Elections

Democrats divided: How did they lose the white middle class?

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) MCT

The Democratic Party is a mess.

One group of party leaders sees 2014 as simply a bad year, requiring just some tweaks. Others regard 2014 as a disaster and want an overhaul, and fast.

Leading the tear-it-up side are liberals, the party’s most loyal constituency. They’re angry because they saw no clear economic message pledging to help people with middle- and lower-class incomes.

“The first thing the party has to do is stand for something,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal activist group.

Elected officials offer similar warnings. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, last month criticized his party for revamping the health care system in 2009 and 2010 instead of focusing on helping people get and keep jobs.

Then there’s the South, where Democrats were crushed last month. Getting even a quarter of the white vote was a struggle in most state races.

“The national Democratic Party is just too liberal for us,” explained Richard Harpootlian, a Columbia, S.C., attorney and former South Carolina Democratic chairman.

When the Democratic Party hierarchy met and strategized at a Florida resort last week, the split over how much is wrong was apparent.

“This happens to both parties at various times,” Connecticut Chairman Nancy DiNardo said of the 2014 defeats.

Not like this, said others. “We’ve alienated the white middle class,” protested Jeanne Buell, Idaho vice chairman.

Democrats lost control of the Senate last month. The Republicans gained seats as well in the House of Representatives, where they will hold their biggest majority since the 1940s. Republicans now have 31 of the nations’ 50 governorships, the most for either party in 16 years.

Officially, the Democratic intelligentsia is concerned and has authorized a task force to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of what can be done. Insiders and outsiders comprise the panel, and preliminary findings are due at the party’s February meeting.

Like-minded Democrats noted the party still holds the White House, and in 2014 were victims of an unusually Republican-friendly Senate map – among the Democrats seeking re-election to the Senate, seven were in states that had voted against Obama in 2012. In the House, they said, Democrats were often victims of Republican gerrymandering.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told the party meetings to look at Democratic successes, including governors who won tight New England races.

“Voters agree with us on major issues that are important to them,” she said.

She got public praise from officials, but in private meetings and outside the room serious qualms surfaced. At one closed-door meeting, at least three officials stood up and urged the party to be more sensitive to white middle-class concerns. “There was some applause,” said Buell of Idaho.

The ultra-concerned saw the party making two tactical errors this year. It assumed that since economic numbers were pointing up, voters would give its candidates credit. And it was too intent on targeting specific groups loyal to the party, notably single women and African-Americans, instead of reaching out to middle-class whites.

Instead, candidates often ignored a telling statistic: Throughout the year, roughly two-thirds of Americans saw the country as moving in the wrong direction. They’re worried about their futures.

How, voters asked, would Democrats help? At one closed-door seminar for state chairs at the meeting, consultants found Democrats had offered about a dozen different campaign messages. Republicans made it simpler, saying that by cutting taxes and spending, people would wind up with more money to spend as they wished.

“It’s clear we need to hone our message and give people something to vote for,” said Iowa Chairman Scott Brennan. Republican Joni Ernst beat Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, for Iowa’s Senate seat, a seat Democrat Tom Harkin had won five times since 1984.

Too often, chairmen said, Democrats seemed engaged in implementing strategy rather than discussing substance. “How many times can you knock on someone’s door?” asked Washington Chairman Jaxon Ravens. “It’s not so much how often you talk to them, but what you say.”

In West Virginia, for instance, Democrats have warned voters for at least 30 years that Republicans are out to take away Social Security while busting unions. Social Security survives, and union problems can’t be tied exclusively to Republican policies.

“So people just tune out,” said Belinda Biafore, the West Virginia Democratic vice chairwoman.

They might tune in if they saw party regulars in their neighborhoods. That’s why, in South Carolina, Democrats plan a workshop this spring to help people with job search skills such as resume writing and interviewing techniques.

“This is how we show our values,” explained South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison.

Even with a streamlined message, Democrats still have systemic hurdles that could take years to overcome.

Foremost is what Harpootlian called “the re-segregation of the South.” Democrats have long fought for majority-minority congressional districts to boost African-American representation. But that often means packing reliable Democratic votes into one district, making it easier for white Republicans to win surrounding areas.

About one-fourth of South Carolina’s voting population this year was black, but the state’s lone majority-minority district is the only one represented by a Democrat. Other Southern states have similar patterns.

Democrats want to maintain support from black and Latino voters, who have been giving them huge majorities. Winning bigger numbers among Southern whites, though, is proving difficult.

One solution, said former South Carolina Gov. James Hodges, a Democrat, is for candidates to establish their own identities apart from the national party.

“Outsiders win,” he said.

Another tactic: Demonize Republicans. Democratic regulars predicted that as Republicans get stronger, fissures between diehard conservatives and the center-right become more apparent.

That tilt toward tea party Republicans helped elect Democrats two years ago. This year, Republican regulars turned back those challenges and did well.

No one knows whether Democrats’ woes are cyclical or structural. That’s why “everything should be on the table,” said Alan Clendenin, the Florida vice chairman.

At the moment, it’s not clear what that might mean. “Too often the inclination after a night like we had on Election Day is to throw everything out and start over,” said Wasserman Schultz, “but to do that would be to ignore the incremental but significant progress that we did achieve over the last two years.”

  Comments