Yesterday, NPR's All Things Considered reported on the profound split inside the Democratic Party when it comes to messaging. Emma Hurt, Ben Giles and Deirdre Walsh pointed to two very different examples, Georgia and Arizona, where, respectively, freshmen Raphael Warnock-- a progressive-- and Mark Kelly-- a reactionary-- are up for reelection next year. Progressive Punch's algorithm has Warnock tied with 2 other freshmen for the #1 most progressive slot so far this year. Kelly's record is in the bottom half of Democrats, #27... and falling.
Warnock is sticking with the progressive messaging that got him elected in a special election last year and Kelly is sticking with the conservative Republican-lite strategy from his own special election. Warnock is campaigning on Biden's infrastructure plan including taxes on the wealthy to pay for it. Kell's campaign is about pointless bipartisanship and a tired and unexciting middle of the road policy agenda. The only reason to vote for him is because a Republican is worse. He's definitely running as a lesser-of-two evils candidate. He might not be as bad as Kyrsten Sinema, but that's the general direction he's going in.
Florida also has a crucial 2022 Senate race in the making. Schumer has his heart set on someone just like Sinema-- her successor as Blue Dog chair, Stephanie Murphy, who probably won't run. Progressive firebrand Alan Grayson is running and is eager to take on Marco Rubio. Yesterday, he told me that the thinks "Democrats are really, really tired of candidates who say, 'if elected, I make a solemn promise that I will do nothing.' Nobody wants to vote for a candidate like that. As Jim Hightower says, there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."
The two different pathways reflect a larger tension at play as Democrats try to retain their narrow control of Washington. To win swing states like Arizona and Georgia, which strategy might work better? How voters respond to these diverging strategies could give the party some answers as to how it should shape itself for the future.
Democrats running in battleground states have traditionally followed a centrist playbook to target independents and Republicans in suburban areas.
But that has been changing in Georgia, with wins to show for it.
"The theory of Georgia Democrats isn't about persuading the middle right now. It's about motivating the base," said Stefan Turkheimer, a Democratic strategist from Georgia who has also worked in Arizona. "So the idea is you're not trying to get Catholics to convert to Baptist; you're trying to get Baptists to go to church."
Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who also serves as chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the shift reflects a new focus on energizing voters and speaking directly to marginalized communities, as opposed to trying to win back swing voters.
When running for party chair, she recalled hearing from people who "would be very upset and say, 'Well, if I can't tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on the ballot, then why do I even need to bother turning out to vote?' " Williams said.
"We are in a different space where leaders are being authentic and not trying to be 'Republican light' because they think that we need to reclaim these Republicans that we lost years ago," she said.
Williams says Warnock and Ossoff's push for more progressive ideas, like federal voting legislation, reflects that.
These ideas-- and an alliance with Biden-- are also the platform the senators campaigned and won on, pointed out Jeremy Halbert-Harris, a Democratic strategist who led the Biden campaign in Georgia and advised the Senate runoff campaigns.
"We delivered the Senate majority by ... delivering the message of the president and actually delivering on what we exactly said we were doing," Halbert-Harris said. "We were able to say, at multiple rallies, 'If you elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate, they will help you secure your relief checks.' They were elected, that was done."
...Progressives in Arizona wish Kelly acted more like his Georgia colleagues.
Alejandra Gomez, the co-executive director of Living United For Change Arizona, said she was disappointed in Kelly's reaction to Biden's joint address to Congress, when the senator criticized the president for failing to mention a "crisis" at the border.
"It really felt like that was tone deaf," Gomez said. She wants Kelly to focus on the other parts of Biden's speech-- programs focused on working-class Arizonans, like a higher national minimum wage and affordable health insurance.
"We need to be reminded that these are not policies on a piece of paper; these are people's lives," Gomez said. "And in order for people to be able to survive this moment, they need bold moral leadership."
But Kelly's positions reflect his campaign promises to the state's diverse electorate. One-third of Arizona voters are independent.
Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and Republican strategist, points to Sinema's victory in 2018, when she won in part thanks to split-ticket voters who cast ballots for her and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. Adams said appealing just to a progressive base isn't a winning strategy for Democrats in statewide campaigns.
"Statewide elections in Arizona are decided by, in the industry, what are termed soft Democrats, soft Republicans and independents," Adams said. "In other words, it's those voters who go to Election Day, and they are not going to be bound by the views and the opinions of the activists in either party."
...Gomez is aware of the realities of swing-state politics, but says Arizona's progressive base, which has been especially frustrated with Sinema's vote in March against a $15 minimum wage, can't be taken for granted.
"While you can't have a resounding victory just with the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color, the Latinx community, you can't win an election at a statewide level without the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color and the Latinx community," Gomez said.
Progressives have been pushing for years to get rid of the legislative filibuster so they can pass major bills to protect voting rights. The wins by Warnock and Ossoff creating the 50-50 Senate put the issue front and center-- but it's been a key area where Arizona and Georgia Democrats are not on the same page.
Pointing to their own state's new Republican-led voting law, Warnock and Ossoff have said they're open to changing Senate rules to enact federal election protections.
Gillespie, the Emory political scientist, said this reflects the Democratic "gamble" in Georgia, especially for Warnock going into his reelection bid.
"If you were worried about the elusive center, [Warnock] might moderate his stance," she said. "But he's banking that there are more voters who are frustrated with what they perceive as Republican obstruction than who are concerned with preserving an institutional rule."
But in Arizona, Kelly sidesteps the question, while Sinema is publicly opposed, stressing the need for legislation to have bipartisan support.
When asked about the filibuster last week, Kelly pivoted to talking about the need for bipartisan legislation and a more efficient Congress. When pressed, he said: "If there was a real proposal, I'd certainly take a look at it."
Jason Call, the progressive taking on corporate New Dem Rick Larsen in northwest Washington, is clear where he stands and is campaigning with all his might on a popular progressive platform. "My position has long been that we need more activists and fewer politicians in Congress. We need representation whose primary goal is to be of service to their constituents, not the corporate campaign funders who give relatively equally to both sides of the aisle, all but ensuring that the policies of the oligarchy will prevail. While in the past this has been the conventional wisdom of campaigning, it has brought us to a place of almost complete and utter brokenness and despair for over half the country. It has resulted in a disengaging of the disaffected, and a resignation for many that electoral politics will never work for them. I’ve no doubt that at the highest echelons of political power this is by design-- anyone who has followed the Republican Party path over the last 40 years knows who Paul Weyrich is, and his famous quote that the fewer people who vote, the greater the leverage of the GOP. This philosophy laid the bedrock for the ongoing assault on voting rights. But while the Republican Party openly opposes democracy, the Democratic Party hasn’t done nearly enough to appeal to its base, which to be quite honest should be everyone to the left of Richard Nixon. It’s this catering to the corporate class as a way to maintain political power, championed by Bill Clinton, that set the Democratic Party on a path to be, in many respects Republican-lite. It’s not a controversial statement to say that moderate Democrats of today would be equally at home in the Republican Party of the 1970’s. This is unacceptable and it’s why we must expose-- as I am doing with a deep examination of Rick Larsen’s 20 years in office-- that with a good many Democrats you’re not getting any better voting record than a moderate Republican. In a district like mine, a solid blue D+10 district, there’s no real need to toe a corporate centrist line, and I don’t believe that’s what the voters of this district want; they’ve simply never been presented with an aggressively progressive option. Because I take no corporate PAC money, the only thing I bring to the table is people centered policy. I don’t need to couch my agenda in soft words designed to obfuscate any message. We resonated with almost 35,000 voters last year. If we stay on message about healthcare and the environment, union wages and drawing down our military spending, along with hammering home that this is a progressive district that won’t fall into GOP hands, we’re going to awaken some people who have given up, and we’re going to peel off some of those voters who have in the past not been critical of Larsen because of the D, but are now willing to take a chance that their representation could be substantially better. As it stands, Larsen is better than a Republican. But only just."