One of the emerging lessons of the midterms is that if you’re a Democrat running statewide in Trump country, you have to run as a Trump Republican to have a shot at victory. Consider the handful of statewide elections currently considered toss-ups. Most of them feature Democrats trying to persuade swingable voters that not only are they not part of the Resistance, they actually agree with Trump on certain issues.
In Indiana, which Trump won by 19 points, incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is running an ad campaign attacking “the radical left,” touting Trump’s border wall, and boasting about how often he splits from his own party. In South Dakota, which Trump won by nearly 30 points, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton, who is pro-life and pro-gun, is running on an anti-corruption platform with a former Republican as his running mate.
In Montana, which Trump won by 20 points, incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester ran a full-page ad in 14 state newspapers ahead of a Trump’s visit in July, thanking the president for signing bills that Tester had pushed. (Despite the thank-you, Trump has been attacking Tester for allegations he made against Trump’s one-time secretary of Veterans’ Affairs nominee, Adm. Ronny Jackson.)
In each of these races, recent polls show the Democratic candidate with a slight lead. That stands in sharp contrast to Democratic candidates who are making no effort to embrace Trump voters in states he won. They aren’t faring nearly as well.
In Texas, despite Beto O’Rourke’s fawning media coverage, he’s polling about 7 points behind Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke is running in deep-red Texas but isn’t even trying to temper his progressive policy views—or his politics. In a CNN town hall last week, he reaffirmed that if given the chance he would vote to impeach Trump.
In Arizona, Democratic Senate nominee Kyrsten Sinema has been slipping in recent polls as details about her anti-war activist past come to light. Back in 2003, she said she wouldn’t care if Americans abandoned their country to go fight with the Taliban, and she once invited pagan witches to an anti-Iraq War rally. In addition, videos of Sinema insulting her home state as the “meth lab of democracy” and her fellow Arizonians as “crazy” have surfaced in recent weeks. Right now the race is a toss-up, with Sinema trailing GOP Senate candidate Martha McSally by two points in the latest New York Times poll.
Every race is different, of course, just as every state is unique. But the trend here is unmistakable: Democrats with the best chances of winning statewide races where Trump won two years ago are tacking to the center and distancing themselves from the progressive mainstream of their party. There’s a reason Donnelly recently held a rally with Joe Biden and Indiana Pacers all-star Victor Oladipo, but stayed away from a rally for congressional candidate Liz Watson featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders, who used the occasion to issue his familiar calls for “Medicare for all,” $15 minimum wage, and socialized college tuition.
Democrats Have A Kavanaugh Problem
Two things are making things difficult for Donnelly and other centrist Democrats, neither of which can be easily overcome.
The first is Brett Kavanaugh. Although the circus surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has certainly mobilized voters who are convinced of his guilt, it’s hard to overstate how much Senate Democrats’ behavior during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings outraged conservatives, especially women. A Marist poll earlier this month found a 12-percent increase among Republican women who think the midterms are “very important” even as enthusiasm among Democratic women fell by two points. A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests the narrowing of this enthusiasm gap is due to outrage on the right over the treatment of both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
Last week I was in Indiana reporting on the Senate race there, and nearly every person I talked to who said they were voting for GOP challenger Mike Braun said one of the motivating factors was the Kavanaugh hearings. That was true of hardcore grassroots activists as well as Independents who aren’t that excited about Braun or the national GOP but want merely to punish Democrats. One Republican county chairwoman said her office was flooded with calls after the Kavanaugh hearings, mostly women who wanted to vent—and ask for a Braun sign.
In Danville, Indiana, I stopped at a place called Mayberry Cafe, which is exactly what it sounds like: an “Andy Griffith Show”-themed cafe in an idyllic small town, right across the street from the Hendricks County Courthouse. Inside, old television sets play the “Andy Griffith Show” on a loop. The walls feature black-and-white photos of Andy and Opie, Barney Fife, and Aunt Bee. Out front is an old police cruiser marked “Mayberry Cafe.”
The place, like the show, is an on-the-nose celebration of American nostalgia, but the customers I spoke with were not in a nostalgic mood about America. One retiree, a heavy-set man sporting a beard, T-shirt, sweat pants, and a trucker’s hat, told me he’s totally disillusioned with politics and is only voting for Braun because of the Supreme Court circus. His dining companion, an older man in a scraggly white beard and spectacles, nodded along. I asked him if he agreed and he said, “No comment.”
Another diner, a clean-cut real estate appraiser in his forties, said more or less the same thing: he’s not excited about Braun, doesn’t always vote Republican, but is motivated to vote for him just to punish Donnelly for his vote against Kavanaugh.
Centrist Democrats Are Becoming Political Orphans
Although Donnelly is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators, one recent poll showed him inching ahead of Braun by four points, so it’s unclear if outrage over Kavanaugh will be enough to sink his re-election bid—especially if he stays on message as a Trump-friendly Democrat. But the Kavanaugh fiasco is undoubtedly making these statewide races tighter than they would otherwise be, and blunting what was supposed to be a blue wave in congressional races.
The second thing making midterms difficult for Democrats in Trump country is more straightforward: they are not the future of the Democratic Party. Donnelly and Tester are not being called “rock stars” by ABC reporters, like O’Rourke is, or publishing political memoirs as a precursor to a 2020 presidential run, like Julian Castro has done. They are not the main beneficiaries of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s expansive campaign project to re-build the Democratic Party.
They are in a very real sense political orphans in this cycle. If they manage to win in November, it will be because they have done what Trump did two years ago: persuade members of the opposing party to vote for him.