Democratic leaders fret: Can we keep our big tent in 2020?

Progressive activists are emboldened as the 2020 presidential primary season begins, but other Democratic leaders are already questioning whether a nominee chosen by energized liberals can both excite the base and hold onto red-district voters who just helped deliver them the House of Representatives.

It’s a critical issue in general election battleground states that Donald Trump won last time, from Florida to Pennsylvania.

“The hard part is, for Democrats to keep winning in districts like this, they have to make sure the person running in 2020 is someone who can present that statesman-like or stateswoman-like ability while exciting the base,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, the Democratic chair of Charleston County, S.C.

The Charleston-area First District of South Carolina unexpectedly flipped to a Democrat last November, one of 40 House seats Democrats won in the midterms as they captured districts representing historically Republican areas.

“The anti-Trump backlash will excite the base to some level, but you need someone you can believe in,” he continued. “How do you toe that line, being someone that’s enthusiastic and inspiring, but also has statesman-like qualities?”

Certainly, Democrats don’t need to win deep-red states such as South Carolina to take back the White House, and for the moment, their attention is more focused on the reliable liberal primary voters who will decide their 2020 nominee.

But ultimately, to win back swing states, they can’t afford to lose many of the centrist voters who supported Democratic candidates across the country last fall — the type of voters who are troubled by Trump but are also leery of a progressive agenda that they perceive as too extreme.

Here’s what Democrats think they must do to hold onto those voters, based on conversations with nearly a dozen county chairs, operatives and other top party leaders from congressional districts across the country that Democrats flipped in the midterms.

Don’t let Trump control the message.

From Virginia Beach to suburban Houston, party officials urged their future presidential candidates to offer substantive, optimistic policy proposals — and warned against getting sidetracked by Trump’s tweets and the story of the hour in Washington.

“I don’t think people need to say his name,” said Lisa Turner, a vice chair of the Virginia Beach Democrats, located in a military-heavy congressional district that Democrat Elaine Luria won. “He’s like Cher. Like, there’s one word: Trump. There’s not much more to say about someone like him. He’s iconic in his own way. I don’t think candidates need to get to that. They need to talk about what they’re going to do for the voters.”

National Democratic operatives pushed a similar strategy in 2018, urging their candidates to focus relentlessly on issues such as health care because most voters already had an opinion about the president.

Maintaining that stance in a Democratic presidential primary will be more challenging, given that the candidates are now auditioning to take on Trump directly.

But party officials around the country insisted that the candidates with the broadest appeal will be constructive and inspiring, rather than simply strident in opposing the White House.

“You can look toward the Beto O’Rourke message that we had this last cycle in Harris County,” said Houston-area Harris County Democratic Chair Lillie Schechter, referencing the Democratic Senate candidate who is now considering a presidential bid. “People are looking for a positive message that reflects our values and is much less negative and toxic.”

Yet even if the candidates shouldn’t respond to every Trump provocation, that doesn’t mean they can entirely ignore him and his policies, either. After all, he is why many of these moderate districts were competitive in the first place.

“It hasn’t worked for Trump when he has pushed for border walls and Muslim bans and all that other stuff,” said Robert Peickert, chairman of the Democratic Party of DuPage County in suburban Chicago.

Like Schechter, Peickert also pointed to O’Rourke as someone resonating in his typically Republican community.

He is a “teen idol,” Peickert said.

“He seems to be that new Barack Obama-type person.”

Find someone whose style doesn’t alienate Republicans.

As the Democratic hopefuls sort out their policy differences, urged to move left by their progressive base, there are also a few potential candidates that exude a more approachable style for reluctant Democrats, according to these county leaders.

Certainly, there is former Vice President Joe Biden, whose long career as a public servant and his emphasis on statesmanship reassure some moderates, even as many others in his party worry about his age and how his long record will look in a more progressive moment.

Quirk-Garvan also pointed to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey as someone who resonates with diverse audiences.

“When he was here in Charleston, to see the reaction from suburban white women and then African Americans in Orangeburg County just up the was pretty amazing,” he said. “He got sort of rock star treatment from both of those groups. That says something to me.”

Then there is Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, whose lower-key Midwestern public image and record of winning in Trump territory is catching attention from Kansas to Iowa to Virginia.

“Everybody loves Amy, for sure,” said Nancy Leiker, the chair of the suburban Kansas City-area Johnson County Democrats. She’s got “that Midwestern touch.”

Those remarks came as a December poll showed Klobuchar’s support growing in Iowa.

Added Turner, of Virginia Beach: “We’d love to see a woman at the top of the ticket. I know Amy Klobuchar was especially inspiring during [the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh. A lot of friends in politics talk about her a lot and wish she’d throw her hat in the ring.”

Centrists want a sober leader who cares about American institutions.

Many of the center-right voters who backed Democrats last cycle did so as a personal rebuke to Trump — not because they necessarily disagreed with all of his policy proposals, but because they were troubled by his governing style.

To keep them in the fold, party leaders say, the next Democratic nominee will need to exude competence, seriousness, and a respect for American institutions that transcends partisanship.

“It’s people who still believe, Republicans or independents who believe, that institutions matter, in a sense, and that this president has really disrespected and sort of lain waste to the office of the White House, the office of the presidency,” Quirk-Garvan said. “That’s not necessarily a policy piece, but more in your tone and presentation, how seriously do you take this?”

“For 2020 folks,” he continued, “you have to make sure this doesn’t become a reality show contest, that it’s weighted in substance and policy.”

But charisma matters too.

Competence and broad appeal can’t come at the cost of charisma, and the ability to excite the Democratic base. And, Democrats say, those characteristics don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Indeed, from Orange County, Calif., to Johnson County, Kan., a number of candidates who appeared more liberal than many of the voters in their districts still triumphed — in part because the anti-Trump sentiment was so strong, and in part because, at a personal level, they were able to connect.

“We flipped a couple of moderate seats here, we flipped it with people you wouldn’t think would pick [up] a moderate seat,” said Leiker, of the Third District of Kansas, where Democrat Sharice Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. “But they had the personality, they knew how to reach the voter.”

Above all, Democratic officials say, their next presidential candidate must unite and energize their own party. Some Democratic officials think that the bitter primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016 left Clinton weakened in the fall — and cost her valuable votes.

“We cannot the divide the party the way we saw in 2016,” said Fran Sdao, the chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. “We just can’t.”

To reach all of these voters—both rank-and-file Democrats and the more centrist ones that turned out for Democrats in November—a little relatability goes a long way.

“People want to have a selfie with candidates,” Sdao said.

Added Leiker: “It’s the candidate they can feel good about inviting into their home.”

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Katie Glueck is a senior national political correspondent at McClatchy D.C., where she covered the 2018 midterm contests and is now reporting on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Previously, she was a reporter at POLITICO, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as well as the 2014 midterms. Her work has also appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Washingtonian magazine, Town & Country magazine and The Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a native of Kansas City.
Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.