The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats need a winning message. We propose: ‘Workers, wages and weed.’

Workers trim cannabis plants that are close to harvest in a grow room at the Greenleaf Medical Cannabis facility in Richmond on June 17. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel, former Democratic congressional candidates, are co-founders of Ground Game Texas.

Since last year’s election, there’s been vigorous debate among Democrats about our lackluster performance in down-ballot races. But there also seems to be a common takeaway: The Democratic Party failed to define what it stands for.

“Win or lose, self-described progressive or moderate, Democrats consistently raised a lack of a strong Democratic Party brand as a significant concern in 2020,” the centrist think tank Third Way said in a May report. Also in May, researchers at the polling firm Lake Research Partners provided an analysis saying voters had trouble “describing a clear positive vision of what the Democratic Party stands for.”

Joe Biden, in defeating Donald Trump, won more votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history. But as we saw with several ballot initiatives from this past election cycle, a handful of issues outperformed Biden in red and blue states — and may offer Democrats both a popular message and a slate of wedge issues to take to voters.

We’ve dubbed these “workers, wages and weed.”

Legislation supporting workers, improving wages and legalizing marijuana are progressive, Democratic policies. But they’re also extremely popular among Republicans and moderates.

According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of Americans say marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from February found that roughly 6 out of 10 voters supported a $15 minimum wage. And other recent polls found that more than 80 percent of likely voters supported paid leave programs for workers.

In Nebraska, more than 80 percent of voters last year chose to cap the interest on payday loans, allowing the state’s workers to keep more of their paychecks. In Florida, where Trump won by more than 3 percentage points, more than 60 percent of voters approved a $15 minimum wage. And in South Dakota, which Trump won by 26 percentage points, nearly 70 percent of voters approved medical marijuana.

Yet the Democratic Party failed to ensure that voters in these states and elsewhere knew which party was fighting for these issues. And we missed a critical opportunity to carve out support from independents and moderate Republicans who agree with us.

As candidates in competitive 2020 congressional races in Texas — races we lost — we’re intimately familiar with this disconnect. Both of us had coveted spots on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list of candidates deemed strong bets to flip congressional seats. In our campaigns, we heard from voters every day who were eager to replace Trump but weren’t necessarily motivated to pull the lever for Democrats. But rather than ask what voters in our districts were most concerned with, party organizations such as the DCCC pushed us to dull our message and limit voter contact in favor of rudderless advertising.

Meaningful conversations with voters about issues we supported — such as increasing the minimum wage or legalizing marijuana — were shelved in favor of TV ads with broad messages about health care. Instead of taking our strongest closing arguments to voters’ doors, we took watered-down messages to the airwaves that failed to inspire or even distract from the daily stream of Trump news. One of us ended up losing by about 13 percentage points, the other by seven percentage points.

Had our national party embraced a clear, affirmative message that voters could identify — one like “workers, wages and weed” — our fates might have been different. In Texas, 77 percent of voters say that companies that don’t create the jobs they promised should lose tax breaks; 61 percent support raising the federal minimum wage; and 87 percent say marijuana should be legal in some capacity (27 percent support legalization for medical purposes and 31 percent for any purpose in small amounts, while 29 percent support full legalization). None of these issues were highlighted by our national party.

Now we look to 2022. In Texas, the GOP leadership is working to restrict voting access and pushing extremely unpopular policies like permitless open-carry firearms legislation. In the midterms, we expect Texas Republicans to run on divisive culture-war issues like critical race theory, abortion and transgender rights. And nationally, the Republican Party keeps growing more anti-democratic and out of touch with the average American voter.

To counter this, Democrats would be wise to embrace a popular agenda that can split conservative voters while offering a positive vision. And we can’t wait until 2022 to start this work. Our new organization, Ground Game Texas, is already organizing community by community and launching city-based campaigns to adopt local ballot initiatives on issues that broaden the tent and excite voters — including those under the “workers, wages and weed” banner.

As Anat Shenker-Osorio, one of the foremost progressive messaging experts, has said, Democrats “have not learned to stop selling the recipe and start selling the brownie.”

It’s time to take the brownie directly to voters. And why not make it a pot brownie?

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