Former vice president Joe Biden’s substantial lead in the polls ignites Democratic hopes of winning it all — the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives — for the first time since 2008. Trump’s ongoing shamelessness, including his corrupt commutation of his adviser Roger Stone’s prison sentence, only underscores the urgency of the task.
But a lot hangs on the ability of Democrats such as Kim to survive and prosper in places where voters would once have shuddered at the thought of sending anyone but a Republican to Washington.
For now, at least, the odds are that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will keep her gavel, perhaps even with an enlarged majority. Interviews with Kim and three other first-term Democrats who took formerly Republican seats — Kim’s New Jersey colleagues Mikie Sherrill and Tom Malinowski, and Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger — help explain why.
All focus first on their own districts: the scores of town halls they have held, the local issues they have championed, the constituents they have assisted at a time when a pandemic and economic turmoil have threatened lives, livelihoods, businesses, and both state and local budgets.
But when specifically asked about the president, they point to a sharpening of attitudes caused by the covid-19 crisis that accounts for his slide in the polls. “A lot of what offended people about Trump in 2018 was stuff that didn’t directly affect our lives,” said Malinowski. “It was his tweets, his insults. . . . The difference now is we have well over 100,000 Americans dead.” The soaring virus case numbers over the weekend will only reinforce this feeling.
Sherrill contrasted what voters see as “a failure in leadership from the White House during this pandemic” to the response of local officials “regardless of party” — “the dedication, the concern, the worry, the sleepless nights that so many of them have, trying to take care of people in North Jersey.”
They also give Pelosi high marks for the bills she brought to the House floor — and, perhaps more important, the fact that she rarely forced her members to take highly controversial votes. “We’ve got a record,” Malinowski said, “and it’s exactly the record we ran on in 2018.”
Kim spoke of H.R. 1, the political reform package that many Democrats will highlight this fall. “When it comes to campaign finance reform and fighting corruption in Washington and fighting corporate special interests in Washington,” Kim said, “the vast majority of people in my district, whether Republicans or Democrats or unaffiliated voters, that is a top priority for them.” It could prove to be a sleeper issue.
As for Spanberger, she voted against Pelosi as speaker, as she promised she would in 2018, and has cast more votes against the party leadership than most Democrats. This should serve her well in a central Virginia district she describes as less “Trumpian” than “historically Republican and conservative, like legitimately conservative.”
Yet Spanberger also pointed to Pelosi’s “pragmatism” in her willingness to “disappoint” her party’s progressive wing in what the speaker brought to the floor. This has left Democrats in tough races with records they can more easily defend.
There is a political paradox at work in competitive House races. On the one hand, Trump’s unpopularity will power a great deal of straight-ticket Democratic voting that will lift all the party’s candidates. But especially for Democrats such as Kim, who prevailed by just 1.3 points in 2018, and Spanberger, who prevailed by two, there is an imperative to hold onto the small but essential batch of 2016 Trump voters who helped them to victory.
Polls show that some of those voters are now disillusioned, and Spanberger has some advice for how her party should appeal to them. A CIA veteran, she has been one of the toughest critics in Congress of Trump’s shamefully feeble response to intelligence reports that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
But she wants Democrats to challenge Trump, not those who voted for him. “I think that there are ways that we can make the argument without any element of an ‘I told you so’ reflection on the past,” she said. “There are many, many reasons why we should move forward with making a change. And I hope that’s the argument that many of my colleagues will be making.”
Building a new majority requires converting voters who were once part of the old one. No one is more aware of this than the Democrats’ suburban evangelists.