Democrats went into the November 6 election down three games to one. They won game five, but what does that mean? It only means that they get to keep playing. Had the Democrats not one at least the U.S. House of Representatives, it would have been time to turn out the lights. In addition, Democrats picked up governorships in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Kansas. These wins completely change the political calculus for 2020. All things considered, Democrats had a pretty good night. More importantly, they got done what they needed to get done. They didn’t go home.
You can’t overestimate the importance of the Democrats retaking the House. They are now at the table instead of being on the menu. In addition, the make-up of the new House is profoundly altered. In January there will be over 100 women in the U.S. House of Representatives. More importantly, it will be the most diverse House in history because these women are African American, Latina and Native American. They’re gay and straight, they’re Christian and Muslim, they’re teachers and veterans. They’re America.
They’re also Democrats, and that means Democratic office holders are finally beginning to look more like the people who vote for them. The also are led by a woman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who in my opinion is the smartest, most competent, toughest and most lethal Democrat in America.
There were disappointments and setbacks Tuesday night: Gilliam in Florida, Abrams in Georgia, O’Rourke in Texas and, closer to home, Claire McCaskill and Cort VanOstran in Missouri. But these losses offer important insights for how Democrats can win future elections.
There is a debate – schism, really – about how Democrats campaign in a diverse and divided America. Conventional wisdom says Democrats run toward the center so they can appeal to independent white swing voters; call this the Bill Clinton Democratic Leadership Council theory of the case. McCaskill subscribes to this theory, and that was reflected in her campaign strategy and how she managed the politics of her office.
Then there is an emergent Democratic campaign theory – let’s call it the Next Generation Theory – that says you compete for all current voters but your focus should be on expanding the number of voters on Election Day. You do that by engaging the infrequent voter and the new voter, both the older voter who never engaged or became alienated, and the potential voter turning 18. As the voter universe expands it becomes more progressive, younger, with more melanin and more Democratic. This was the Abrams, Gilliam and O’Rourke strategy.
Since so many Democrats lost in different ways, how do you judge whose idea about strategy is right?
You have to look at political races the way Las Vegas odds makers look at sporting events. In Vegas they’re not concerned with who you think will win; most of the time, that’s fairly predictable. The bet is on the spread. What’s the expected margin of victory?
In Florida, Georgia and Texas, Democratic challengers for statewide office were expected to lose by 8-12 points. Claire McCaskill was the underdog by a couple of points, even as an incumbent, a holdover from more competitive days for Democrats in Missouri. McCaskill lost by six points, while Abrams, Gilliam and O’Rourke all came within 1-2 points of victory. The new generation beat the spread. McCaskill didn’t.
So, what’s next? When you win game five but you’re still down three games to two, your job is to win game six. Game six is how Democrats in the House move an agenda that addresses health care, immigration, education and infrastructure, while protecting Social Security and Medicare. They don’t need to attack Trump, just contain him and deny him political oxygen by not giving him fixed targets to shoot at. Even dumpster fires die without oxygen.
Here is what I would have said in the Democratic locker room Tuesday night: “Great win, extraordinary effort and execution. Enjoy this night! Film session in the morning, practice tomorrow afternoon. Gotta get ready for game six. It’s still win or go home.”
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.