Democrats across the country are airing their grievances with the party’s approach to challenging Republicans after falling short in several special elections in red districts, most recently their Tuesday loss in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
While many liberal activists want the party to tack to the left, energize the base, and appeal to voters who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election, a moderate faction of Democrats is calling for a widening of the party and a move toward the center.
Still others argue the Democrats’ recent losses do not signal the need for a dramatic party shift.
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who has advocated for a revamped party framework, said that the party is distracted by scandals and intrigue in Washington and needs to refocus on kitchen-table issues that moderate voters care about. While Ryan praised the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, he argued that doubt in Trump’s leadership is not enough to flip seats in Congress.
“I think letting our anger against Trump overwhelm our ability to have an economic message is a real problem,” Ryan told Business Insider, adding, “People in Ohio do not care about Russia. They just don’t … they’re not sitting at their kitchen table talking about Trump and Russia.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, a prominent freshman Democrat from Massachusetts, agreed.
“Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future,” Moulton tweeted on Tuesday night. “We need a genuinely new message, a serious jobs plan that reaches all Americans, and a bigger tent not a smaller one. Focus on the future.”
Many experienced operatives say the party’s focus needs to be on finding and recruiting candidates with particular currency in their specific districts. Steve Schale, a top Democratic strategist based in Florida, said Democrat Jon Ossoff, who lost the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to Republican Karen Handel, was not that type of candidate.
“He had the advantage that he had $US30 million to spend,” Schale told Business Insider, “but at the same time he had never run for office before, didn’t have a real relationships with the district, didn’t have sort of the characteristics that are helpful in a place like this.”
Schale said that in a district as red as Georgia’s sixth, Democrats need the “perfect candidate” — someone who fits their constituents, rather than a “generic” progressive candidate.
“It’s not a left-right test for Democrats, it’s more just nominating people to have a relationship with the district in a way that can appeal to people that normally don’t vote for Democrats,” Schale said. “These things are still races between people as much as they are proxies for the parties.”
Bruce Reed, a top party leader and former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said as much before Ossoff’s loss.
“Winning hotly contested swing seats … requires candidates who closely match their districts — even if they don’t perfectly align with the national party’s activist base,” Reed and Emanuel wrote in The Atlantic on Tuesday.
Jesse Ferguson, a top spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said that any change in party focus has to leave room for candidates to create their own nuance.
“I think it’s a mistake if you think that candidates around the country are going to be cookie-cutter replicas,” Ferguson told Business Insider. “People want candidates who are true to themselves and authentic and run because of what they believe in.”
Ryan and others in the party think that broader change, including replacing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, must happen before Democrats can win back the House.
“I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” Rep. Filemon Vela told Politico. “Nancy Pelosi is not the only reason that Ossoff lost. But she certainly is one of the reasons.”
But others argue the push to reframe the Democratic agenda and bring in new leadership is premature. Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, the co-founder of the consulting firm Rokk Solutions, says anti-Trump resistance is likely enough for the time being.
“Republicans took back the House and the Senate in 2010 more or less with no message, except for that they were against everything that Obama was for, and no policies,” Mollineau told Business Insider. “So this idea that … six months later you need to have all of your policies ready and a brand new message — I think that’s ridiculous.”
Mollineau does not deny Democrats have work to do to in preparation for the 2018 midterm elections, but said that recent special election losses do not mean change must happen immediately.
“Had we won these elections I think that there would still be tough questions that Democrats need to answer and problems they need to fix in order to be successful long term,” he said. “There’s still more that we need to do — we’re not there yet and we’ve got a year and a half to figure it out.”
Maxwell Tani contributed reporting.
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