This isn’t what Democrats should aspire to. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill was correct in saying that “all politics is local,” and nothing in politics is more local than message. Democrats have won all the progressive seats they can win. The path to the majority is taking those remaining districts that are evenly divided or leaning Republican, and whose voters aren’t motivated to turn out over the prospect of impeaching the president or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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It seems so obvious, but it’s lost on so many: A message that resonates in downtown Brooklyn, New York, could backfire in Brooklyn, Iowa—which happens to be located in a Republican district that’s now highly competitive. Midterm elections, which are fought in dozens of ideologically diverse media markets, should be thought of like tuning your car radio on the interstate. You’ll pick up that great country-and-western station in some markets, National Public Radio in others.
The fact is that a national message works best in presidential-election years. The party’s nominee is the “messenger in chief,” building a national brand that unifies base and swing voters, donors, activists, volunteers, canvassers, and down-ballot candidates. A midterm-election cycle, by its very nature, is fragmented, with hundreds of different campaigns with hundreds of individual candidates.
Even a national presidential message can fall out of tune. Two weeks before the 2016 election, when most polls were predicting an easy Hillary Clinton win, members of Congress from the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan were telling me a different story in their districts. They described Trump lawn signs spreading like dandelions in front yards; how the national Democratic message just seemed to waft over the heads of their voters; how their own supporters seemed visibly uncomfortable with the assumption that they were voting a straight Democratic ticket. Most of those representatives survived, but Trump carried their states or districts.
Representative Cheri Bustos is one of them. She was elected in 2012 in a western-Illinois district held by a Republican, then reelected twice. That old expression, “Will it play in Peoria?” is literally about her district, a 7,000-square-mile expanse of 14 counties. Trump carried the district, winning every rural county. So did Bustos. She spends just about every Saturday walking the aisles of grocery stores across her district to ask folks what’s on their mind, and what she hears is local, personal, and distinctly nonideological.
“They usually don’t talk with me about something that was in a tweet,” she told me. “They’re worried about the rising cost of health care and that their wages aren’t keeping up with their bills. They want a future where they can afford to take their kids to Disney World instead of settling for the Disney Channel.” She seems to have found a way to connect with her Republican-leaning electorate, by focusing on their lives, paychecks, and aspirations.