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Insight: Midterms show why going left in the South leaves Democrats in a hole

Democrats’ short-term problem isn’t rallying their base; it’s getting buried in small towns and rural areas

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Heading into the midterm elections, there was a great deal of chatter around the thesis that Democrats had found a new way to win statewide races in the South — by nominating liberals who fashion themselves as “progressives” and could rally base and minority voters.

No more mamby pamby moderates, please. Give Southerners liberalism unvarnished, and they would come.

But, alas for Democrats, this strategy proved rather impotent. Beto O’Rourke won’t be a U.S. senator from Texas. Andrew Gillum won’t be governor of Florida, nor Stacey Abrams governor of Georgia.

As Democrats look ahead to 2020, the results in the South in 2018 illustrate why the strategy of tacking to the left, both regionally and nationally, may play right into the hands of the two men they most love to hate, Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In November, Democrats made major pushes in the five largest Southern states — Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — targeting federal and statewide races. The only place that strategy worked well was in Virginia, already reliably in the Democratic column.

In Florida, with Gillum and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson leading their ticket, Democrats took just two of the nine targeted House seats and lost both a Senate seat and the governor’s race — in fact, every statewide race except for agriculture commissioner.

In Texas, with O’Rourke leading the way by not beating Ted Cruz, Democrats took just two of eight targeted House seats, and all eight GOP incumbents running for re-election statewide won – Governor Greg Abbott by more than 1 million votes.

In Georgia, Abrams’s candidacy helped the suburban doughnut around Atlanta to the Democratic column, costing Republicans one House seat. But she fell short against an opponent, Brian Kemp, who lacked her polish or political skills.

In North Carolina, none of the House seats targeted by Democrats flipped, though they did manage to reduce the GOP’s previously veto-proof majority in the legislature.

The results for Democrats were even more grim in the smaller Southern states. In Arkansas, where as recently as 2010 Democrats held the governorship and every statehouse post, they didn’t come within 20 points in any statewide race and lost every federal race for the third election in a row.

So why is this important in 2020? Because if Democrats can’t win statewide races in the South, they face daunting math in both the Electoral College and the Senate. And the near total failure of out-and-out “progressive” candidates to win in 2018 raises serious questions about the wisdom of nominating them two years from now.

If Trump sweeps the South outside of Virginia, he’s at 167 electoral votes. Add to that the 36 votes of the reliably Republican states in the West and Great Plains, and he’s at 203. And in every presidential election but one since World War II, the same candidate that has carried Florida also carried Ohio, which puts him at 221.

Thus, Trump would need just 49 electoral votes from the remaining states; in 2016, he got 85. To deny him the presidency, a Democrat would have to take away Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, with no room for error.

Now consider how much easier it would be for a Democrat to beat Trump if he or she could pick off some states in the South, as both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did on their way to the White House.

And consider how unlikely that will be if the Democratic ticket is headed by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

The Senate math is even more daunting. Of the 22 Republican-held seats up in 2020, 12 are in the South and six in those reliably Republican areas in the West. Democrats must also defend a seat in Alabama.

Democrats need to flip four seats to get to a majority. So if they are shut out in the South, including Alabama, the best they can hope for is a 50-50 tie, even if they run the table in the four remaining GOP-held states — Arizona, Iowa, Colorado and Maine.

Of course, proponents of the with-progressives-we-can-win-strategy will point to the fact that O’Rourke, Gillum and Abrams came closer to victory than Democrats have in recent elections — and also closer than Phil Bredesen, the Democratic moderate in Tennessee’s Senate race.

That may be true, but it also begs this question: Given the political winds blowing in Democrats’ favor in 2018, might they have won those close races had they nominated candidates more willing to trim their progressive sails?

Long-term demographic trends, particularly more urban and minority voters and a shift toward Democrats in the suburbs of major cities, do threaten Republican hegemony in the South. But 2020 is not the long term.

The biggest short-term problem for Democrats in the South is that they are getting buried in small towns and rural areas outside of major cities with majority white populations, digging a hole so deep that there are not enough urban, suburban and minority voters to get them out of it.

Kemp took at least 70 percent of the vote in half of Georgia’s counties. In the 350 miles of Florida from Pensacola to Jacksonville, Gillum won just two counties. And if you drew a line across Texas from El Paso to Austin to Houston, O’Rourke’s only victories north of that line were in Dallas and Fort Worth.

If Democrats can’t fix their problem with rural voters, they are unlikely to win statewide in the South in 2020 — and 2018 shows that throwing self-styled progressives against the Republicans’ big red wall is certainly not the solution.

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Democrat Northam, Republican Gillespie will face off in Virginia governor’s race

Northam wins easily among Democrats; Gillespie barely edges out Trump-aligned candidate

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FAIRFAX, Virginia (CFP) — Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam easily won the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor, brushing aside an anti-establishment challenge from former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.

But on the Republican side, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie could only squeak out a narrow win over Corey Stewart, Donald Trump’s one-time Virginia campaign director, in a race that turned out to be much closer than pre-election polls had forecast.

The results of the June 13 primary now set up what is likely to be an expensive and hard-fought race in the fall for the South’s only open governorship.

Among Democrats, North won 55 percent, to 45 percent for Perriello. On the Republican side, Gillespie was at 44 percent, just ahead of  Stewart, chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, at 43 percent. State Senator Frank Wagner from Virginia Beach brought up the rear at 14 percent.

Unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections put Gillespie’s margin over Stewart at just 4,200 votes out of nearly 366,000 votes cast. The margin would have to be within 1 percent of the total votes cast — 3,660 — in order to trigger a recount under state law.

Because Virginia does not have primary runoffs, Gillespie only had to win a plurality to advance to the general election.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

Northam, a pediatric neurologist from Norfolk who has spent a decade in state politics, had the backing of most of Virginia’s Democratic political establishment and appeared to be cruising to an easy nomination until Perriello jumped into the race in January.

Perriello’s campaign was endorsed by 2016 presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with a slew of former officials from Barack Obama’s administration, in which Perriello served after losing his House seat in 2010.

While Obama did not offer an endorsement, Perriello frequently reminded voters of his connection to the former president. But in the end, Perriello’s insurgent passion could not overcome Northam’s organizational and fundraising advantages.

Ed Gillespie

The Republican race also featured an outsider-versus-insider narrative, with Stewart wrapping himself in the mantle of Trump and vowing to “take back Virginia from the establishment” — a not-so-veiled shot at Gillespie, who served as a White House aide under President George W. Bush before leading the RNC.

One curious feature of the campaign was the decision by Stewart — an native of Minnesota — to publicly decry efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces, which have sparked controversy in Charlottesville and other cities in the South.

The governor’s race in the Old Dominion is one of only two being held this year; the other is in New Jersey. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe is barred from seeking re-election.

Once reliably Republican, Virginia is the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and it has now gone to the GOP in three successive presidential elections.

Three of the commonwealth’s last four governors have been Democrats, and it is is among just three of the 14 Southern states with a Democratic chief executive, the others being West Virginia and Louisiana.

Primaries for Virginia governor echo 2016 presidential race

Establishment-versus-insurgent contests featured on both GOP and Democratic ballots

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

RICHMOND (CFP) — The calendar may read 2017, and the names on the ballot may not be the same, but voters in Virginia can be forgiven if the commonwealth’s primaries for governor seem vaguely reminiscent of last year’s presidential contest.

On the Republican side, a party stalwart and former aide in the George W. Bush White House is running against Donald Trump’s one-time Virginia campaign director. On the Democratic side, a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate is offering a stiff challenge to a veteran officeholder who was considered to be a shoo-in just six months ago.

As voters prepare to go to the polls June 13, polls show that many voters in both races are undecided, providing a level of uncertainty and suspense in the South’s only governor’s race this year.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

On the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam appeared to be cruising to his party’s nomination unmolested until January, when former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello jumped into the race and began casting himself as the anti-establishment alternative, in contrast to the well-connected Northam.

Northam has the backing of Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is barred by Virginia law from running for re-election, along with both of the commonwealth’s U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Virginia

Perriello has countered with endorsements from Sanders, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and a slew of former officials from Barack Obama’s administration, in which Perriello served. And while Obama has not offered an endorsement, Perriello has been reminding voters of his connection to the former president every chance he gets.

Polls have shown a close race, although the large numbers of undecided voters means there is no clear leader heading into election day.

Ed Gillespie

On the Republican side, Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and Bush aide who ran a surprisingly strong race for U.S. Senate in 2014, has held a lead in the polls over his two challengers, Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and State Senator Frank Wagner, from Virginia Beach, a former U.S. Navy officer who has served in the the state legislature for 25 years.

Because Virginia does not have primary runoffs, Gillespie only has to win a plurality to advance to the general election.

GOP candidate Corey Stewart

Stewart, who was once Trump’s Virginia state chairman, has wrapped himself in the Trump mantle, positioning himself as the man who can “take back Virginia from the establishment,” a not-so-veiled reference to Gillespie.

Stewart lost his job in the Trump campaign in October 2016 after organizing a protest outside of Republican National Committee headquarters demanding that the GOP hierarchy not abandon Trump in the wake of the release of an audiotape in which Trump made sexually suggestive comments. But he still continued to support Trump.

During the campaign, Stewart — an native of Minnesota — has also come out against efforts to remove Confederate monuments, which have sparked controversy in Charlottesville and other cities in the South.

The winners of both primaries will advance to the general election, which is one of only two governor’s races being held this year. The other is in New Jersey.

Once reliably Republican, Virginia is the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and it has now gone to the GOP in three successive elections.

Three of the commonwealth’s last four governors have been Democrats — Warner, Kaine and McAuliffe — and Virginia is among just three of 14 Southern states with a Democratic chief executive, the others being West Virginia and Louisiana.

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