Winning Candidates in Growing 2018 Blue Wave Are Emphasizing Personal Concerns in Voters’ Lives

The year’s first primaries and special elections for Congress and state legislature have shown 2018 is shaping up as a historic blue voter turnout, a cycle where a wave of new Democratic women could be elected, and a year where progressives will move from the sidelines into state and federal office.

But beyond these top-line trends, there appear to be deeper common threads among Democrats who are winning primaries and special elections. On top of communication skills, endorsements, funding and other essential campaign ingredients, many share track records and careers helping others; especially on personal health and household issues. Their campaign platforms typically begin there, starting with personal struggles and unfolding in people-centered concentric circles; such as emphasizing the need for improved healthcare, educational opportunity, jobs and economic stability.

It’s incomplete to say the winners are pragmatic centrists or passionate progressives. There appears to be a big slice of first-person centered priorities in their biographies and current campaign agendas. Call it an empathy factor—that contrasts to loftier or more ideological rhetoric emanating from their local opponents, state capitals and Washington. This takeaway, while admittedly impressionistic, is based on looking at the statements of candidates running in 2018’s primaries and special elections, both winners and losers.

Wisconsin State Senate Race

A good example can be seen in this January’s upset by Democrat Patty Schachtner in Wisconsin’s 10th state Senate District. The district is in the westernmost part of the state, closer to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, than to Wisconsin’s cities. Schachtner, the St. Croix County medical examiner, ran for a seat held for the past 17 years by a Republican. In her party’s primary, she faced the statewide director of a non-profit seeking to end the corrupting influence of money in politics, and a farmer/small businessman dismayed by cuts to education and environmental protection. Schachtner emphasized her work with law enforcement and community leaders on mental health and addiction, countering rising health costs, and the need for local job training options.

Her Republican opponents, in their primary, were an attorney/businessman and the owner of a large manufacturing plant. The attorney, who won the primary, emphasized that state government was never the answer, wasted money, and sought tax cuts, stronger gun and property rights. His opponent, the manufacturer, wanted to eliminate the state income tax, help retirees keep more money, and pledged to combat the ravages of opioid addiction.

Schachtner won the special election 55-to-44 percent, compared to her Republican predecessor’s 63-to-37 percent victory in 2016. President Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the district 55-to-38 percent in 2016. That turnaround is typical of the blue wave many forecasters are predicting for 2018. However, this race’s deeper contours can be see in other contests around the U.S. with similar dynamics, positioning and outcomes.

Florida State House Race

Another example can be found in the February special election in Florida for its District 72 House seat near Sarasota. The district’s boundaries were changed in 2010 by the GOP to include more reliable Republican voters—an example of the extreme gerrymandering that’s now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrat Margaret Good, a Sarasota lawyer and first-time candidate, won 52 percent, compared to the 45 percent for Republican James Buchanan and 3 percent for Libertarian Alison Foxall.

Both Good and Buchanan had high-profile help. She was endorsed by ex-Vice President Joe Biden and joined on the campaign trail by presidential candidate and ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Buchanan campaigned with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, and was backed by Florida’s GOP U.S. Senator, Marco Rubio.

But when it came to the issues, Good, while saying she would be a change agent—a cliché—prioritized environmental protection, such as better hurricane preparedness, commitments to public schools, health care and employment training. Buchanan, who also was running for the first time, emphasized a more traditional Republican agenda. Overall, the voter turnout was 36 percent of registered voters, which was more than double what local election officials said was typical in special elections.

Missouri and New Hampshire Races

Health care insecurities also played a big role in a special election for a state House seat in Missouri, where Democrat Mike Revis, 27, beat Republican David Lifton, 59. Revis, a procurement manager, campaigned as a centrist Democrat who focused on education, expanded access to health care and support for unions. Linton, an attorney, emphasized his opposition to abortion and support of gun, property and liberty rights.

Revis, who won by 3 points—in a district where Trump beat Clinton by 28 points—isn’t a progressive. He’s a member of the National Rifle Association and former intern for ex-Gov. Jay Nixon’s Civic Leaders Internship Program—all centrist credentials. But beyond the race’s generational differences, Revis emphasized more household-based concerns, not more conceptual principles that reflect the state GOP’s longtime platform.

There are other examples where candidates who appeared to have more first-hand experience with current concerns—or were more explicitly committed to nearer-term outcomes—prevailed. In a special legislative election in New Hampshire, Democrat Phillip Spagnuolo, who runs an addiction recovery center and did not oppose a major Canadian-U.S. hydropower corridor through the district, won. He beat Les Cartier, a retiree and Republican who shared almost identical stands with Spagnuolo on many issues, but said the power line project could mar the landscape and hurt tourism. Yet again, more personal and immediate impacts—in this case, construction jobs—won.

A Surprise Progressive Win in Nebraska

While every race is different, some of these currents were in play in Nebraska. In the congressional primary for one of its three House seats, progressive Kara Eastman, a first-time candidate who runs Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, a non-profit focusing on health policy, beat an ex-congressman, Brad Ashford, who wanted his seat back. Eastman had 51 percent, compared to 49 percent for Ashford, in last Tuesday’s primary. Virtually every party organization in Washington supported Ashford, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to pro-choice Emily’s List, assuming that a comeback bid would fly in a blue-wave year.

Eastman’s agenda reflected the more personal side of the Berniecrat platform. With her healthcare background, she campaigned for ‘Medicare for All,’ one proposal for national healthcare, free undergraduate education, gun controls starting with universal background checks, and took racial and social justice stances that resonate with younger voters. In a video ad, she said she was “tired of hearing Democrats don’t have a backbone, that we don’t stand for anything. That changes now.”

Notably, Eastman took advantage of online media to organize and fundraise—and said it contibuted to her upset. “This win wasn’t a surprise to us—we’ve seen your support at the doors, in the community, at our events, and right here on this Facebook page,” she said. “Thank you for being a part of this, and for encouraging and supporting me. We are ready for the general election, and to take back the house this fall!”

The year’s successful campaigns aren’t just being driven by opposing all-things-Trump by or embracing cliché-ridden party playbooks, these snapshots suggest. Candidates who are speaking to voters’ personal lives and demonstrating prior commitments to solving related problems seem to be winning. While that includes more women, Democrat-supporting voters who are turning out in levels not seen since the 1974 midterm after President Nixon resigned are not reflectively voting for anyone.

Voters seem to be choosing the person that understands what they are facing and expressing knowledge and determination to do something about it. Given the tone and divisiveness emanating from the Trump administration, and many Republican candidates casting their campaigns in that mold, it’s not surprising that voters are looking at exactly what is not coming from Congress or state capitals, candidates who are validating the challenges in their lives and authoritatively suggesting ways to address them.  

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