Democrats Can’t Be Afraid to Be Progressive

The Midterm Elections are less than a month away, and for Democrats to win control of the Senate, we will need to win some seats in red states. This year’s Senate map is pretty unfriendly, since Democrats are defending a lot of seats that they held onto in the 2012 wave, and though this makes getting the majority hard, it is still possible. However, winning the seats in these states will take lots of work campaigning, canvassing, and phone banking.

To win these states, there are two very different mindsets. One that I will call the Beto (after Texas Senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke) and one that I will call the Joe (after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III.) The Joe mindset is about trying to accomplish the impossible task of pleasing everyone. The Joe is about being wishy-washy on national issues that matter to Democrats. The Joe is about trying to keep your seat by staying as in the middle as possible. The Joe is not effective.

The Beto mindset is about standing up for liberal Democratic principles, even when doing so seems toxic in your state. The Beto is about speaking your true beliefs, even when many voters might not agree. The Beto is about facing controversial national issues head on, and knowing that when the day comes, Democrats will some to the poll and support you. The Beto is effective. The Beto gets you a national audience and then appearances on Stephen Colbert and Ellen, which get you a national donor network.

The difference in the kind of campaigns became clear when high-profile red-state Democrats Manchin and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp had to decide whether to support Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. This decision was the last thing that either wanted to face. They were running campaigns based mostly around Trump administration policies that negatively affected their states, like the tax bill and tariffs. However, when the Kavanaugh vote hit, they had to look at a larger, more polarizing issue, sexual assault.

Manchin pulled a Joe and said he believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault, but he doesn’t believe she was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh, a theory that makes zero sense. He also waited until Susan Collins made her decision to make his, so that he could avoid angering voters on both sides of the aisle so close to Election Day. I believe that Manchin would have voted with Collins either way she went. He has no backbone, and would never be the one to make the deciding vote.

The Kavanaugh decision was a turning point in the Heitkamp’s campaign. She took what had been a Joe campaign and made it a Beto campaign. When Kavanaugh came to the Senate floor and Heitkamp needed to make a choice, and she decided to face the issue, after a month of waiting, head on. She decided to vote no, to vote her conscience. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Heitkamp said that she “saw a level of anger and combativeness that I thought was not something that would qualify [someone] to sit on the Supreme Court.” At the end of the day she stuck to her morals, and even though she might not win in November, she will be able to leave office knowing she did the right thing.

Red state Democrats are going to play an important role in an increasingly close Senate. They will vote with against the Republicans on issues unpopular with their constituents, like the Affordable Care Act repeal efforts and Trump’s tariffs, but will be unreliable on many controversial issues. Many of these Democrats, like any politician, will vote for what best helps them win re-election. Because of that, their constituents need to hold them accountable and let them know that they will be primaried from the left if they fail to uphold our progressive values. It is too late for this election, but come six years, unless red state Democrats are willing to be more Beto than Joe, there will be challengers.

This post reflects the opinions of the author and is not necessarily representative of those of Penn Democrats.

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