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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lessons from a Near Upset in a Deep Red District

Democrat Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran who nearly won NC-9 a few weeks ago, has a highly instructive op-ed in The New York Times. As McCready wites:

In a special election on Sept. 10, my campaign came an inch short of flipping a deep red congressional seat in North Carolina. We lost, but we showed how Democrats can win nationwide in 2020.

On paper, a Democrat never should have been competitive in my district — it hadn’t elected one since John F. Kennedy was president. Over time, the Ninth District had been gerrymandered to include Charlotte’s prosperous, Republican-leaning suburbs, its conservative exurbs, and rural counties left behind by Washington’s trade deals.

In 2016, our district’s voters supported President Trump by almost 12 points — yet last month we came within two points of winning. In the Charlotte suburbs, we outperformed President Trump’s margin by more than 16 points.

MaCready, who also lost by just 907 votes in last years midterm elections, in “the largest case of election fraud in recent American history, targeting minority voters and tampering with their absentee ballots,” ran again as a result of a ‘re-do’ vote called  by election officials.

“My team knew our job would be harder than in 2018,” McCready explains. “Many Democrats were less likely to go to the polls in an off-year special election.” However, “Despite coming up short, we did better than many expected…” Some lessons from his experience he believes Democrats can use:

First, we grounded our campaign in values. We Democrats can sometimes get stuck in policy jargon and cede the language of values, where voters really make decisions, to Republicans. In our campaign, we flipped this around.

I built trust with voters by talking about what motivated me to serve. I was a 35-year-old father of four who had never held elected office, but I felt a calling to serve because I thought politicians needed to bring our country together, not tear it apart. During the campaign, I explained to voters that I had felt a similar calling after Sept. 11, 2001, which led me to join the Marine Corps. When I led a platoon of 65 Marines in Iraq, we never cared about your background, skin color or political party.

I likewise emphasized my business experience. When I built a solar energy company, I collaborated with Republicans and Democrats to put 700 people to work. That’s the kind of leadership, I said, that was missing in Washington.

I also wasn’t afraid to share how my faith led me to run, and then helped me press on through challenging times as we battled the election fraud.

So while I talked about policy, I anchored my candidacy in the things that connect us all. In the end, voters told me they trusted me because they got the real me. It’s a great lesson. We all have our own stories to tell. Lead with the heart, and the rest will follow.

In terms of issues, McCready notes,

Second, when it came to policy, I met voters where they were. We focused not on the daily drama in Washington, but on people’s everyday struggles. Voters told me that instead of more partisan fighting, they needed help to afford medication and doctors’ visits. I promised to work across party lines in Congress to lower health care and prescription drug costs. Voters welcomed my proposal to stand up to big drug companies, fix Obamacare and expand Medicaid.

To be sure, some activists wished I favored a stronger government hand in my health care proposal. But once they got to know me, they poured their hearts into our race because they knew my values and saw that we had the same goal of affordable and quality health care for every American. This taught me how important it is to avoid policy purity tests and focus on the goals we all share.

This approach also insulated me from some of my opponents’ appalling tactics. Republican groups spent over $6 million lying about my character. They told voters I supported infanticide. They tried to scare voters with racist dog whistles. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence even came down on the eve of the election to throw fuel on the fire.

But because we took the time to build a foundation of values and common-sense policy ideas, most persuadable voters found those attacks unbelievable.

McCready’s third point is that “running in a district like mine doesn’t mean a candidate has to sacrifice the Democratic base to win the middle. In fact, the trust we built early on, which we strengthened over countless coffee chats and town halls, set our base on fire. We didn’t always agree on policy specifics, but we trusted one another, and we became like family.”

He notes that “Our volunteers knocked on 200,000 doors in the largest congressional field effort people in North Carolina can remember. Suburban women of all backgrounds led the charge, motivated not just by our message of unity but also by my opponents’ and the president’s attacks on our democratic norms and values.”

Fourthly, McCready writes, “we didn’t give up on rural America, and Democrats elsewhere shouldn’t either.” Further,

In the rural areas of our district, politicians had left everyone behind — white, African-American and Native American voters alike. Political engagement was low as voters were fed up with broken promises by Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle. White and socially conservative Native American voters were moving Republican, while many African-American and Native American voters who voted Democrat were unlikely to choose to vote in an off-year election, especially one without local races on the ballot.

Still, in the rural areas, we exceeded Democrats’ 2016 performance, both last month and in the November 2018 midterm election. And we did that by showing up. Rural African-American communities mobilized because we worked hard to engage with local leaders and hear and speak to these voters’ needs, spending time in churches and small towns where many candidates rarely bothered to go. We gave them a reason to turn out. And look what happened: We rooted out election fraud that had festered for years and gave voters back their voice.

“If Democrats lead with our values, meet voters where they are and show up everywhere, we can do amazing things,” McCready concludes. “If Democrats nationwide replicate our 10-point gain next year, we will pick up 35 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate, and win every presidential battleground state. Bringing our country together depends on it.”

One comment on “Lessons from a Near Upset in a Deep Red District

  1. Martin Lawford on

    So, in the original election, McCready lost by 910 votes. But, that vote was tainted and discredited by ballot fraud, so NC held a special election later, presumably one where they took precautions against ballot fraud. In the special election, McCready lost by 3,788 votes. This is progress?


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