By all appearances, Democrats have a tremendous opportunity in the midterm elections in 2018. The Democratic base is energized and alarmed at the current course of government, while Republican voters are frustrated and divided. But the Presidential election of 2016 also seemed like a sure thing, and we all remember what happened there. Democrats must look carefully at every decision they make so as to best exploit their chances.
First, the message in each individual race must be tailored to local concerns. Issues like women’s choice and gay equality are too important to be abandoned outright, but in more conservative states, the party’s emphasis should be on issues that play well with the voters there, especially swing voters. (Remember, we don’t need to win over hard-core Republicans — that’s impossible anyway — but rather to sway just enough moderates.) Health care, for example, is becoming a winning issue; as Republicans have repeatedly tried to repeal the ACA, their efforts have roused growing opposition, while the ACA itself is more popular than when Obama was in office. A lot of the people who would lose coverage with ACA repeal are red-state white voters who usually vote Republican. Many of these won’t be swayed by Democratic promises to end repeal efforts, because their dislike of “Obamacare” is too much driven by visceral dislike of Obama himself. But some of them will.
Jobs, of course, are a big concern of blue-collar red-state voters. Major infrastructure spending would help there, and is desperately needed given the decayed and outmoded condition of our bridges, dams, airports, energy systems, and on and on. Trump and the Republicans have talked about infrastructure, but haven’t delivered. Democrats can offer a real plan here, without increasing the deficit, by promising higher taxes on the wealthiest to pay for it — something Republicans cannot credibly do.
Also, it’s worth investing in some races that would seem hopeless under more normal conditions. Republican voters are badly divided, with some feeling the party is becoming too extreme while fire-breathing Trump supporters are furious that it hasn’t become extreme enough. If this affects turnout, it could bring some surprising seats within reach — if the party is bold enough to pursue them. Also, Republicans are repeating their mistakes of 2010 and 2012, passing over more electable moderates and nominating radicals to Congress. Roy Moore’s nomination in Alabama is an example. Polls have given widely-varying results, but some show the Democrat, Doug Jones, with at least a credible chance.
Finally, Democrats already in office should continue to energize their own base and, putting it bluntly, to intensify the demoralization and division of their opponents’ voters. This means continuing to stand solidly against every reactionary bill the Republicans propose, forcing the latter to keep their majorities almost entirely unanimous to pass such bills, something we’ve seen is not easy. Democratic voters will be more motivated to support Democratic candidates if they see their office-holders united on the issues they care about. As for Republicans, it’s only human to become discouraged and cynical in the face of repeated failure. Any perusal of hard-line right-wing websites, especially the reader comments, reveals growing exasperation (indeed, often rage) at how little the party has gotten done in eight months of full control of the government. Democrats should keep solidly opposing measures like ACA repeal or tax “reform” that benefits only the wealthy. With just a few Republican defections, such legislation can be stopped — and ideological right-wing voters will become that much more angry at their leaders and less likely to vote, even as we peel off some moderates (as described above) by, for example, saving their healthcare.
This is not purely the responsibility of legislators. Ordinary Democratic voters can help too. They have already done so, by bombarding their Senators and Representatives with phone calls before important votes, to stiffen their spines. They should keep doing so.
In most cases, we should avoid trying to make the election about Trump. He may even have resigned or been impeached by November 2018. Stay focused on what Congress can do.
This is a time for boldness and unity. That’s the way to win.