Voters go to the polls in cities across North Carolina and in Virginia and New Jersey tomorrow. Given the political environment and the president’s dismal approval ratings, it should be a banner day for Democrats. That’s not what the papers or polls are saying though.
A Charlotte Observer headline this weekend read “Why a Republican has a shot at mayor in Democratic Charlotte for first time in years.” In Virginia, where Democrats have won the governor’s race twice in a row and control both US Senate seats, Republican Ed Gillespie has closed a wide gap with Lt. Governor Ralph Northam. Only in New Jersey, where incumbent Republican Chris Christie’s scandal plagued administration is proving a drag on his party, is the Democrat in good shape.
After the Women’s March in January, Trump’s abysmal approval ratings, Russian interference and the failure to repeal Obamacare, Democrats should be feeling their oats and fired up. They should be marching to victory ahead of a midterm election where the fundamentals heavily favor them. Instead, they’re struggling to hold what they’ve got.
On issue after issue, polls show voters support Democratic positions more than Republican ones. Support for Obamacare is at its highest point ever. Support for the pending tax bill is upside down by about 15 points. People want climate change addressed, even if they’re not sure how. The fight over marriage equality is over with only Republicans opposing it and they’re are coming around. Even on gun control, most people support additional regulations, not fewer.
So what’s wrong with the Democrats? The latest brouhaha over former Party Chair Donna Brazile’s finger-pointing analysis of the 2016 explains a lot. Democrats are far more interested in fighting with each other than they are in fighting Republicans. The infighting is little more than an extension of the 2016 primary election between establishment Democrats broadly represented by the Clinton campaign and Bernie Sanders supporters who want a far more left-leaning populist platform.
Brazile’s book probably got some right and some wrong, but what’s clear is that the Democratic Party itself is big business. The establishment types want to keep their contracts and their people in charge of the organization. They’re wrong, of course. In the private sector, the DNC would be a failed organization given its history of losing campaigns without changing personnel or strategy.
The Sanders wing of the party, though, is also wrong. Democrats need a larger tent, not a smaller one. The party can’t win legislative and Congressional seats just by increasing base voters. To win in districts across the country, they need to support candidates who don’t fall in line between single-payer health care or free college tuition. Instead of dictating what positions Democrats take, the Sanders wing should be trying to win as many districts as possible. That’s the best way to get parts of their agenda implemented. Demanding ideological purity when your party is so far in the minority is a fool’s errand.
On a broader note, voters seem to be separating their dissatisfaction with Trump from their opinions of the Republican Party. In Virginia, Trump’s approval rating is in the mid-30s yet Gillespie is roughly even with Northam. While Trump has not been on the campaign trail, Gillespie has adopted some of Trump’s message, particularly around immigration, to engage the president’s base voters and it seems to be working. He’s closed a gap that was double digits a few weeks ago and is now within the margin of error.
In the past, off-year elections gave an indication of what even-year contests would look like. This year, they should be looking good for Democrats and maybe they will. However, instead of looking like a unified party facing a fractured GOP, they look like struggling challengers who haven’t figured out how to be an opposition party and haven’t figured out a message that excites anybody.