The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t let progressives fool you. Moderate Democrats can win.

People fill out their ballots at a polling place, during the midterm election Nov. 6 in Silver Spring, Md. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Jim Kessler is senior vice president for policy at Third Way. Lanae Erickson is vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way.

Twenty-three million people cast ballots for Democrats in the 2018 midterm primary season, and more than 50 million voted for Democrats on Tuesday in the general election. As the political focus now immediately turns to the 2020 presidential race, what should the legions of Democrats seeking to defeat Trump conclude from all of that voting? Despite all the talk about how “all the energy is on the left,” progressive populism and democratic socialism underwhelmed in the primaries and were close to shut out in competitive general elections. The actual voting energy in the midterms propelled mostly mainstream Democrats who closely matched their purple and red districts or states.

To start, despite some electric wins by ultra-progressives in cobalt-blue House districts, the real story is how well mainstream and pragmatic progressive Democrats fared in both the primaries and general election contests. The moderate New Democratic caucus in the U.S. House endorsed 37 candidates in primary races, and 32 earned the nomination — an 86 percent win rate. By contrast, Our Revolution, the grass-roots organization founded and run by Bernie Sanders’s backers, had a win rate under 40 percent in the primaries. Once the general election rolled around, 23 New Democrat-backed candidates flipped House seats to help gain the majority, while not a single Our Revolution-endorsed candidate captured a red seat. Zero.

Speaking of zero, our team watched every one of the 967 ads that Democrats ran in competitive House districts since Labor Day, and just two candidates mentioned either Medicare-for-all or single payer, and of those, neither won. In the primary season, activists hounded Democratic candidates to endorse Medicare-for-all, the centerpiece of the Sanders agenda, and a fair number complied. By the general election, most of those candidates were in full retreat after a series of studies estimated the required tax bill at $32 trillion and noted other negative side-effects.

Republicans from coast to coast smelled blood and launched a full-scale attack, leaving those who had endorsed the policy mumbling something like “this is just one option of many” before moving on to a ringing defense of Obamacare. The hit was so potent that a putatively Trump-authored op-ed centered around it. By our estimation, Republicans heavily invested in ads in at least two dozen swing districts to try to stick it to their Democratic opponents. As The Post’s fact-checker found, they even falsely claimed that some Democratic candidates endorsed the policy when they never did.

So 2020 hopefuls beware: Medicare-for-all failed the Hippocratic Oath. It did harm. And when you face powerful forces intent on making it a litmus test in the primary, proceed with caution.

All of this belies the lazy conventional wisdom that has started to solidify about the new diversity in Democratic politics: Support for the magnificent range of diverse candidates who have been inspired to run simply does not equal a demand for democratic socialism. These midterms will usher in a new generation of Democrats that is more representative of the full panoply of voters than any class in history. In the 116th Congress, close to 40 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House will be women, nearly half the caucus may be nonwhite, and the LGBTQ community could boast as many as eight representatives — all a record. That is a welcome and overdue change for the party. But don’t assume people of color, women and LGBTQ candidates are all populists or far-left progressives. They run the ideological gamut inside the party.

New Mexico Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham is a mainstream Democrat and Latina. Minnesota Rep.-elect Angie Craig is a moderate and a lesbian. Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer is a woman and pro-business. Illinois Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood is an African American woman endorsed by the moderate New Democrats. They have three things in common: They’re not white men, they’re principled Democrats, and they won tough races in tough places.

You don’t get that sort of diversity anywhere else. In fact, in its groundbreaking 8,000-person survey, More in Common found that “progressive activists” in the electorate are 92 percent white. Of all the “political tribes” it identified in its report on “The Exhausted Majority,” only “devoted conservatives” (at 94 percent) are more consistently white. Appealing to the broad demographic diversity of the party is an absolute imperative for 2020. But presidential candidates should not conflate that with appealing to the far left with populist rhetoric and a democratic socialist agenda.

The blue wave that won the House, clawed to defend so many tough seats in the Senate, turned at least six governor races and flipped 350 state legislative seats was a mammoth effort and a huge step in the right direction for the country and the party. But the big fight comes in 2020. Twenty-three million Democratic primary voters and 50 million voters who cast ballots for Democrats in the general election can’t be wrong. Democratic presidential hopefuls should heed the messages they sent.

Read more:

Ed Rogers: Democrats won the House, but Trump won the election

Greg Sargent: Three of the biggest Trump fables died last night

Max Boot: The battle with Trumpism is just beginning

Karen Tumulty: The aftershock from Hillary Clinton’s defeat has finally arrived

Jennifer Rubin: Morning Bits: After the election, let’s see what’s going on