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Democrats' Base Is Energized But They Still Need A Message

May 8, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 8:33 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, so Democrats who are running for office in 2018 believe they have the wind at their backs. Their political base is energized, and they hope to turn that energy into winning campaigns for the House and the Senate. Many general election campaigns officially kick off tonight after the winners are clear in primary races in these states - Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia. But Democrats face one big question - do they stand for anything besides their opposition to President Trump? Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: This year, Democrats don't need much of a message to motivate their base. Donald Trump has done that for them. What Democrats do need, says Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, is a message to move beyond their base.

AMY WALTER: The next challenge then for Democrats is, how do they talk to independent voters or voters who may have supported Barack Obama in the past, voted for Donald Trump this time? How do they talk to those voters?

LIASSON: Those voters are telling pollsters they want someone who will be a check and balance on the president. For them, Walter says, the Democrats' message will be heavy on kitchen-table issues like the cost of health care and the tax cuts, especially in swing districts.

WALTER: The message that many Democrats in Republican-leaning districts are going to promote, which is that Republicans voted for a tax bill that's going to push our deficit up to unbelievable heights, that it's going to risk cuts to Medicare and Social Security and that you, as your regular, average taxpayer, are not going to get all the benefits that you should.

LIASSON: But even more than any specific issue, the Democrats' message this year will be focused on political culture and tone. They're offering themselves as an alternative to division and polarization. Geoff Garin is a Democratic pollster.

GEOFF GARIN: It's really where the conversation starts for a lot of voters in terms of having people who are willing to work in a kind of a down-to-earth, common-sense way, not looking to get into fights.

LIASSON: That was the message for several successful Democratic candidates this cycle - Doug Jones in Alabama, Ralph Northam in Virginia, Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania. Jim Kessler from the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way says all those candidates shared something he calls the power of the quiet voice.

JIM KESSLER: They're not screamers. They're not populists. They're not overtly ideological.

LIASSON: Many Democrats think this political style can bridge the divides inside the party. Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, who's running for re-election this year, thinks it's a message that will appeal across the Democratic coalition.

GINA RAIMONDO: I think whether you are a recent immigrant, whether you're in the LGBTQ community, if you're a woman, if you're a middle-aged, white working man, you need a good job. The thing that most people are most focused on is keeping up and getting ahead in an economy which is changing incredibly fast, and that's the message I believe Democrats need to pound home.

LIASSON: Instead of presenting the left-wing mirror image of Donald Trump, these candidates promised to get things done and dial down the partisanship. Former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen is sending this same message as he tries to flip a Senate seat in Tennessee.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "WHY I'M RUNNING")

PHIL BREDESEN: I'm running for the Senate because I have the right kind of experience and the actual track record that it will take to start working across party lines to fix the mess in Washington and bring common...

LIASSON: Joe Trippi, who ran Doug Jones', winning and soft-spoken campaign in Alabama, says if he could make a generic ad for Democrats to use this year, that's pretty much what it would sound like.

JOE TRIPPI: I think it's just - it's the candidate talking directly to people and saying that there's too much chaos and division in Washington.

LIASSON: Trippi would skip the collage of porn star headlines, and he would never even mention Donald Trump.

TRIPPI: The mistake is, as soon as I add the word Trump at the top of that, the second you do it that way, it's a political attack on Trump. And even these Republicans who have their doubts and are tired and exhausted by it see it as exactly that - a personal, partisan attack, and you're just a Democrat. It's a mistake, in my view, to join in the polarization.

LIASSON: So in a year when Donald Trump is dominating the conversation 24/7 and has become so identified with chaos and division, the best message for Democrats in competitive seats may be to not talk about him at all. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDED BABIES' "ALIEN WORKSHOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.