The worst political candidates resemble items you can buy at the supermarket. Prepackaged, carefully tested, and easy to predict, they operate on an often gimmicky level and try to travel well-grooved paths to electoral victories that many want for their own sake. Sometimes it works. But more often, these focus-group candidates fall flat with the voters and contribute to the public’s growing cynicism about politics.

If it sounds like I’m talking about Cal Cunningham, well….yes, I am. The one-term, Bush-era state Senator and Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate possessed all the worst qualities of a Generic Democrat or Republican. As Thomas Mills quipped, Cunningham was a “walking talking point.” Thom Tillis emphatically did not deserve to get reelected–a judgment shared by thousands of North Carolinians who refused to cast a vote for either Senate candidate–but Cunningham’s defeat was hard to lament on its own terms. His narrow losing margin testified to the extraordinary weakness of the incumbent, not any leadership qualities.

Like Cunningham, supermarket candidates simply have little to offer voters. This is not a case for ideological rigor, “bold pastels not diluted watercolors,” but rather an indication that winning moderates need a unique and appealing brand. Across the country in Montana, two Democrats provide a compelling model. Both Jon Tester, now a third-term Senator, and former Governor and presidential candidate Steve Bullock have owned a distinctive populist persona. They both offer themselves to voters as People’s Champions who understand the anxieties center-right Montanans have about the sweeping expansion of activist government. It has worked well for them: even in defeat, Bullock ran 4.4% ahead of the national ticket.

A similar story has played out in recent decades for North Carolina Democrats. When the Donkey Party’s candidates eschew any flavorful persona in favor of weak-tea blandness, they usually lose. There’s no shortage of examples in this category. But successful candidates, many of them gubernatorial hopefuls, have mastered a unique niche as educational boosters and champions of a robust economic-development strategy. Voters want candidates with vision and energy, which come when a politician engages in thoughtful consideration of who they are and what they aspire to do for the people. In this state, they also tend to want moderates–and there is no contradiction between centrism and political creativity.

For the foreseeable future, North Carolina Democrats will need to win over voters who do not agree with a down-the-line progressive agenda. Indeed, many of the voters they need have come to loathe the Democratic Party’s brand. In practice, that means Democrats need candidates who can command the center of the political spectrum. The winners will be moderate politicians who know what they stand for.

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