Mitch McConnell just isn’t that popular with his own party or in Kentucky.

  • As noted above, Montana just re-elected a Democratic senator, and has a very popular Democratic governor, so with the right kind of candidate/campaign, Montana could be very competitive.

  • In Nebraska, Ben Sasse and the Trump people hate each other. He might not run again, and whether he does or not, there will be a vicious GOP primary. There could be an opening here.

  • In South Dakota, Mike Rounds is not all that popular. If Billie Sutton (the guy who almost won the Governor’s race) runs for Senate, this could be a barnburner.

  • In Tennessee, Lamar Alexander may well retire or be challenged in a primary given the deep divisions in the Tennessee GOP. An open seat and GOP divisions always gives opportunities.

  • In Texas, if Beto or a Beto-style candidate runs again, Cornyn would have a race on his hands.

Is there a single one of these races that is easy? Of course not, and we sure aren’t going to win them all. But expanding the map and keeping possibilities alive is all to our benefit in 2020, because we are in the ultimate who-knows-what-might-happen era in American politics. If the American people are getting tired of the Trump circus and Democrats field a strong presidential candidate, it could turn into a big Democratic year, and that opens up a lot of possibilities in tough states. I’ll make one other point: in more than half of the election cycles since 1994, one party or another has picked up 4 seats or more. The Republicans won 10 in ’94 and 9 in ’14, two of their biggest wave years, while Dems picked up 5 in 2006 and 7 in 2008, our two biggest. Even in non-wave years, though, in the tight presidential years of 2000 and 2004, there were big swings: 5 for us in 2000, 4 for them in 2004. If we have a good year overall, we could pick up a lot of Senate seats.

But as we move forward on targeting red states, let’s strongly encourage our candidates to not use the strategy that did so badly for Bredesen, McCaskill, Donnelly, and others in years past who went with the conservative Democrat strategy. The record shows it is a losing idea.

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