How a Democrat can win OH-12 in 2018: Part Four


This is the fourth installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don’t fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to “claim the center” is a mistake. In Part Three I talked about how, contrary to popular belief, a clear majority of the electorate identifies as economically liberal. Today I talk about how even voters in a Republican-leaning district hunger for a candidate who will advocate for a populist economic agenda. 

If OH-12 is so damned conservative, why is Pat Tiberi quitting?

Tiberi was a junior congressman in a somewhat different 12th District before it was gerrymandered to its current configuration. Both Tiberi’s seniority and the Republicans’ safety in OH-12 was better-established by 2009, but that’s when Obama took office, providing a sure-thing veto over the boldest aspects of the Republican agenda. Finally, in early 2017, Tiberi (a) was firmly established as an important lieutenant to House Speaker Paul Ryan; (b) had a district which was seemingly tailor made for his electoral safety; and (c) had a Republican president in the White House, ensuring that his legislative agenda would be carried out. 

Nine months later, he announced he was quitting, reportedly disillusioned with the job, having passed no substantive laws despite his party controlling the government completely. 

What happened?

Tiberi hasn’t talked about his decision to quit in any detail, but it’s not hard to guess that he was feeling the heat. The ACA repeal he was supposed to quarterback was a disaster. The currently pending tax plan may pass — I suspect it will — but it’s wildly unpopular with almost every constituency outside of the super rich and the donor class. Thanks to the bills he has championed and his unwillingness to defend his positions to his constituents, Tiberi has been beaten up from every direction in his own, once-loyal district. I suspect he knows that it would’ve been tough to run on that record in 2018, even in his safe district. He is exhausted, he has never had a tough election, I suspect he’s a little scared, and he got out while the getting was good. 

In theory, none of this should be happening. I strongly suspect that the reason it is happening is because, in practice, there is no real constituency for Tiberi’s agenda or the agenda of congressional Republicans and once voters finally get a chance to see it up close, they’ll beat the hell out of the people who advocate for it. 

People like Pat Tiberi personally. He seems like a nice guy. They may identify with the Republican party for various reasons, personal and historical. They may, in the abstract, like to hear talk about about fiscal responsibility and ending government waste. There is no majority, however, that supports cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing government programs and services which benefit the poor and middle class and claiming, contrary to nearly 40 years of objective evidence, that doing so will make life better for everyone. Once that finally became a possibility in January 2017, the nation — and OH-12 — got angry. 

It’s not just lefties like me who find a soak-the-poor-to-help-the-rich agenda repugnant. Most people who vote Republican do too. Indeed, just last year they nominated and elected a man president who they believed would fight that agenda. His name was Donald Trump.

Given how strongly Trump has gotten behind the agenda of Congressional Republicans in 2017, it’s easy to forget it, but in 2015 and 2016 Trump ran against the current Republican economic orthodoxy. He ran against a bunch of Pat Tiberi types in the Republican primary and cleaned their clocks. Guys like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who share Tiberi’s Congressional agenda. Guys like Bobby Jindal, who actually implemented the conservative economic agenda as governor of Louisiana, which led to fiscal and civic ruin. Candidate Trump, at one time or another, opposed nearly every plank in the current Republican economic agenda. He gained a strong and fervent following in doing so.

This didn’t happen because he’s charming — Trump is repugnant in every conceivable way — but because America has no interest in the agenda of congressional Republicans. Because he delivered a populist economic message about rebuilding and investing in America and in aiding the middle and lower classes who have taken it on the chin for a good thirty or forty years. One could argue that no one has spoken so directly and so effectively to the poor, the middle class and those who have been left behind by the modern economy in 50 or maybe even 80 years. 

Now, to be sure, I don’t think Trump believed that message himself. He cares nothing about anyone but Donald Trump. I don’t believe he either wants to or that he is able to deliver on that message. His first year in office has shown that to him those were just words and that all he really cares about is looking good and getting “wins” in whatever way he can. But that populist message is what he ran and and it is what voters responded to. It’s understandable that they did. 

Outside of conservative think tanks, Wall Street investment banks, corporate C-suites, and a narrow class of ultra-wealthy people and political donors, there is no popular support in this country for slashing the taxes of millionaires and taking services away from the poor and middle class. None. People don’t want it. When they saw it in the from of the AHCA, they recoiled. When they saw it in the form of the Republican tax plan they recoiled almost as strongly, to the point where some congressmen have been forced to explain that they’re pushing this agenda for the sake of the donor class, not their constituents.

Americans do not want to giveaways to the wealthy, they want investments in the country and in its people. They know that government is often inefficient and wasteful, but they do not consider it their mortal enemy and do not want representatives who have no ideas apart from starving it and the people it serves. They heard Donald Trump say that he’d protect Medicare and Social Security and that he’d make sure they got good health care. They heard him say that he’d rebuild America’s infrastructure and put people back to work. They believed him and supported him as a result. 

Donald Trump gave lip service to helping ordinary Americans, but has no idea how to make that happen. Pat Tiberi, the rest of the Republicans in Congress and, almost certainly, the Republicans who run to fill Pat Tiberi’s seat next year, don’t give a lick about these things. They don’t have a single policy proposal or talking point that even hints at helping ordinary Americans and there is nothing in their agenda that suggests that they’ll try.

But people hunger for it. Not just liberals in Democratic neighborhoods, but people in Mansfield, Johnstown and Zanesville. Working people and farmers in Morrow County, Licking County and Muskingum County who once had stable employment or government support but don’t any longer because Pat Tiberi and his buddies decided that millionaires needed more help than they did. People who believed Trump when he said that he’d help them. People who, for various reasons, voted Republican before but who have learned in the past year that Republicans are hostile to their interests.  

This is not mere rhetoric. Data is being gathered that reflects this hunger for someone — anyone — to deliver on the promises Donald Trump falsely made.

Earlier this month pollsters Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz wrote a memo, based on polling data, concluding that successful candidates in 2018 and beyond “must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits.” They said that voters are in search of a “clear, populist platform” in which candidates position themselves as credible opponents to the far-right agendas of congressional Republicans and President Trump. They found that voters want someone to show that they are not doing the bidding of lobbyists and corporate insiders. That they want representatives who “know what it’s like to live a day in [their] shoes” and that they are willing to fight “for the right kind of change.” 

Donald Trump waved at this sort of message disingenuously and actually received a great deal of support as a result. Other Republicans have never offered this message and Pat Tiberi’s would-be Republican replacements in OH-12 will almost certainly not offer it next year. It’s a message that, once upon a time, Democrats offered but which they have neglected for over 25 years because they have been afraid of being painted as fiscally irresponsible or because they have come to enjoy the attention they have received from Wall Street, the tech sector and other moneyed constituencies.

It’s a message that may alienate some CEOs and bank presidents in New Albany and Dublin, but which will resonate strongly with the masses of people in OH-12 who do not support Republicans’ full frontal assault on Medicare, Medicaid and other public programs aimed at helping the poor and the middle class in order to give those CEOs and bank presidents tax cuts. It’s also a message that, per Greenberg and Zdunkewicz, will likely motivate those who do not typically turn out for midterm elections to make a point to do so, which will undoubtedly favor the candidate giving voice to that message. 

It’s a message a Democrat who believes in such things can and should run with in OH-12 next year. It’s one that can, in a wave election, put that candidate over the top, even in a district Pat Tiberi won with 66% of the vote a year ago. 

In our next installment I’ll walk through various policy positions to demonstrate just how easy it can be for a candidate to run on populist, economically liberal positions in a way that appeals to voters in even conservative districts like OH-12.

Part Five 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.