It was a little over a month before election day when I received a call from my wife, someone she was working with at the time wanted us to volunteer with the local Democratic Party for candidate Bryan Caforio. As a political junkie Caforio had been on my radar already, he was in an interesting race I already kind of wanted to get involved in. Caforio was challenging incumbent Steve Knight in California’s 25th congressional district, which represents a large swatch of Northern LA County. Both the Democrats and Republicans viewed Knight as an easy target so there was a lot of money flowing into the district. He had been on my radar and I ended up in and out of the campaign office for the next month. I didn’t volunteer as much as I maybe should have, but I saw a lot and a lot of what I saw seemed to pop up again months later in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. After Jon Ossoff’s loss in another highly contested race I couldn’t help but to draw some pretty obvious parallels between the two.
CA 25, is a fairly suburban congressional district that has sent a Republican to congress every election since 1992. Much like Ossoff’s race it was a solidly Republican seat the Democrats felt they could contest by picking off suburban white voters disenfranchised with Donald Trump. They had some strategic differences, but as a whole these two races are a great look at how the Democratic Party is struggling to find an effective message, even in races they feel they can easily contest.
A few weeks after the original call my wife received and a few weeks before the election, I found myself in the Bryan Caforio campaign office. Admittedly by the time election day my wife had spent significantly more time there than I did, but I was around long enough to get a feel for how things were going and what the broader strategy was. It was pretty standard campaign stuff, but the messaging was clearly subpar.
There were phone bankers relentlessly making calls, often to the same exacerbated voters who had been called numerous times previously. A problem that I would later find out was a constant problem for people volunteering on Democratic campaigns all around the country, that was not solved with the Ossoff campaign. Some think it may have actually driven turn out down as opposed to increasing it. Every phone call was made from a phone stamped DCCC. To match the phone bankers there were canvassers with tablets stamped DCCC knocking on doors all around the community. Again, typical campaign stuff, but there was obviously a heavy party presence here and it was the only campaign I’ve ever worked on with a fairly significant number of paid campaign staffers. Those staffers would restlessly bounce in and out, checking analytics on their laptops and trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity from the people making the calls and knocking the doors. In the later days of the campaign Caforio himself showed up to check in.
There was also a heavy super pac presence, and Californian liberal mega donor Tom Styer obviously had his hands in the race. In fact he popped into the campaign office on numerous occasions and people in his Next Gen Climate shirts could be seen in neighborhoods all around the community. The party was pulling out all the stops for Caforio.
Caforio is a young, fairly tall, fairly good looking, Yale educated lawyer who worked for a big firm in Southern California. Just a year before throwing his hat in the ring he moved to the suburban district he now calls home, not that different than Ossoff. He was pretty clearly handpicked by the party, because while I’m sure he’s a competent person with some ideas of his own, he definitely didn’t actively campaign on them. At all.
All of this probably sounds fairly familiar to people who paid attention to the race in Georgia 6th. There was money and resources being spent because the party felt they had the right person in the right place, ultimately all of it ending with a fairly bland message and a loss for the Democrats. That said, there were some differences in the campaigns that I think are worth pointing out as they highlight some shifting strategy within the party.
The campaigns themselves were distinctly different in a few ways. Caforio explicitly tied Steve Knight to Donald Trump and campaigned as a foil to Donald Trump and his agenda. To this day I vividly remember his ads attacking Donald Trump, not because they were good, not because they pointed out the rank hypocrisy inherent in Trump as a person, or because they pointed out the disconnect between the Republican agenda and Trumpian populism. I remember those ads for the exact wrong reason, I don’t think they could have been more bland and forgettable if they tried.
They simply called Donald Trump a bully, repeatedly, as Cafario plegded to go to Washington and stand up for “regular people” and “middle class values”. I could almost put that sentence in quotes, there wasn’t anything else, just Trump is a bully, I’ll stand up for “middle class values.” A yale educated lawyer standing up for middle class values, huh. Those lines were an implicit attack on Knight who presumably would toe the Republican line and therefore further Trump’s agenda, they didn’t create any passion or tell you anything about Cafario. There were some mailers featuring Knight’s desire to cut social programs and increase reliance on fossil fuels, but it was all pretty bland and points to another big similarity between Ossoff and Caforio.
Both campaigns were missing any broader message, any policy agenda, or anything other than fear of Republicans to be passionate about. Whether it was fearing Trump the bully or fearing the “incivility in our politics”, it wasn’t enough. For a campaign that gets resources and messaging pretty obviously straight from the party, that’s a huge problem. I would contend it’s the problem that killed Caforio’s cances and it’s one that eventually sunk Ossoff’s campaign as well.
Ossoff started the same way Caforio did, with a bland call to arms against Trump. Specifically he claimed an Ossoff victory would “make Trump very angry.” There wasn’t much meat on the bones, but it looked as if he were setting up another race that was supposed to be a referendum on Trump. Hoping to ride the disenchanted affluent suburban white voters of Georgia 6th to victory. Somewhere along the line though the Ossoff campaign and probably more accurately the party consultants who helped shaped his message decided it best to separate Ossoff from the Democratic Party. That might have been the right move, but it didn’t lead to a more engaged or energized campaign. It was a different version of Caforio’s “I’m not Trump campaign”. Instead it centered on Ossof “not being like Washington” or “Opposing (insert generic talking point like “I’m against wasteful spending” here). Which in the end didn’t really lead to an outcome any better than the supposedly easily contestable race I worked on.
There were some slight changes, but it’s pretty clear both Ossoff and Caforio were using the same playbook. It’s also pretty clear Caforio received that playbook straight from the Democratic Party and I’m sure the record spending in Ossoff’s race probably means he did as well. If this playbook included campaigning on a broad agenda opposed to the elements of the Republican agenda, personally I think it might do well. Even in places that lean Republican like California 25 and Georgia 6. Democrats may think Republicans and their policies are driving those affluent white voters away, but it’s deeper than that and if they didn’t break away from the Trumpian Republican Party they might be a lost cause. What isn’t a lost cause is mobilizing the more disenfranchised left leaning voters who are not engaged by cookie cutter “Trump is a bully I’ll stand up for Middle Class values” talking points.
Donald Trump changed politics. If Republican voters didn’t break away in November, it’s going to take a lot more than Jon Ossoff pledging to “cut wasteful spending” to win them over. It’s going to take a lot more than Bryan Caforio calling Trump a bully. The Democrats would be wise to learn a lesson from Donald Trump. A narrative that feeds into your most passionate supporters world view might be the future of hyperpartisan American politics. The party voters aren’t jumping ship, but the independents who lean to both sides, the Tea Party on the right and the Benrie Sanders wing on the left, those people can be mobilized.
Those people are who won Donald Trump the election, the affluent white voters Democrats tried to pick off were simply along for the ride. The disenfranchised on the right who more than likely identify as independents but sit closer to the Tea Party on the political spectrum, those people are Trump’s base. These are the people who didn’t vote for Mitt Romney in 2012. Donald Trump gave them everything they wanted and for the people who loved Mitt Romney they were forced to swallow the Trump pill begrudgingly. They did swallow it though though. For the most part the upper class affluent white voters people like Caforio and Ossoff have targeted did not break ranks and it’s hard to imagine what Trump and company could do to push them any further.
The Democrats should learn from that. The days of Bill Clinton winning a slice in the center because Republicans like him more are over. In these hyperpartisan times it’s about mobilizing the ideological but less partisan voters on each side of the aisle. Something the Republican party has proved expert in doing, but the Democrats seemingly incapable. The first step is realizing that Ossoff and Caforio are not the type of candidates who in win in the age of Donald Trump. Even if they would have been stellar in the age of Bill Clinton.
More importantly though, the candidates that are going to win for the Democratic Party will have something more to offer than canned lines given to them by party consultants, they will have a message that brings people into the political process and gives them a chance at shaping their future. For better or worse that’s exactly what Donald Trump did for his voters and it’s what Democrats need to do for their base going forward.
Either that, or keep losing.