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Democrats: We Can Win Suburban Republicans With a Progressive Platform

What the party has learned from its two biggest wins of 2017.

JIM WATSON/Getty Images

Brian Schatz didn’t think Republicans had thought this through. The Hawaii Democrat must have understood on some level why his GOP colleagues in the Senate were about to pass their massive tax giveaway to corporations and the uber-rich in the wee hours of Wednesday morning: President Donald Trump needed an eleventh-hour victory after a year of legislative failure, and Republican donors were explicitly threatening to halt financial contributions if lawmakers didn’t get something done. Still, hours before the vote, Schatz marveled at how the GOP could respond to major Democratic electoral victories over the past two months—a landslide in the Virginia gubernatorial election, and an upset for a Senate seat in Alabama—by passing an astoundingly unpopular bill that even neglects GOP-leaning voters in suburban swing districts.

“Suburbanites might make a decent amount of money, but they’re not hedge fund managers,” the senator told me Tuesday night at the Capitol Building. “They don’t have the amount of passive income that’s being rewarded in this bill. Middle-class folks who work for a living are not going to see the benefit of this. It is simply weird to me that they look at Virginia and they look at Alabama and they say, ‘Let’s harm suburbanites through the tax code.’”

If Schatz is right, the GOP is compounding an existing problem with suburban voters. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that “from Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican districts filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings.” President Donald Trump repulses these voters, and some Democratic strategists are intent on winning them in 2018. On Wednesday, Talking Points Memo noted that the tax bill’s $10,000 limit on state and local income and property tax deductions will have a “particularly severe” impact on wealthy suburbs in states like New York, New Jersey and California, where Republican lawmakers already face tough re-election fights thanks to Trump.

The New Republic’s Jeet Heer raised important concerns about Democrats courting these voters—a strategy that notably failed for Hillary Clinton last year—yet a number of liberal lawmakers believe it could be fruitful if their party doesn’t abandon its base in the process. “I think we’ll get the suburbanites with this complete calamity of a tax bill,” said Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Like Heer, these Democrats are committed to liberal policies—at minimum the party’s Better Deal agenda, and in some cases a more expansive populist vision. They aren’t advocating that Democrats move to the center to court Republicans. But they do buy the idea that suburban Republicans are newly available voters for Democrats, especially in the wake of this tax bill. The question is how to win those Republicans without betraying the party’s core principles.

“I hear from Republicans on a weekly basis who have given up on their party,” Congressman Jamie Raskin told me. The Maryland Democrat may have a skewed perspective, given that he represents a liberal enclave in the Washington metro area, but the Republicans in his district fit the profile of those whom Democrats think they pick up. “This is a tax bill that is not friendly to upper middle class Republican doctors and lawyers and corporate executives,” he said. “This is a bill that’s basically written for the very richest people in the country. You look at the estate tax. That’s going to benefit the richest two families out of a thousand. That’s the general tenor of the whole bill, and I think the public generally understands it’s going to benefit only the super wealthy and it is a giant dagger pointed at the heart of the American middle class.”

Raskin says he’s heartened by “a lot of Republicans who don’t like the betrayal of principle that’s been taking place in America since Trump took over. They can’t stomach the incivility. They can’t stomach the attack on the constitution and the Bill of Rights and the rule of law.” But Steve Cohen, a Democratic congressman from Tennessee, believes some Republicans are also sick to their stomachs for having voted for Trump. “I think there are a lot of suburban Republicans who voted for Trump who feel buyer’s remorse and feel guilt,” he told me. “They didn’t particularly care for Hillary, but they didn’t realize how bad Trump was or they didn’t want to believe it. Now they know it. They’re going to vote to assuage their consciences. I think they’re going to vote to put a check and balance on what thinking, wine-and-cheese, chamber of commerce, traditional business Republicans realize is a child in the White House who’s not competent to make good decisions.”

“He’s the most despicable character we’ve ever had in American politics,” Cohen added. “Father Coughlin, George Wallace—they all take a backseat to this man. People see it. They don’t want to be part of it. I think they’re revolting.”

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, told me it’s not just Trump’s personal behavior that’s alienating the suburbs. “The best example I would use is how they, in their tax scam proposal, hurt college students who couldn’t deduct their student loans any longer,” she said. “They have repeatedly made it more costly and refused to provide any relief for people who are simply trying to make sure their kids can go to college.”

Naturally, most of the Democrats who told me suburban Republicans are attainable mentioned this year’s elections in Virginia and Alabama. Governor-elect Ralph Northam and Senator-elect Doug Jones, respectively, both ran on progressive platforms and won with strong showings in the suburbs. Northam outperformed Clinton in Northern Virginia, and, according to CNN, “became the first top statewide Democratic candidate to carry both of the suburban battlegrounds of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach in a non-presidential year (when Democratic turnout traditionally ebbs) since Democrat Tim Kaine captured the governorship in 2005.” In Alabama, the Times reported, Jones delivered a “suburban shellacking” among wealthy, highly educated voters “often open to supporting Republicans.”

Democrats at the Capitol didn’t necessarily draw ideological lessons from these races. Schatz drew a contrast between Jones’s victory and the loss of Jon Ossoff in a Georgia special election for Congress earlier this year. “The reason Doug Jones won and Jon Ossoff didn’t is because Doug Jones has an extraordinary record of public service in Alabama, and Jon Ossoff is a really capable young man without a long record of public service,” the senator said. “Candidates matter .... Our candidates have got to match their districts and their states, and that’s a bigger deal then the left-right continuum. The pundits are very interested in this question of, ‘Should you run as a Bernie-type of a moderate Democrat?’ I think you should run as authentically you, whoever that may be. That’s why Doug Jones won. He fired up liberals, but he also didn’t offend moderates.”

Still, Schatz says running as a moderate isn’t a requirement for Democrats in the suburbs. I think what people want more than anything is authenticity,” he told me. “They don’t want to feel like they’re being sold soap. That’s why we won the Virginia House of Delegates. You had all these people organically saying I’d like to serve. You couldn’t even characterize all the people who won. They weren’t all progressives. They weren’t all moderates. They were all over the place.”

At minimum, Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline says, Democrats can be expected to run on their Better Deal agenda released earlier this year. Though it notably didn’t include certain populist policies like Medicare for All, the agenda was pro-labor and moved the party leftward. “Those are issues that are of concern to the suburban voter you describe as well as the traditional base of the Democratic Party,” Cicilline said. “I think we learned a lesson about the importance of speaking to the economic anxieties of folks .... We developed an economic agenda that I think is persuasive in every single district in this country.” Cicilline stressed that Democrats “don’t actually need a conservative message” in these Republican suburban districts. If anything, he said, some candidates in the party will “accessorize” by adding more liberal policies to their Better Deal pitch.

I think the Democrats’ strategy should be based on conviction and not microtargeting,” California Congressman Ro Khanna told me. “We need a coherent vision on economic justice and racial justice to win.” He advocates populist policies like Medicare for All, and cautions against moderation. “I don’t think an appeal to austerity politics or just platitudes about the deficit are going to win,” he said. “I don’t know how that’s going to play in suburban districts, but that shouldn’t be the consideration.”

Khanna believes Democrats should be considering how they can map out a bold vision for economic and racial justice. “The Republicans started with the Heritage Foundation,” he said. “They didn’t poll every district to see what they should stand for. They had conservative economists make a case for supply-side economics. We need to make a case for bottom-up economics and racial justice .... What we ought to do is not just poll and look at the current preference of Republican voters and adapt our message to that. What we ought to do is have our core convictions and a theory of the case and be willing to make that case to every voter who will listen. Over time you will get Republicans agreeing with that.”

“By the way,” he added, “that’s what the conservatives did. They stuck to their guns and tried to sell their vision.”