Phil Cox in the Washington Post: Generic Democrats in Midwest Faring Better Than More Fiery Liberals in Sun Belt

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James Hohmann, The Washington Post

October 22, 2018

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Midwest is poised to be the epicenter of Democratic gains in the midterms, just as it was for Republicans during the 2010 tea party wave. One under-appreciated reason is that Democrats nominated more temperamentally and ideologically moderate candidates in this region than across the Sun Belt, which might have been ground zero for the party out of power.

With the left already activated by animus toward President Trump, milquetoast Midwest moderates are polling well two weeks out from the elections. The Democratic nominees for governor in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Kansas each defeated more liberal alternatives in competitive primaries by emphasizing their electability. To varying degrees, all appear to be acting intentionally bland and tacking toward the middle.

In contrast, Democratic voters selected the more liberal and fiery candidates for governor in primaries from Arizona and Texas to Florida and Georgia. That quickly took the first two contests off the map. Progressives hope Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams, both young African Americans, will motivate minority and millennial voters who don’t traditionally participate in nonpresidential elections. But veteran strategists from both parties believe that a more moderate nominee like former Florida congresswoman Gwen Graham would probably be further ahead in the polls than Gillum if she had won the August primary.

“It’s a Hippocratic oath election for Democrats: Do no harm and hope to ride a wave,” said GOP strategist Phil Cox of 50 State, who formerly directed the Republican Governors Association. Not speaking of any specific race, he added: “If you’re a generic Democrat, you’re trying to play mistake-free ball and let a favorable environment do the heavy lifting for you.”

— With the 2020 presidential campaign poised to begin in earnest immediately following the fall elections, Michigan might offer a road map for some Democrats looking to limit their time in the wilderness. Trump was the first Republican since 1988 to carry the state’s electoral votes, but Democrat nominee Gretchen Whitmer has emerged as the heavy favorite over state Attorney General Bill Schuette to replace outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder. Among other progressive priorities, the former state Senate minority leader refused to endorse single-payer health insurance, known as “Medicare-for-all,” even as both of her primary rivals hammered her for it. Instead, the consistent mantra of her campaign through the primary and general elections has been, “Fix the damn roads.” The slogan is designed to portray her as more of a problem solver than an ideologue.

“It wasn’t that we fundamentally went from Obama country to Trump country. It’s that people didn’t vote. That was the biggest takeaway that a lot of people missed,” Whitmer said in an interview at a Democratic field office here. “We’re really working hard to make sure that people understand the governor impacts your day every day in a more profound way than even the White House does: from the cleanliness of your water, to the education your kids are getting, to fixing the damn roads. That’s what a governor does. We saw a great turnout in the primary. And as far as we can tell, the absentee ballots are flying out the doors. But we’ve got to keep our foot on the gas all the way through.”

Whitmer, 47, said her focus on “the dinner-table issues” grew out of visiting all 83 counties in the state. Her pitch is less about repudiating the status quo than appealing to voter frustration and fatigue with division that doesn’t solve problems. “One of the things about showing up in every part of the state [is] it keeps you tethered to the real issues people are confronting,” Whitmer said. “When you can’t drink the water coming out of your tap, or you’re paying hundreds to fix your car because the roads are falling apart, or your kids aren’t getting the education they need, that is all consuming. … That’s what people want: They want government to get the job done for them.”

— Across the Midwest, Democratic candidates for governor are campaigning less on turning the car around than changing lanes. Who knows whether they’d behave this way if given the keys, but on the stump at least they’re talking more about incremental shifts than radical changes:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s challenger, Tony Evers, is about as close to a plain-vanilla Democrat as you could find in 2018. The state superintendent of public instruction easily won an eight-way primary in August against several progressive firebrands, including the president of the state firefighters’ union, a former state party chair and the mayor of the state’s most liberal city — known locally as the People’s Republic of Madison. Evers was the only one of the eight Democrats to oppose making all the state’s technical colleges free, and he resisted the calls of several of his rivals to support the legalization of marijuana. In the general election, he’s stayed laser focused on talking about increasing education funding, expanding health-care coverage and fixing potholes — which he calls “Scottholes,” a play on his opponent’s name, in commercials. This approach has Evers within the margin of error against an entrenched and well-funded incumbent.

In Ohio, which Trump handily carried, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray is running as a plain-spoken economic populist more than a traditional liberal. Former congressman Dennis Kucinich attacked Cordray during the Democratic primary for, among other things, once having an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and being soft on the environment. Cordray, who has stayed emphasized issues like overtime pay, is running neck-and-neck with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. The race could go either way.

In Minnesota, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz also took hits from his challengers for welcoming past support from the NRA. But he won the primary anyway against state Rep. Erin Murphy, who had secured the party’s endorsement during a state convention, by emphasizing his ability to win six times in a rural congressional district that Trump had easily carried. Now he’s the overwhelming favorite to win the general election against Jeff Johnson, who won a shocking upset over former governor Tim Pawlenty in the GOP primary. Meanwhile, Walz’s more progressive House colleague Keith Ellison — buffeted by an ex-girlfriend’s allegation of abuse, which he strongly denies — is struggling in his bid for attorney general.

— South Dakota and Kansas are two states of concern for Republicans right now that should probably be getting more national attention than they have been. The RGA is spending money to shore up Rep. Kristi Noem’s campaign in South Dakota. And Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who defeated the incumbent governor in the GOP primary by running hard to his right, is struggling to appeal to moderate Republicans who had soured on former governor Sam Brownback before he stepped down to become an ambassador. Polls show the race is close, but the underlying data suggests Kobach will have a tough time. Surveys suggest, for example, that the top concern for likely Republican voters in Kansas is education funding. Yet Kobach seldom talks about education. When he spoke at Trump’s recent rally in the state, he riffed on immigration, ballot security and taxes — but not schools.

— Midwesterners are looking for “steadiness” as they pick a chief executive because they’re “sick of all the hot air blowing out of Washington and the broken government in their state capitals,” said Jared Leopold, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “Fundamentally, governors races are about competence and priorities. After eight years of Republican control in the Midwest, voters are looking for a jolt of leadership in their states. … That’s why slogans like ‘fix the damn roads’ have caught on: It’s not just about potholes …”

— Another factor helping generic Democrats in the Midwest is that grass-roots activists are hungry to win after Trump’s unexpected victory in their states two years ago. In Michigan, for example, Bernie Sanders campaigned for Whitmer’s Democratic rival Abdul El-Sayed this summer. But the Vermont senator, who bested Hillary Clinton here in 2016 and may run again in 2020, reached out to Whitmer immediately after she won the primary. “To his credit, he called and said I want to help and it’s important you win this,” she said.

Headlining a rally for Whitmer here on Friday, by the University of Michigan campus, Bernie called this “the most important midterm election in the history of our country.” “No more complaining. No more despair. Now is the time to stand up, fight back and vote,” said Sanders, according to the Detroit News.

— Schuette, the Republican nominee for governor, said Whitmer is a far-left wolf in a pragmatic sheep’s clothing, and that campaigning with a self-described democratic socialist proves it. He said she would repeal the right-to-work law passed by the GOP, raise taxes and bring back everything about former Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm that Michiganders rejected in 2010. “It was already the most extreme ticket … and now Bernie Sanders,” Schuette said during an interview between campaign stops last Thursday. “People see through it. It’s just so phony, and I think Bernie Sanders’s visit is an accurate reflection of her true politics. She was one of the most extreme left-wing members of the Michigan legislature in her 14 years there.”

Schuette, who won the GOP primary by embracing Trump, continues to welcome his support and rejects the notion that the president is a drag. “The voices saying that are the same voices who were saying Hillary Clinton should measure the drapes,” he said.

The two-term attorney general, a former congressman and judge, predicted that the race will be much closer than the polls show. “I’m about five down, maybe four,” he said. “We’re tightening. In Michigan, you win these races on Election Day. The similarities are striking with John Engler’s race in 1990. In Michigan, you start behind if you’re a Republican.”

As we talked, the 65-year-old fondly recalled a night in 1979 when he was volunteering for George H.W. Bush’s insurgent campaign against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Schuette picked up Bush from the airport in his mom’s Jeep to drive him to a fundraiser at a country club on the lakeshore. They were shooting the bull during the drive back to the airport, so that an exhausted Bush could catch a redeye for another fundraiser the next morning. “Nobody said it would be easy,” the future president told the 20-something Schuette, “and everybody was right.”