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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Midterm Outcomes and Navigating a Winning Future for Dems

In his New York Times opinion article, “What Really Saved the Democrats This Year?,” Thomas B. Edsall mulls over the debate about whether the midterm elections show that moderate or progressive policies are a better bet for the Democrats looking toward 2024. Edsall quotes political analysts, who make compelling arguments for both viewpoints. For example, Edsall quotes TDS contributor Ruy Teixeira, a leading advocate for Dems embracing a more moderate set of policies. As Edsall writes,

“The Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime critic of the Democrats’ progressive wing, contends in a recent essay, “Ten Reasons Why Democrats Should Become More Moderate,” that adoption of an extreme progressive stance is not only “dead wrong,” but also that “Democrats need to fully and finally reject it if they hope to break the current electoral stalemate in their favor.”

In the 2022 election, Teixeira writes,

the reason why Democrats did relatively well was support from independents and Republican leaning or supporting crossover voters — not base voters mobilized by progressivism. These independents and crossover voters were motivated to support Democrats where they did because many Democrats in key races were perceived as being more moderate than their extremist Republican opponents.

According to Teixeira:

As the Democratic Party has moved to the left over the last four years, they have actually done worse among their base voters. They’ve lost a good chunk of their support among nonwhite voters, especially Hispanics, and among young voters. Since 2018, Democratic support is down 18 margin points among young (18-29 year old) voters, 20 points among nonwhites and 23 points among nonwhite working class (noncollege) voters. These voters are overwhelmingly moderate to conservative in orientation and they’re just not buying what the Democrats are selling.

Teixeira’s final point:

Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to embrace patriotism and dissociate themselves from those who insist America is a benighted, racist nation and always has been. Large majorities of Americans, while they have no objection to looking at both the bad and good of American history, reject such a one-sided, negative characterization. That includes many voters whose support Democrats desperately need but who are now drifting away from them.”

Edsall Also quotes advocates for a more progressive mix of policies: “I asked Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, if the organization had flipped any House seats from red to blue. He replied by email:

This was not the goal of Our Revolution. Our Revolution’s goal in the 2022 elections was to push the Democratic Caucus in a progressive direction, and we succeeded with nine new members joining the ranks of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

In part because of Our Revolution’s support, he continued:

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is growing by nine newly elected members, all of whom were endorsed by Our Revolution. That includes: Summer Lee, Greg Casar, Delia Ramirez, Maxwell Frost, Becca Balint, Andrea Salinas, Jasmine Crockett, Jonathan Jackson, and Val Hoyle. Our Revolution’s success didn’t include just those running for Congress. Our Revolution’s success expanded to local races including St. Louis Board of Alderman President-elect Megan Green, whose victory creates a blue island in a state that is a sea of red.”

Advocates of both progressive and moderate policies point to victories for their Democratic candidates, while ignoring their defeats. But neither progressives nor moderates took away many Republican-held seats. For Dems, the big senate pick-up was John Fetterman in PA (a seat vacated by retirement of Republican Sen. Toomey). The marquee House seat pick-up for Dems came from Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in WA-3. Both of these candidates support mostly progressive policies, while presenting a working-class image. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) provides a good example of a progressive Democrat who got re-elected in a fairly conservative state by projecting a moderate image and tone. Policies do not necessarily define candidate image, and that’s something Dems ought to think more about.

The last words in this discussion come from Ed Kilgore, who has unmatched experience as both a Democratic Party strategist and operative and as a political analyst. As Kilgore, a TDS editor and contributor, observed in his column at New York magazine (and excerpted at TDS),

Data points are still being collected and assessed at this point, but a very strong effort by FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley to examine four big Senate races that Democrats won but were at various points in doubt (in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) shows us that the search for some simple, overriding explanation may not be terribly fruitful.

Using county-level and in some cases precinct-level results, Skelley explains that the winning formula for Mark KellyRaphael WarnockCatherine Cortez Masto, and John Fetterman varied significantly. To oversimplify it, Kelly beat Blake Masters mostly thanks to overperformance among Latino voters; Warnock beat Herschel Walker via impressive margins in Atlanta’s urban core and suburbs; Cortez Masto (the one Democrat in these states to run a bit behind Joe Biden’s 2020 performance) held on against Adam Laxalt by a slightly inflated vote among white college-educated voters; and Fetterman dispatched Mehmet Oz pretty clearly by cutting into the recent Republican margins among white working-class voters.

Regardless of debates about progressives vs. moderates, turnout vs. persuasion and where to allocate campaign resources, winning Democratic campaigns have to be nimble to adapt to events and changing circumstances. While strategy is important, Kilgore concludes that “sometimes the key to victory is to set aside any predetermined grand strategy and simply take what each opponent gives you.”

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