Tuesday’s midterm elections crystallized a choice among Democrats as they look to the 2020 presidential contest: Do they side with passion or pragmatism?
An energized segment within the party saw in the results a need for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas, or a candidate like him, who can inspire large crowds with an authentic and optimistic plea that rebukes President Trump, while only rarely mentioning him.
Others pointed to wins in the upper Midwest that suggest a wholly different formula, one that would rely on candidates like former vice president Joe Biden or Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio to stitch together the coalition of working-class voters that for decades helped put Democrats into the White House.
“I think we know what the ingredients are,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a Democratic strategist. “And I think we’re trying to figure out if that person exists.”
Candidates and party strategists in recent days have been working through the midterm results, looking for clues about what may resonate with voters, according to interviews with nearly two dozen candidates, aides and strategists.
Some are daunted by Trump’s strength and resilience even in a rough midterm election, suggesting the feat of unseating him is more difficult than many realize.
“This was not a historic rebuke,” said a Democratic strategist working for a prospective 2020 candidate, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “He’s gotten his base to turn out twice. . . . I just don’t think anybody should have any confidence. How many times do you have to be confident about Trump and then being proved wrong? People felt like 2016 was a fluke. And people are underestimating him again.”
Others are optimistic about what they see as a loosening of Trump’s grip on working-class voters who abandoned Democrats for him in 2016.
What the midterm results did not do was cull a field that could be bigger and more unwieldy than any time in recent memory. Almost anyone pondering a bid could find a result that offered a reason to run, or just as quickly find a reason to take a pass.
“The fact that the ‘blue wall’ reasserted itself again yielded some of the 2020 candidates an argument to say, ‘I have the ability to appeal to Rust Belt voters, and that’s the path to victory.’ And I think they’ll get a fair hearing on that,” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic consultant who served as Hillary Clinton’s press secretary in 2016. “But I tend to still think that activists in Iowa will still go where their heart leads them, and won’t necessarily make some sort of pragmatic decision about who can appeal to Obama-Trump voters. They are more likely to gravitate to the candidate that most inspires them.”
The debate between those options, which has played out quietly in the two years since Trump shocked the party and sent it into a leaderless tailspin, will be settled over the next year as a large field begins openly competing for various slices of the primary electorate. Already, candidates are recruiting staff members and identifying finance teams to help them in the first of many tests — raising money.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been aggressively building a national fundraising and political network, while Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) will follow up several recent trips to primary states with a high-profile book tour. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is heading back to South Carolina on Friday, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she’s now considering a presidential bid after all but ruling it out.
Before now, one of the fundamental questions about the coming presidential campaign has been whether Democrats will push for a candidate to engage with Trump in a smash-mouth style that drives up partisans on both sides, or go for someone who attempts a more positive and uniting message. Many of the party’s successes Tuesday leaned toward the latter.
“The way to beat Trump is not to be like him,” said David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant and former senior strategist for President Barack Obama. “There is this sort of debate of, ‘Do you campaign with a clinched fist or an open hand?’ The candidates who won did not win as instruments of destruction to Donald Trump. They ran for an alternate vision that was constructive and positive and spoke to the day-to-day concerns of people.”
Candidates like O’Rourke — as well as gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia — ignited passion among Democrats across the country. They managed to raise huge amounts of money from everyday donors and created viral moments that propelled their state-based candidacies into national acclaim.
“It was a template,” Axelrod said. “The thing that distinguished Beto O’Rourke was not any one issue. It was his fundamental call to character, his fundamental call to community. I think there’s a big lesson in that. We tend to be very tactical and parochial in how we think about these things. But there’s something happening out there. I think the country is hungry for that.”
But O’Rourke didn’t focus on Trump. And as the Democratic primary gets underway, there remain thirsty calls for a more aggressive posture against the president.
“You’re not going to beat this guy talking about puppies and daisies,” said lawyer Michael Avenatti. “You have to inspire people, but you can’t inspire people to win against Trump. Not in 2020. It’s not going to happen. You have to get in the gutter with this guy and take shots. You have to take a lot of punishment and give a lot of punishment. He’s going to roll over a nominee who seeks to be cheerleader.”
Avenatti gained national attention representing Stormy Daniels, who has claimed she and Trump had a dalliance. He has said he is considering a presidential bid on the basis that he is uniquely positioned to engage with Trump.
“It’s not who among the Democrats can make the best president. If the Democrats answer that question they’re very likely to lose the election in 2020,” Avenatti said. “The question is: Who matches up against this particular individual at this point in time?”
Warren may attempt to cast herself as someone who can unite the different desires within the party — as the author of a populist message that could play well in the Midwest but who also has a knack for capitalizing on passionate and viral moments.
Distinguishing herself from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who occupied similar political space in the 2016 campaign and may attempt to run again, she is also hoping to tap into the vast new energy of female candidates and activists.
“Two years ago, on a very dark election night, millions of women watched in horror as Donald Trump was elected president,” she said in her victory speech Tuesday. “They didn’t like it. But they didn’t whimper. They didn’t whine. They fought back. . . . And that is how real change begins.”
There are quieter candidates, too, hoping to burst onto the national scene. Some have pointed toward Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, as having raw political talent and a record of speaking forcefully against racism. Outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who helped campaign for candidates during the midterms, is planning to spend the coming months evaluating whether to run on a platform of bipartisan governance.
“Across the Midwest we saw good pragmatic candidates who really wanted to get things done. They weren’t looking for a soapbox and a place to shout out their ideas,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s almost the opposite of Trump; it’s the antidote to Trump, where neither side ends up ecstatic or thrilled with the compromise. But everyone realizes this is progress. That’s the way politics used to be in this country.”
But his candidacy would test the question of whether there is space for that kind of politics.
“That’s the $62,000 question,” he said. “Because it doesn’t create media.”
Heading into the midterm elections, many Democrats were hoping their flashy new stars — especially O’Rourke, Gillum and Abrams — would win decisive victories, proving definitively that unabashedly liberal, young and dynamic candidates were the future not only of the party but of a rapidly diversifying country.
“People want us to chase this unicorn, the Obama-Trump voters,” said Bakari Sellers, a political commentator and former South Carolina state representative. “We need to focus on the energy in our party. We just can’t do the same thing we have been doing.”
But none of the three won Tuesday — O’Rourke was defeated, and Gillum’s and Abrams’s races remain up in the air. Some suggest that underscores the limits of the passion candidates, who tend to rile up both sides. Democrats running as more pragmatic messengers to working-class voters in states Trump won could at least claim success.
Brown, who won reelection in Ohio and is known for his rumpled suits and raspy voice, raised eyebrows with an election night speech that implored Democrats to follow his path — if not him specifically.
“Populists are not racists. Populists are not anti-Semitic,” he said. “We do not appeal to some by pushing down others. We do not lie. We do not engage in hate speech. And we do not rip babies from their families at the border.”
“We will show America how we celebrate organized labor and all workers — the waitress in Dayton, the office worker in Toledo, the nurse in Columbus, the mineworker in Coshocton,” he continued. “That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar shares that lane after winning an easy reelection in Minnesota. Biden, who has made a career of calling himself “middle-class Joe,” is also a beneficiary of a strategy that goes through the Midwest.
Without a candidate who can relate to voters there, some Democrats argue, Trump has a chance to bounce back in the very places he won the presidency. Even amid Democratic wins in the Midwest on Tuesday, there were signs Trump had improved his standing.
In Michigan, where Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the governorship, exit polls had Trump’s approval rating at 44 percent. When Trump won the state in 2016, his favorability rating in exit polls was 39 percent.
“The path for the Democrats runs through the Rust Belt. I don’t think there’s any getting away from it,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime Biden confidant and campaign strategist. “That’s where Trump won. It’s where he turned the tables, and it’s where he lost Tuesday night.”
“If you just do the math in 2020 it’s hard to see a path for Democrats that doesn’t start in Pennsylvania and end in Minnesota,” Rasky said. “That formula was proved again Tuesday night. It’s not that there aren’t other ways to get there, but if we’re going to rely on Texas and Florida to win in 2020, let’s just find a pair of aces for a full house.”
A previous version of this story contained a graphic that showed Idaho and Maine as having two Democratic Senators. Idaho has two Republican Senators and Maine has one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and one Republican. This has been corrected.