Red State Voters Like Democratic Ideas Much More Than Democratic Candidates

From Florida to Missouri to Utah, progressive ballot measures won as their advocates lost. How does the party fix that?
Brendan Smialowski via Getty Images

Perhaps the most promising development for progressive Democrats in Tuesday’s elections came from ballot initiatives in conservative territory. Over the course of the evening, progressives notched policy victory after policy victory in red state after red state.

Voters raised the minimum wage in Arkansas and Missouri. They expanded Medicaid coverage to more than 300,000 people in Utah, Nebraska and Idaho. In Florida, they restored voting rights to over 1.2 million convicted felons ― a civil rights victory that will transform the state’s electorate of 16 million. Utah ― Utah! ― legalized medical marijuana.

Most of these initiatives weren’t close. The Arkansas minimum wage hike cleared by a margin of more than 2-to-1. The similar Missouri measure passed by nearly 30 percentage points, about even with the vote on an August primary measure to help unions in the state. Florida’s voting rights amendment passed 64 percent to 36 percent.

And yet even as they endorsed Democratic Party policy ideas, voters in these same states rejected actual Democratic candidates for statewide office. The Arkansas governor’s race was essentially a formality for Republican incumbent Asa Hutchinson. Mitt Romney coasted into office as the next senator from Utah, while the Senate and gubernatorial contests in Nebraska never approached anything like competitiveness. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill lost her Senate re-election bid by more than 140,000 votes, while in Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came up about 54,000 votes shy of the governor’s mansion and Sen. Bill Nelson called for a recount after appearing to lose his bid for re-election.

Part of the problem is what political consultants politely refer to as “candidate quality.” Two years ago, McCaskill tweeted a photo of herself enjoying a watermelon mojito at a vacation home she and her husband share with Rick DeStefane, a nursing home magnate embroiled in controversies including safety lapses tied to gruesome deaths and a federal Medicare fraud settlement (McCaskill’s husband and DeStefane have been business partners). The 76-year-old Nelson, meanwhile, inexplicably sat out much of the 2018 campaign season and struggled to appear relevant once he hit the trail. At a recent rally in Miami, he invoked “Happy Days Are Here Again” ― Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign song from 1932. Gillum was hampered by an FBI investigation into his professional relationships with two lobbyists.

But those personal faults can explain only so much. In state after state, Democrats just aren’t anywhere near as popular as their ideas. In rural America, the Democratic Party’s brand is toxic.

It’s impossible to talk meaningfully about the dynamics of partisanship and American conservatism without reckoning with race. President Donald Trump spent much of his 2016 campaign embracing traditionally Democratic ideas about trade, campaign finance and financial regulation without suffering any major setbacks with the Republican base. GOP voters were willing to compromise on the party’s trickle-down economic orthodoxy when the heresy was combined with hefty doses of white grievance and authoritarian spectacle. Trump did his best to define the midterms with the latter two, raining down conspiracy theories about his nefarious caravan.

Many Trump voters may well be fine with higher working-class wages, so long as they aren’t directly confronted with who many of those working-class folks are. It certainly seems like voters in Utah, Idaho and Nebraska are more amenable to at least one tenet of Obamacare ― the Medicaid expansion ― when it isn’t being marketed by the first black president.

Florida’s gubernatorial campaign was the most overtly racist statewide contest in an election year defined by overtly racist messaging from the Republican Party and its allies. Gillum’s opponent, former Rep. Ron DeSantis, warned voters not to “monkey this up” while neo-Nazis sent out appalling anti-Gillum robo-calls filled with primate screeches, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing and warnings about “putting Negroes in charge over the white folk.”

And yet Florida’s voting rights restoration is primarily a triumph for working-class black men. Two things were happening in the same electorate: White voters rejected a black candidate in favor of his race-baiting opponent as they approved a pro-black civil rights initiative. For hundreds of thousands of voters, the ballot initiative didn’t set off the same alarm bells that a black candidate did.

“In state after state, Democrats just aren’t anywhere near as popular as their ideas. In rural America, the Democratic Party’s brand is toxic.”

This was partly a result of artful messaging and convenient allies on the voting rights effort. The billionaire Koch brothers supported it, immunizing it from some forms of conservative opposition, while advocates presented it as a multi-racial project that would free white and white-collar convicts from injustice alongside black felons.

But whatever the magic formula, the success of these efforts demonstrates that Democrats can secure policy outcomes they like even when they can’t overcome partisan dynamics in statewide elections. The very fact that red state voters like Democratic ideas ― even if they don’t really like Democrats themselves ― is itself an opportunity to detoxify the party’s brand with much of the country.

That is, if the party can find the right messengers. Unlike the 2018 election, 2016 was almost universally disastrous for Democrats. One of the few bright spots was in Oklahoma, where a small team of ambitious organizers decided to fight a statewide “right to farm” ballot initiative. Right-to-farm laws are designed to protect big corporate factory farm operations from environmental, food safety and humanitarian regulations, and they often do well in rural states where Big Ag dominates the economic landscape. But in Oklahoma two years ago, organizers convinced family farmers, environmental conservationists, animal welfare advocates and a healthy crop of urban liberals to reject the measure. Big Ag lost by 20 points.

“Democrats don’t have to throw out their values,” the campaign’s organizer, Joe Maxwell, told HuffPost last year. “Democrats don’t even have to abandon their issues. It’s about how you frame it. It’s about connecting with people and showing them how your ideas fit with their values.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Tuesday night’s election returns was in Oklahoma, where Kendra Horn became the first Democrat to represent the 5th Congressional District since 1975. The 5th District includes Oklahoma City, and like other states, Oklahoma is starting to develop a partisan urban-rural divide.

But Oklahoma City still isn’t Brooklyn. It takes work for Democrats to connect with voters in red states. They have to give skeptical people something to vote for. And it’s easier for Democratic candidates to build a winning campaign if organizers have already laid down some of the ideological groundwork.

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