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Opinion Democrats cannot simply ignore the GOP’s culture war attacks

An Election-Day scene in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 2. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)
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Virginia’s election results last week reignited chatter in Democratic circles that Republicans were once again managing to outmaneuver them with ginned-up culture issues and outright lies designed to scare White people. Jonathan Cowan, president of the moderate think tank Third Way and a founder of Shield PAC, has a tough-love message for fellow Democrats: Ignore culture issues at your peril.

When Joe Biden was campaigning for president, he understood this in the face of the MAGA onslaught. “He held firmly to his moderate brand and pushed back on the culture attacks coming from [Donald] Trump,” Cowan recalled. “For example, he declared that he did not support defunding the police as soon as the issue arose.”

But Democrats in Virginia failed to follow Biden’s lead. “Fifty-five percent of voters in exit polls said the Virginia economy was ‘excellent’ (9 percent) or ‘good’ (46 percent),” Cowan wrote to me, “but Terry McAuliffe, the de facto incumbent, still lost. Republican Glenn Youngkin made schools the centerpiece of his campaign; the issue dominated his paid media and stump speech. In a pre-election poll, McAuliffe was trailing by 15 points among parents who had school-age kids and leading by a point among voters who did not. That huge gap isn’t explained by those two groups of voters having different views about inflation — it was about schools.”

Cowan also pointed out that high turnout does not ensure Democratic victories if the party loses voters who sided with President Biden in 2020.

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Cowan offered additional thoughts via an email exchange (edited for length and clarity):

Q: What’s going on there?

Republicans took some actual concerns that parents were expressing and turned them into a monster that moved votes. It’s true that Virginia’s schools had some of the strictest covid protocols in the nation, staying virtual long after other kids across the country were back in the classroom. And while parents helped their kids with all those months of Zoom classes, some likely saw school administrators implementing new diversity programs or rethinking how they talk about race in light of the events of the last two years. Some even went so far as to rethink admissions policies for gifted and talented programs or schools for equity’s sake. Youngkin managed to take an issue like that, which raised ire among some swing suburban voters, and knit it together with other school issues that fired up the base — like critical race theory and mask mandates — to build a coalition of disgruntled parents.

The CRT focus was part of a broader campaign to tell parents that Democrats want to take away control of what is happening to their kids. School closures, covid protocols, questions around resource officers, the teaching of more adult content — Republicans and right-wing media whipped all of those into a frothy mix of anxiety that drove up turnout in rural areas and turned some swing voters away from Democrats.

Q: Republicans will keep using this playbook until it stops working, right?

They will, because they believe that it worked in Virginia, and that it was successful in the 2020 down-ballot races as well. As a major 2020 post-mortem that we and others commissioned revealed, these charges helped them beat a dozen House freshmen with a culture war barrage focused on making them look like extremists on crime, immigration and socialism. Of course, they’re going to do it again.

This is not mere speculation. GOP leaders have issued memos urging Republicans to “lean into the culture war.” The [New York] Times reported that the Republican Party plans to focus on culture war issues in its efforts to retake the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. And this week, they’re doubling down, with a memo from the House Republican Study Committee noting that schools should be a “tier 1” issue for Republicans.

We created Shield PAC for exactly this reason. Democrats need an entity focused relentlessly and exclusively on defending the most vulnerable House incumbents in swing districts from these culture war attacks. We’ll run highly targeted campaigns designed to prevent a repeat of Virginia, keeping swing voters from abandoning Democrats when they are fed misinformation about these members being too extreme.

Q: What do Democrats do about it?

The conventional wisdom says they should pivot to more favorable political terrain or simply refuse to dignify these attacks with a response. But that can be politically fatal. Someone — the candidates themselves or allies like Shield PAC — must correct the record and push back.

In Virginia exit polls, more than half of voters said the Democratic Party is “too liberal,” compared with just 13 percent saying it’s “not liberal enough” and 32 percent who said it’s “about right.” As we’ve seen in elections dating back to the Nixon era, when Democrats are perceived as too liberal, especially on cultural wedge issues, it can be devastating.

So instead of avoiding or pivoting, Democrats must take the issues head-on. And they must understand there is often a piece of the truth inside the Republican lies and distortions. That means that Democrats must acknowledge that, address it directly and firmly rebut it. Then they must make it crystal clear that they do not support the extremist positions that the Republicans claim they do. When an attack feels outlandish, refusing to respond is tempting, but it’s a huge mistake.

We have new, not yet released data from public opinion research that dramatically underscores this point. In our online survey of 1,500 likely voters in 2022 (plus a big oversample of swing voters), Democratic rebuttals to GOP attacks that corrected the record or pushed back on attacks were far more effective at resolving concerns about Democrats than the messages that simply wrote off GOP attacks without tackling their central charges. For example, 39 percent of swing voters said that a message that pushed back on GOP attacks completely resolved their concerns about Democrats, compared with 27 percent who said the same about a message that simply called the GOP attacks a distraction.

Democrats certainly should lead with their bread-and-butter economic message, especially after Biden’s legislative victories. This does not mean, however, that they can ignore Republicans’ attacks on race and culture, however distorted. If Democrats are tempted to dismiss voters’ concerns as much ado about nothing, they need only remember how that approach worked out for McAuliffe.