Months after the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Party seems to lack a natural successor to President Obama. In this splintered environment, Democrats have looked to a variety of politicians for leadership, including Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, and even the presidential runner-up, Hillary Clinton.
In the short term, the Democrats can survive as a rudderless party. The past few months have seen an explosion in political activism on the left, and an unprecedented number of candidates have announced their intentions to run for Congress in 2018. The public has also expressed a strong preference for Democrats on a range of issues, including health care, the environment, education, and fighting for the middle class. This tilt in the Democrats’ favor can be seen in national polling that has a generic Democrat beating a Republican by 8 percentage points.
Unfortunately for Democrats, trouble lurks under the surface. A deeper look at political polling reveals that Republicans are trusted just as much as Democrats in their handling of the economy and taxes. Republicans are actually preferred – by a 10-15% margin – in their ability to address terrorism, federal government debt, and national defense. Equally troublingly, 52% of voters believe that the Democratic Party “just stands against Trump,” versus the 37% of voters who believe that it stands for something.
To make matters worse, Democrats face a number of practical barriers in 2018. They are defending 25 Senate seats, whereas Republicans only have to protect eight, and ten of the Democratic incumbents are in states that Trump won. Meanwhile, in order to retake the House of Representatives, Democrats will need a strong enough turnout to cancel out the effects of voting restrictions, partisan gerrymandering, and the self-congregation of liberal voters along the coasts. Capturing a House majority is not out of the question – Democrats only need to flip 24 seats – but it is far from guaranteed.
The Democrats’ troubles are also exposed in the apparent frontrunners of the 2020 Democratic primary. Three of the favorites – Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren – will be in their 70s, and the Democrats’ younger prospects have their own baggage. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is distrusted for his close ties to Wall Street, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) could easily be seen as the next coming of Hillary Clinton, given that she filled Clinton’s vacant Senate seat. Much in the same way, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) might be dismissed as an out-of-touch coastal liberal in the working-class communities that elected Donald Trump. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) is too moderate to win the Democratic primary, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) is known for his gaffes and his friendship with the Clintons, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is reviled by the Democratic base. Finally, some of the Democrats’ best prospects for attracting Rust Belt voters – among them Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) – will be fighting for re-election in 2018.
While these candidates currently beat Trump in potential match-ups, they hardly achieve blow-out wins. Elizabeth Warren leads Trump by 7%, Cory Booker by 5%, and Kamala Harris by 1%. These are not reassuring numbers, given that Hillary Clinton once trounced Trump by as much as 10% in national polls. In fact, Trump has a number of factors working in his favor, including the advantage of incumbency, the effect of voter ID laws suppressing the minority vote, and the guarantee that 60% of his voters will always support him. Betting markets give Trump 32% odds of winning reelection – higher odds than he had during the entire 2016 election season – and Republicans have 44% odds overall of maintaining control of the White House. In short, any of these Democratic challengers could conceivably lose a race for the presidency, despite Trump’s historic unpopularity.
So what can the Democratic Party do to prepare for the 2018 and 2020 elections? Without an heir apparent to Barack Obama, how can the party expect to retake control of state legislatures, Congress, and the presidency?
The simple answer is that Democrats need to groom the next generation of young leaders, looking beyond the obvious list of 2020 candidates. Rather than present a stage full of septuagenarians and coastal liberals, Democrats need to encourage a more diverse group of candidates to run for office.
Unfortunately, once Democrats broaden their set of candidates, they will need to consider some difficult follow-up questions. For instance: how can Democrats satisfy the various groups comprising their unwieldy coalition? Do they downplay social issues and focus on a purely economic message? Or is ignoring LGBTQ rights and abortion rights a betrayal of the basic values that the Democrats claim to embody? Are Democrats still the party of the working man? Or are the Democrats a party that concerns itself with equal opportunity for all? Furthermore, how do the Democrats deal with the topic of immigration, namely illegal immigration, given that it seems to have contributed to Trump’s election?
These questions offer no easy answers, and Democrats will need to ponder them for months, if not years. But for starters, Democrats should look to the leadership provided by Minnesota’s two senators: Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken. Then, they should seriously consider rallying behind one of them for president in 2020.
Amy Klobuchar is undoubtedly one of the most popular senators in the country: 72% of Minnesotans say that they approve of her job performance. To break down the numbers, 95% of Democrats, 70% of independents, and even 51% of Republicans approve of her work. And while Al Franken does not have quite as impressive of an approval rating, 58% of Minnesotans have a positive opinion of his performance as a U.S. senator. Al Franken may have only won his first Senate race after a months-long recount, but he was reelected by a margin of 7% in 2014, a year of bad outcomes for Democrats.
Klobuchar and Franken have several factors working in their favor that the rest of the Democratic Party ought to consider. First, Minnesota’s senators are respected across the aisle for their serious work ethic. Klobuchar routinely calls for bipartisan solutions to the country’s challenges, as she recently did in CNN’s health care town hall, and Franken has honed an image as a “workhorse.” Second, they both bring humor to the job. Franken was one of the original writers on SNL and has a flair for comedy, and Klobuchar can also tell a good joke. Humor might not be the most valued skill in politics, but it could be valuable in a matchup against the “entertainer-in-chief,” Donald Trump. Third, Klobuchar and Franken know how to communicate a forceful message to voters in the working class communities that Democrats need to win back. Klobuchar, in particular, has repeatedly called for a national response to the opioid epidemic. Franken, in turn, has been extremely effective in calling attention to the deficiencies of Trump’s cabinet appointments, particularly when grilling Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing. Finally, Klobuchar and Franken have found ways to win support from working-class communities while also staying true to the values of progressivism. Klobuchar and Franken are both pro-choice, against reckless tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, passionate about defending social security, and in support of Obamacare. And yet, while taking the mainstream Democratic view on these issues, they speak to Rust Belt voters in a way that Hillary Clinton never could.
Unfortunately, Democrats seem prepared to pick another conventional candidate to lead the party, despite the many warning signs that the standard Democratic playbook is failing. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and the other 2020 presidential favorites are undoubtedly compelling candidates with interesting life stories, but their nomination risks the possibility that Democrats could lose another seemingly unlosable election. Before running for higher office, they should heed the warnings of their colleague, Sherrod Brown. Just months ago, he noted that Democrats could win the popular vote by five million people in 2020 and still lose the election.
Luckily, Democrats have a ready-made solution to avoid such a debacle: choosing a Minnesotan to helm the party. With Amy Klobuchar or Al Franken as the party leader, Democrats will be able to compete in the working class communities that grew disillusioned with Democrats in recent election cycles. Democrats certainly should not abandon their progressive values, but they desperately need a fresh message, a new messenger, and a broader coalition. In short, the Democratic Party may face a difficult future, but the example set by Minnesota’s two senators offers a promising path forward.