Conventional Wisdom Ain't Cutting It Anymore

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The question of where and how Democrats should spend their energy in the 2018 midterms and beyond has consumed the party essentially since the day after the 2016 election.

The establishment strain of thinking is to essentially use the Hillary Clinton campaign’s 2016 playbook again: to concentrate on suburban swing districts in an attempt to siphon off moderate Republicans disgusted by Donald Trump’s tweets and...tariffs? Former Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said last year that a Democratic House majority “runs through the Panera Breads of America,” i.e. districts where Clinton outperformed Obama (or, depending on how you look at it, where Trump underperformed Mitt Romney).

Progressives, meanwhile, have argued that Democrats should be contesting essentially every seat with an unabashedly progressive platform.


It’s a debate about what kind of politics are necessary in the Trump era, but it’s also a debate about the worth of a conventional politics that has failed Democrats for years—not just electorally, but in governing as well.

A New York Times report from Monday suggests: not a whole lot.

The battleground in the fight for control of the House is starting to come into focus with 99 days to go until the November election. It’s not exactly the battleground that analysts expected.

It’s not dominated by well-educated, suburban districts that voted for Hillary Clinton. Instead, the battleground is broad, and it includes a long list of working-class and rural districts that voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016.


Instead, Democrats appear highly competitive in many conservative districts. Already, there are polls showing Democrats ahead in Kentucky’s Sixth District, West Virginia’s Third, North Carolina’s Ninth, New York’s 22nd and Montana’s at-large district. Mr. Trump won each by at least 10 points.

(North Carolina’s Ninth, it should be noted, is not a very rural district compared to the others listed here.)

By comparison, Democrats aren’t polling so great in those more suburban districts where Clinton did well:

Indeed, there aren’t many polls showing Democrats excelling in the well-educated districts where Mrs. Clinton won. Polls sponsored by Democratic groups have shown Republicans leading in Illinois’s Sixth, Pennsylvania’s First, Washington’s Eighth and California’s 39th. Even in the well-educated districts where Democrats lead in recent polls, like Virginia’s 10th or California’s 48th and 49th, the polls show Democrats merely running even with Mrs. Clinton.


Admittedly, House polling is unreliable, especially considering the election is still over three months away. But this tracks with a lot of what we’ve seen in special elections both last year and this year; while Democrat Jon Ossoff ultimately lost his race against Republican Karen Handel by four points, underperforming Clinton in his Georgia district, progressive Democrat James Thompson lost by six points in a Kansas district which Donald Trump won by 27 points despite being largely ignored by the national party until the final days of the campaign, and moderate Conor Lamb rode a wave of union support to win his Pennsylvania special election in a district that went for Trump by nearly 20 points.

Politically, the Democrats who are running ahead of their Republican opponents in districts that have been ignored by the party in recent years are all over the place. Anthony Brindisi (New York’s 22nd) and Dan McCready (North Carolina’s 9th) were endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC. West Virginia’s 3rd District nominee Richard Ojeda, Montana’s Kathleen Williams, and Kentucky’s Amy McGrath all say on their websites that they support a public option for healthcare. (In addition, Ojeda, who’s running on a decidedly more liberal platform than Lamb despite the fact that he voted for Trump, is an unabashed labor Democrat. Sensing a pattern here!)


As the Times notes, the Cook Political Report currently rates 60 Republican-held seats as in play for Democrats, nearly double what it was at this point in 2006, the last year the Democrats enjoyed a midterm wave.

What little is clear from all of this is that the conventional wisdom about American politics—to the extent it was even true in the first place, and not just what was sold to us as the Way Things Are by people who had an interest in keeping things That Way—has been thoroughly turned on its head over the last several years. No one really knows anything anymore, aside from the fact that it sure as hell doesn’t hurt candidates to have the backing of labor.


If these numbers translate to gains anywhere near that in November, though, maybe we can finally rid ourselves of the notion that the only way to beat the Republican Party is with a coalition of hedge fund managers, John Kasich voters, and Undercover Boss viewers.

News editor, Splinter

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