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Midterm Conundrum: How Do Democrats Connect With Voters?


Needless to say, the 2016 elections hit Democrats hard. They lost the White House. They blew a chance to recapture the Senate. They fell to new lows in state and local races, and defeat triggered questions. Did Democrats fail to reach the white working class? Did they just have a bad presidential candidate? Did they not get a fair shake from the media? The list goes on.


And now, a year and a half later, Democrats are trying to make a comeback. Party leaders think they have a shot at winning back the House and at least eating away at the Republican majority in the Senate. So how do Democrats try to connect with American voters in 2018? Senator Brian Schatz has an idea.

BRIAN SCHATZ: Our message is very simple. You are being ripped off. You are being duped. We believe that if you want a strong middle class, you have to vote for Democrats.

MARTIN: The senator from Hawaii came into our studios in Washington, D.C., recently to talk about the party's political strategy. In the wake of wins by Democrats like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, who campaigned against the GOP tax cuts but not necessarily did he campaign against President Trump, I asked Senator Schatz if he thought that was a winning strategy heading into these midterms.

SCHATZ: It absolutely depends. It depends on the district. I think there are districts - a lot of them - where Donald Trump is deeply unpopular, and tying your opponent to Donald Trump's unpopularity is a winning strategy. But that's not true for every district. Now, Conor Lamb was careful not to make this about Donald Trump, but Conor Lamb ran as a Democrat. He's personally a Catholic, but he's pro-choice. He's pro-ACA. He was pro-marijuana decriminalization. He was against the Republican tax cuts. And he specifically made ads criticizing Paul Ryan's economic policies. So if this is what counts as a moderate nowadays, I'm thrilled with that as a progressive.

MARTIN: We had Philippe Reines on our show, who is a former - longtime adviser for Hillary Clinton. And he said that Democrats should ignore Hillary Clinton at their peril in the midterms and moving forward looking towards 2020. It was no secret that out of the 2016 election there was a real rift in the party between the progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren to a lesser degree, and the more moderate establishment wing led by Hillary Clinton. Is that rift gone?

SCHATZ: No. The rift is never gone in the sense that there's always going to be a tension between the sort of slightly left of center and the progressive left. And that's an appropriate tension. We're trying to build a big-tent party here. I think there's more energy on the left. I think there's more enthusiasm on the left. I think there's more fundraising and grass roots on the left. And I, of course, as - personally as a progressive, I belong to that part of the party. But I think everybody should be welcome.

MARTIN: But do you think that that is the main lesson coming out of 2016 for Democrats, that they should listen more to the left-wing progressive faction of the party?

SCHATZ: I think they should listen more to the people across the country. The tendency among Democrats, especially after a devastating loss, is to come up with either a new individual to lead us, a new strategy, a new slogan. And that tendency is something that I am pushing back against, which is not to say I didn't enjoy Mr. Reines article and even agree with maybe a third or a half of it. But my point is, hey, why don't we just listen to those people out there who are demanding change? I'll give you an example. At the beginning of the Trump presidency, when Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump declared their Muslim ban, we had a bunch of strategists and pollsters coming to United States senators and quietly saying be careful about this. You know, this thing polls reasonably well, so you might want to be cautious. And what we told them is, first of all, this is a matter of conscience. And second of all, you are the people who just lost the election with us.

And so we ignored them. And such a beautiful thing happened for the country and for the party because we ignored them, because we made the case against the Muslim ban as immoral and un-American and, in fact, unconstitutional. We changed the polling numbers. We led public opinion. And suddenly, this thing, which was slightly more popular than not, became deeply unpopular because when Democrats lead, when they use their gut rather than their pollsters and their consultants, people will follow.

MARTIN: I would be remiss if I didn't note that your name has been bandied about in a group of Democrats who might throw their hat into the ring for 2020. I won't ask you to weigh in on that because I know that candidates are loaths (ph) to do so, but I will ask this - Donald Trump won when no one thought he was going to win. In 2020, he's going to be the incumbent. He will have the weight of the presidency at his back. What tactically do the Democratic candidates need to do differently than they did in 2016?

SCHATZ: I think we need to be less cocky. I think we need to take Donald Trump very seriously. I think we need to have a wide, open primary process where the voters decide who the best candidate is. I think the truth is that we had a couple of very strong choices, but this time, I think we need to see eight or 10 of my colleagues in the Senate running. I think we need to see mayors running. I think we need to see governors running. Anybody who thinks that they should lead the country should go ahead and put their hat in the ring. I am not among them. And I want to be unequivocal about that. There are no circumstances. I don't want to be coy about this.

MARTIN: But you think Democrats should not take this as a given.

SCHATZ: Nothing is a given. I think that we walked into that last election cycle, and so did the media and so did many of the voters, thinking to ourselves that it was virtually impossible that Donald Trump would be president. Now, he's got the power of the presidency, the power of incumbency. And I think we would be extremely unwise to walk into this cocky. We can be confident. We can be motivated. We can be organized. But you have to run through the tape.

MARTIN: Senator Brian Schatz from the state of Hawaii, he joined us here in our studios in Washington. Thanks so much for coming in.

SCHATZ: Thank you.