One by one, members of the Mahoning County Democratic Party poured out their frustrations: Just months after the presidential election, they felt folks like them were being forgotten — again. The party’s comeback strategy was being steered by protesters, consultants and elitists from New York and California who have no idea what voters in middle America care about.
But worst of all, they said, the party hadn’t learned from what they saw as the biggest message from November’s election: Democrats have fallen completely out of touch with America’s blue-collar voters.
“It doesn’t matter how much we scream and holler about jobs and the economy at the local level. Our national leaders still don’t get it,” said David Betras, the county’s party chair. “While Trump is talking about trade and jobs, they’re still obsessing about which bathrooms people should be allowed to go into.”
Others around the restaurant table nodded.
Since the election, Democrats have been swallowed up in an unending cycle of outrage and issues that have little to do with the nation’s working class, they said, such as women’s marches, fighting Trump’s refugee ban and advocating for transgender bathroom rights.
The party’s national leaders have focused on decrying Trump, opposing his Supreme Court pick and tying his administration to Russia. That approach — trying to defeat Trump solely by attacking him and his policies — already has failed once, many at the dinner said.
Meanwhile, they think few are talking about issues that really matter to people in places such as Youngstown: Stagnant wages, vanishing jobs and sputtering economies. Even the Democrats’ recent success in blocking Trump’s attempt to repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act matters little in the face of those core interests, local party leaders said. And unless the party begins addressing those blue-collar issues, they said, there will be real and dire consequences in states like theirs.
In more than a dozen interviews, party leaders across Ohio — from local precinct captains to the handful of Democrats who remain in Congress — said they are deeply worried.
“Every time Trump so much as sneezes, we as a party are setting our hair on fire and running around like it’s the end of the world,” Betras said as the dinner wound down. “Most people around here don’t care. They are living paycheck to paycheck, just trying to hold on. After everything that’s happened, if we as a party still aren’t speaking to them, then we are never getting them back.”
Since Trump’s election, the movement against him has injected newfound energy and purpose into the left. The argument that has emerged from key heartland states — where Democrats lost by narrow margins — is that the party’s new focal point needs to be economic issues.
Ohio’s Democratic Party has launched kitchen-table conversations to reorganize its agenda around economic concerns. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown recently unveiled a 77-page proposal for populist, pro-worker initiatives that could serve as a blueprint for the national party.
But the most forceful move came in U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s failed attempt to wrest control of the House minority leadership from Nancy Pelosi. In his pitch to fellow Democrats, the Ohio lawmaker argued that there is something fundamentally broken in the party’s relationship with the workers who once made up its base.
Ryan said he believes the Democratic Party must move economic issues back to the fore and frame all its goals through that lens.
Instead of talking about the environment, he said in a phone interview, Democrats should focus on creating green jobs. Instead of re-litigating old fights, he said, Democrats should propose new ideas and dare Republicans to shoot them down, such as a new project to lay broadband fiber nationwide to boost jobs and productivity.
During the recent fight over Obamacare, for example, he and other Ohio Democrats focused their arguments on not only who would lose coverage under the Republican plan, but also the health-care jobs that would be lost and the funding that would be cut for opioid treatment in working-class areas struggling with addiction.
“We have to be constantly pulling it back toward the hurt that working-class people are experiencing,” Ryan said.
Most acknowledge the need for a stronger economic message, but there has been pushback against the idea of chasing white working-class voters to the detriment of minorities and social issues. There is also disagreement over how important blue-collar voters were in November’s loss, with blame ranging from Russian hacking, late-game interference by the FBI director, the flaws of Hillary Clinton and her campaign strategy.
Others take offense at the idea of ceding focus on causes such as gay rights, anti-Muslim discrimination, racial disparity, abortion and women’s rights for the sake of votes.
“It’s a false choice to say we have to decide between economic issues and civil rights. They’re all part of the larger problem of inequality that we should be fighting against,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, which is bringing together party luminaries in May for an brainstorming conference. “There’s no easy answers, and we’re still at the very beginning of the ideas process.”
At a bar on the hollowed-out edges of Youngstown, Betras slid a memo dated May 12, 2016, across the table. It was then that he saw the wave of anger coming and tried to warn Clinton’s campaign.
“I know I am just a chairman but I am a chairman in the trenches,” Betras wrote in the three-page memo, begging Clinton to focus on jobs.
In Mahoning County — a Democratic stronghold decimated by the manufacturing industry’s decline — Betras was seeing GOP yard signs suddenly popping up. During the primaries, he learned that 18 of his own Democratic precinct captains had crossed party lines to vote for Trump. Some areas had to print extra Republican primary ballots just to keep up with the demand.
“That’s when I knew something was wrong,” he said.
He warned Clinton that she had lost all credibility with working-class voters by waffling on trade and offering tepid solutions. He urged in his memo that she talk about infrastructure instead.
“The workers we’re talking about don’t want to run computers, they want to run back hoes, dig ditches, sling concrete block,” he wrote. “They’re not embarrassed about the fact that they get their hands dirty. . . . They love it and they want to be respected and honored for it.”
He sent his memo to Clinton’s top campaign adviser in Ohio and other senior party officials. But Betras never heard back.
Months later, he said he thinks his party leaders still haven’t gotten the message.
He exploded with vulgar language while describing what happened with the Carrier deal, when Trump announced he had persuaded the air-conditioning company to keep more than 1,100 jobs in Indiana, a claim that drew skepticism.
“You had Democrats criticizing Trump about the exact number of jobs he saved,” said Betras, noting how backward it was for his party to be attacking the president for fighting for jobs. “Saving jobs used to be what our f---ing party was all about,” he said, pounding his fist into the bar.
He pointed to an empty plate nearby.
“What Trump slapped onto his plate last election was a big juicy steak. Real or not — that’s what it looked like to the hungry working voter,” Betras said. “What the elitists in our Democratic Party did with their side issues was say, ‘Look at all this broccoli we have for you. Sure, there’s some meat pieces mixed in, too, but look at the broccoli.’”
When Ohio leaders talk about their party, they often recall the old days when its core depended on the typical union worker. Now, those workers feel taken for granted or outright abandoned, said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), 70, whose district sits on Ohio’s northernmost edge.
“Just look at the leadership in both parties,” said Kaptur, whose mother was an auto union organizer. The GOP’s recent leaders — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), former speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Vice President Pence (Ind.) — have largely hailed from middle America, but top Democrats have not. House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) come from the wealthy, urban coasts.
That geographic disconnect has translated into policies that alienate the heartland, Kaptur said, overlooking, for example, the devastation of globalized free trade on places such as Ohio. “They paid lip service to it, but the underlying attitude was, ‘You’re not modern enough, not educated enough, not willing to adjust,’ ” Kaptur said.
In recent decades, Democrats have relied on a new base, a diverse mix of minorities, millennials, women, LGBT and college-educated voters — who had turned out in droves for Obama but not for Clinton.
To Kaptur, the two sides — this new diverse coalition and the traditional working-class voters she knows — represent the party’s future and past. But neither can win in the present without the other.
“We are like a two-winged creature in flight,” she said. “We’ve got one wing that deals with labor and economics and another that deals with social issues and ethnicity. And we have to find a way to fuse these two wings or we’re going to keep falling from the sky.”
For now, the Democratic future in Ohio looks bleak.
Trump not only flipped the state but also won by the largest margin of any presidential candidate since 1988.
Lou Gentile, 37, was among the Ohio casualties in November. A rising local Democratic star, he lost his state Senate seat in a district struggling with coal mining declines in the Ohio Valley.
“It’s tough getting caught in this thing you have no control over,” he said while driving home after lunch with his former legislative aide in Columbus, the state’s capital. “Every day, you rehash what you could have done differently.”
The party’s losses have made it difficult to cultivate a strong bench for future elections, he said. It also has allowed Republicans to redraw Ohio’s districts, making it even more difficult for Democrats to claw their way back to relevancy.
“I’m worried about the party,” Gentile said. “If anything good comes out of this last cycle, I hope it’s that our national leaders finally get the message about what’s going on in places like this. We have to go back to basics — jobs, wages, the things that actually make a difference to people out here.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.