Recently I wrote about why I think a Democrat can win Ohio’s 12th Congressional district, despite it being gerrymandered to favor Republicans. In the coming days I’m going to talk about how a Democrat can actually win it.
This series of posts is not about the nuts and bolts of a campaign. This is about positioning, communication, tone and, above all else, policies, which will allow a Democrat to win a district that, generally speaking, leans Republican by a seven to nine point margin and which, a year ago, voted 54% in favor of Donald Trump and 66% in favor of a Republican congressional incumbent.
In the first installment, I want to talk about the elephant in the room: President Donald Trump. He will no doubt be a major factor in every election in 2018. It would be a mistake, however, to run solely or even primarily against Donald Trump, his character and his scandals. Indeed, I am confident that doing so will not win this seat, for one simple reason:
Winning politicians do not run against something. They run for something.
Donald Trump will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene for the foreseeable future. This district, in fact, would not be even remotely competitive if not for his alienating presence and for the damage he has already done. His election has motivated and mobilized people to an unprecedented degree. He is largely responsible for Pat Tiberi throwing in the towel in frustration, opening up the race.
Donald Trump will not be on the ballot, however. What’s more, the Republican candidate who will be on the ballot will be a newcomer who will not have to defend a pro-Trump voting record. Indeed, I suspect he or she will move heaven and Earth to distance his or herself from Trump and will be able to do so relatively easily. As such, to the extent a Democrat makes the election, above all else, about Donald Trump, he or she will not be running against his or her opponent. What’s more, he or she will allow the Republican to be he first to localize the race, the first to highlight issues voters care about and the first to claim, rightly or wrongly, that they have better answers about how to address those issues.
We’ll talk about those issues more in coming installments. The key thing to understand for now, though, is that voters want to vote for something. They want to think that they are casting their vote to make their lives and the lives of their loved ones better. A successful candidate will be the one who convinces voters that they will help them do just that. Running against Donald Trump, first and foremost, will not accomplish this.
This is not a merely theoretical idea. There is a relatively recent precedent bearing it out.
In 1994, Republicans won back Congress in an historic wave election, with Republicans taking the House for the first time in over 40 years. While hysterical anger at the recently-elected Bill Clinton and his ill-fated healthcare reform effort did much to motivate the GOP base, a motivated base did not, by itself, create the wave that won that election.
Republicans won by historic margins in 1994 because they offered affirmative policy positions in the form of the Contract With America. To be sure, The Contract With America did not contain positive policy positions — much of what was proposed was terrible policy — but they were affirmative positions in the form of ten specific acts and multiple measures that corresponded with their political ideology. It told voters what they would do and how, in their view, it would help them and make their lives better. Voters may or may not have believed that Republicans could deliver, but they gave it a chance because people wanted then, as now, to believe that today will be better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.
In subsequent elections the primary thrust of GOP rhetoric was opposing Bill Clinton and defeating him for the sake of defeating him. It was echoed in the 2000s, when Democrats tried to make elections about George W. Bush and in 2010, 2012 and 2014 when Republicans tried to make elections about Barack Obama. Those messages made the hardcore elements of the opposition base extraordinarily happy and, at times, led to some short term gains, but they alienated less-engaged voters and did not give them anything positive to grasp on to. Such messages did not create the sort of waves that help a minority party gain real power and cannot now be counted upon to form the basis of an affirmative political movement.
There has never been a less popular president heading into his first midterm election than Donald Trump. As time goes on his unpopularity will likely increase as details of the various scandals surrounding him continue to come out and as a compliant, spineless Republican-controlled Congress continues to abide him in the name of advancing their harmful agenda. Activist groups such as the Indivisible groups have and will continue to channel the energy, excitement and, yes, anger that has exploded onto the political scene from the left in the past year as a result of Trump’s toxic presidency. Any candidate who wishes to win OH-12 must, without question, work with these groups and their members, listening to their concerns and pledging to help them accomplish their goals. No candidate running for office should shy away from saying they will fight Donald Trump and restore Congress’ seemingly abandoned oversight responsibilities.
Fighting Trump, however, will not by itself convince a critical number of the 66% of the district which voted Republican in 2016, let alone the 54% of it that voted for Trump to cast a ballot for a Democrat. A campaign centered on fighting Trump will not give people who are not as engaged as political activists are (i.e. most voters) a reason to engage. It will not draw in voters who want, above all else, to create a better tomorrow and who will help create the wave necessary to flip OH-12 from red to blue.
This does not mean running a centrist campaign. This does not mean equivocating on one’s deeply-held convictions. Above all else it does not mean taking that motivated base for granted and reaching out in vain to attract staunch Republican voters to a compromised liberal or progressive agenda. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explain why that is.