Politico: House Democrats Lament Blue-Collar Collapse
Originally posted at Politico by Maggie Severns and Theodoric Meyer.
Democrats’ shrinking ranks of House members from blue-collar districts watched glumly as President-elect Donald Trump ran up the score in their backyards earlier this month, fearing their party is forfeiting wide swaths of America — and with it, any prospect of taking the House for years to come.
Democrats made modest House gains by netting a half-dozen Republican seats, but they lost all of the 12 GOP districts they targeted with the highest shares of whites without college degrees, mostly by double-digit margins. The party nearly suffered surprise losses in several of its own districts with the most blue-collar whites.
And while some glass-half-full Democratic representatives are already hoping a backlash against Trump lifts their fortunes in these districts in 2018, others fear that the party’s move toward urban and suburban voters will eventually shut Democrats out of former white working-class strongholds, where many districts were redrawn after 2010 to be tougher for Democrats and have only gotten more forbidding since. One of Democrats’ remaining members from those regions, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), last week launched an underdog leadership challenge against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the grounds that the party needs to shake things up to have a shot at retaking the majority.
Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who eked out 53 percent of the vote in his unexpectedly close race this November, blamed his party’s stances on the deficit, gay rights, abortion and the Second Amendment for turning off voters in his rural district.
“The party’s not going to change on those issues, so the people out there are not going to vote for Democrats,” Peterson said in an interview. “You might get some marginal difference, but we’ve become an urban party.”
Hillary Clinton’s poor performance in working-class areas Nov. 8 has ignited a debate over how Democrats can win back blue-collar voters, who once formed the backbone of the party. The debate has resurfaced tensions between progressives and the remaining moderate and conservative Democrats in the chamber.
Peterson, one of the last Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, said fellow Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison asked him whether he would support Ellison for Democratic National Committee chairman. Peterson’s response: “If you can get the Democratic Party to stop pushing gun [restrictions], I’ll back you.”
Some Democratic lawmakers, such as Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, have called on the party to refocus its message on the economy, trade and the needs of working-class voters if it wants to compete in the Midwest — which Trump nearly swept in the Electoral College — in the future.
“The Midwest is red, and we need to try to get it back,” said Dingell. “Point blank, we’ve forgotten who our base is. Our base needs to be broad. It isn’t ‘us versus them,’ it’s ‘we’ — but we’ve got to remember who the ‘we’ is.”
Other Democrats conceded that Clinton’s appeals to minorities and women and repeated denunciations of Trump’s behavior simply didn’t resonate with many working-class voters.
“So much of this is identity politics,” said Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, who represents a blue-collar Wisconsin district where Trump and Clinton ran close to each other this year. “I hate to say it, but it’s true.”
In retrospect, the party’s constant attacks on Trump “proved to be a mistake,” said Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents a blue-collar district in Michigan and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s committee to protect vulnerable incumbents. “We should have been completely focused on a positive, forward-looking agenda on jobs and the problems people face.”
Democrats hold only a dozen of the 100 House districts with the most adult whites without bachelor’s degrees, according to a POLITICO analysis of census data. None of these members lost on Election Day, but several came uncomfortably — and surprisingly — close.
Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, another Minnesotan who, like Peterson, was not seen as endangered by either party, came within 3,000 votes of losing his seat. A third Minnesota Democrat, Rick Nolan, barely fought off another tough challengefor his seat. Reps. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania won by smaller margins than they did in 2014, belying the typical Democratic presidential-year boost.
In 2016, the DCCC targeted 12 GOP districts like those, concentrated in upstate New York and the upper Midwest. But Democrats lost every one of them, most of them by double-digit margins.
In northern Wisconsin, Tom Nelson, a promising Democratic recruit with a history of outrunning his party in conservative territory, lost by more than 25 points as Donald Trump carried the district. In northern Michigan, Lon Johnson ran ads promising to “stand up to my own party to protect our 2nd Amendment rights,” but was nevertheless handily defeated as well.
Former Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, who cut a TV ad for Johnson, said Clinton’s appeals to an increasingly diverse electorate didn’t help Johnson in a rural district that’s 92 percent white. “I think his message was overshadowed by Secretary Clinton’s message, which was, ‘We’re focusing on specific groups,’” Stupak said. “‘We’re not interested in you.’”
Democrats had predicted that Clinton would be able to run even stronger than President Barack Obama had in white, working-class districts. “There are between 60 and 75 truly competitive districts in the House,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a former DCCC chairman, told The New York Times last year. “Hillary Clinton is the only Democrat I know who can go into every single one of those districts and do well — with the possible exception of her husband.”
But Clinton ran far behind Obama in a number of blue-collar districts. She lost to Trump in Iowa’s 1st District, taking less than 45 percent of the vote in a district Obama carried with 56 percent of the vote four years ago. Rep. Rod Blum, who’d been viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House earlier this cycle, easily defeated his Democratic challenger.
“We’ve got to learn how to tap into the unique and unprecedented anxieties of working- and middle-class voters constructively; otherwise, the Republicans will continue to do it destructively,” Israel said in an interview.
Outgoing Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson (left) said that the U.N. will need to appeal to the incoming Trump administration’s “enlightened self-interest.”
Still, Israel is optimistic that the party will be able to put these districts in play again in 2018. “The bittersweet irony of the presidential election is the Democrats are on more solid ground going into the midterms,” he said.
Other Democrats pointed out that Republican-led redistricting in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest had specifically targeted blue-collar Democratic representatives, cutting their voices out of the party.
John Fetterman, the tattooed mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who lost a Senate bid this year, said he had been impressed by Erin McClelland, the Democrat who challenged GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus this year for his Western Pennsylvania seat. Democratic Rep. John Murtha represented the district for decades, and his longtime aide Mark Critz held it even in the 2010 GOP wave. But Republican legislators redrew the district in 2011, Critz lost it in 2012, and, this year, McClelland lost badly to Rothfus.
“This is someone who gets it, who understands it, who can have a shot and a beer with the guys,” Fetterman said. “It didn’t count for anything. She just got demolished.”
Some incumbents did manage to vastly outrun Clinton. Nolan eked out his win by six-tenths of a percentage point even as Clinton lost his district by 15 points.
The Minnesota Democrat attributed his victory to his focus on legislating — he skips the usual visits to call centers when in Washington — and having a longstanding focus on issues that are important to his district.
This year, those issues became the focus of the new president-elect’s campaign.
“Someone said, ‘When it comes to trade, and the need for changing the way we do politics, and [that] the system is fixed for the benefit of few and the expense of many, you sound a lot like Trump,’” Nolan said. “I said, ‘No, Trump sounds like me.’ And that has been who I am for a long time.”
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