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Opinion Take it from Democrats in red districts: Focus on beating Trump

Firefighters raise a U.S. flag Aug. 18, 2017, in Richmond, Va. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At the stylish Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Goochland County, Va., hundreds of residents of Virginia’s 7th congressional district gathered on Monday for a birthday celebration/fundraising event for Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Last fall, Spanberger beat Republican Dave Brat and became one of the slew of female candidates and moderates who flipped purple and red districts to help deliver a House majority for Democrats. The crowd was representative of the district: many retirees mixed with young families and mostly white. In a sprawling congressional district including 10 counties (none of Richmond proper) the 7th district has a mix of modest suburbs, upscale areas and farm country. President Trump won the district by six points, so Spanberger had to win over plenty of Trump voters.

Trump’s election drastically changed some voters. Kathy, a vivacious middle-aged woman there with her husband, used to be a Republican. “Three years ago if you told me I’d vote for a Democrat, give money and volunteer, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said. But she’ll have a hard time going back to the Republicans after seeing that “these are not people of character.”

Democrats who persevered in a red district and the 2018 Republican ticket-splitters had some cautionary advice for the 2020 primary electorate. They reiterated the notion that Republicans will abandon Trump in great numbers is fanciful. There are plenty of hardcore Trump supporters left, and those who have qualms about his language and divisiveness aren’t necessarily going to drop him.

Scott Holt, a jovial Republican who voted for Trump, is one of those few Republicans who remains open to voting for a Democrat in 2020. He says he likes what Trump has done on the economy and is happy Trump “stands up to the Washington machine.” However, he doesn’t like how Trump “communicates” and thinks he creates barriers. Holt frets, “I don’t know what it takes to get people [back] in the middle.” He says, “Sure, I’d be open to voting for a Democrat,” provided that person would help “us coming together.” His son-in-law Brian, a Democrat, says women in particular in the district who helped flipped the seat in 2018 remain highly engaged. However, for many of those ticket-splitters, he says, “It matters a lot who the Democrat is.”

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Carol, a Democrat who’s become a super-involved activist in the Trump era, thinks not many Republicans are reachable. “There are two lawyers across the street,” she grimaces, who still are dogged Trump fans. None of the recent events has shaken their faith. After the first debate, she was leaning toward Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), while after the second, she was leaning toward Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Her mind isn’t made up, but she is sure she wants a woman, a dose of political karma after four years of Trump. She’s still resentful about what she believes was reluctance from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to go all in for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “To sulk like that. …” her voice trails off, and she shakes her head.

Rather than any specific issues, Democrats expressed desperation to beat Trump. Two women, senior citizens who helped out on the Spanberger campaign, say flat out they’ll vote for any Democrat. It’s clear the Trump era has been polarizing. One woman says she was shocked to find out a couple of her friends were pro-Trump Republicans. The two walk together and talk politics then, but they’ve learned not to talk politics with others. Keep the peace. Don’t create conflict. That seems to be a prevailing attitude among people who cannot fathom how their neighbors and friends could support someone like Trump.

One can see a microcosm of the electorate here. The Democratic nominee isn’t going to win over the vast majority of Republicans. “Don’t write off anyone” might be a fashionable catchphrase, but it’s ridiculous in the current atmosphere to spend time worrying about how to convert the nonconvertible like Carol’s two lawyer neighbors. There is the vast number of Democrats, every woman whom I spoke with, who’d crawl over glass to vote for the nominee. They simply want Trump out. And then there is the small number of persuadables, people like Scott Holt, who would prefer to get away from hyperpartisan, extreme politics. Provided with a unifying figure, they’d make the leap.

From what I saw, it’s a misnomer to think that accommodating persuadable Republicans will mean some Democrats lose interest or stay home. The latter are motivated by a passion to get rid of Trump. If that means going for a less-than-scintillating moderate, they’ll still go all out to oust Trump. The revulsion at the prospect of four more years of Trump — often manifested physically with a shudder or hands-on-the-head gesture — is all the motivation they need.

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