When Rep. Cheri Bustos (D – Ill.) comes home from the Capitol for the weekend, you can find her at the supermarket—but she won’t be shopping for pasta or paper towels. Every Saturday, the congresswoman from the 17th District spends time walking the grocery aisles of Western Illinois, talking to constituents about addressing their needs in Washington. Many of them, she says, don’t even know her name. But she asks them how she can help.
As a Democrat in a red-leaning district, Bustos’ commitment to her constituents has enabled her to connect to voters across the political spectrum. In 2012, Bustos won her congressional seat against a Republican incumbent. Since her first race, her margin of victory has steadily increased. In 2016, despite Trump taking her district on the presidential level, Bustos won by more than 20 points.
Bustos’ success, along with the strong performances of other Trump-district Democrats like New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, and red-state Democrats such as former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, prove that Democratic candidates can connect with voters across party lines.
While the Democratic Party continues to prioritize social issues, Democrats from the heartland like Bustos and Beshear emphasize pragmatic yet personal messages that resonate with a large cross-section of the population. Voters in swing districts care about their families, their jobs, and the sincerity of the people they elect. Bustos and Beshear’s messages reflect those values.
In order for Democrats to replicate the success of these candidates who have won the hearts of swing voters in middle America, they must mount competitive efforts in non-coastal areas, adopt family-oriented economic and social policies, and communicate straightforward messages to voters. To compete, Democrats must show up, get back to the basics, and connect with constituents.
Ask many urban liberals, and a “flyover state” like Kentucky seems a lost cause. FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton a 0.04 percent chance of winning the Bluegrass state. Indeed, more than 60 percent of voters in Kentucky opted for Trump in 2016. In writing off Kentucky, many Democrats reason that coal miners are dying out, and the rural, union towns in which the party used to invest simply don’t matter anymore on a national level.
However, over the past several years, Kentucky Democrats have achieved instrumental change that has raised support for their party at the state level. Under Beshear’s leadership, Kentucky implemented the Affordable Care Act with the most immediate success of any state in the country, reducing the uninsured rate from 21 percent to 8 percent in two years. And as of July, 51 percent of the state’s eligible voting population in Kentucky is registered as Democrats.
Beshear’s efforts and success in Kentucky prove Democrats can make powerful, positive change even in regions that the party no longer prioritizes. Throughout Kentucky’s implementation of the ACA, support for the legislation grew as the negative view of Obama became less salient to individuals than the benefits they received from the reform. In 2010, only 26 percent of Kentuckians felt positively about the ACA. In 2015, that statistic rose to 41 percent. “People still don’t like Obama in Kentucky,” Beshear told the HPR in his warm Southern drawl. “And they don’t like the phrase Obamacare. But they sure do like their healthcare.”
Unless they compete in these red-leaning districts, Democrats face tough odds of achieving national success. “The Democratic Party is not going to hold the levers of national power unless we become a party not just on the two coasts but all across America,” said Beshear. “We have to get back to campaigning everywhere, not just in those places that we are winning right now.” Bustos agreed, telling the HPR: “We have to start by getting off the interstate.”
Getting Back to Basics
Even for Democrats who compete in these districts, adopting a party message that connects to the values of swing state voters remains a formidable challenge. But as Bustos and Beshear’s success shows, by crafting family-oriented messages that resonate with Trump-supporting constituents, red-state Democrats can translate their platforms across party lines.
In one of her 2016 campaign commercials, Bustos emphasized the importance of achieving tangible results that Illinois families can feel. Improving infrastructure, advancing veterans’ health care, and cutting government waste were featured topics in her 30 second plug. These are common sense, salient issues that access voters across the aisle.
But by emphasizing less personally salient issues such as climate change or environmental issues, Democrats often lose red-leaning voters who are more concerned with policy issues concerning their families. Beshear believes that Democrats must focus on four policy areas to win in these red states: economic opportunity, education, healthcare, and security.
In terms of economic opportunity, Democrats must reassert themselves as the true advocates for middle- and working-class prosperity. As Beshear noted, the objective of the Democratic Party has always been to “move obstacles out of the way so that all people have the opportunity to climb that economic ladder and grab a hold of a piece of the American dream.”
The next areas of focus for Democratic candidates, Beshear added, are education and health care. Families want to know that their kids have access to a good public education, and that a trip to the doctor won’t break the bank.
And lastly, Beshear said, voters in red country want to feel safe. Their neighborhoods will be communities in which their children can safely grow up, and the government must fulfill its duty to protect individuals and their property.
Though narratives and points of emphasis will vary among candidates, the underlying messages that connect with these swing voters are nearly universal. First and foremost, voters care about providing for themselves and their families, and they want their representatives to share that sentiment.
Connecting With Constituents
No matter how resonant of a message Democrats send, the party continues to struggle with communicating those messages in red-leaning states. As Beshear told the HPR, if you ask a Republican what he or she believes in, it will only take one breath to answer: lower taxes, small government, and freedom of the individual. If you ask a Democrat, you’ll still be listening ten minutes later, and even then you won’t know exactly what exactly he or she stands for.
Chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party Marcel Groen told the HPR that Democrats “have a hundred issues that are important to us.” While Democrats tout vague messages like “stronger together” or “I’m with her,” Republican messages like “Read my lips, no new taxes” are as straightforward as it gets.
Connecting with the public on a universal level of understanding, especially when running on a divisive platform, remains crucial for Democrats’ success in these red-leaning states. When Ohio Governor John Kasich, a moderate Republican, broke rank and expanded Medicaid through the ACA in 2014, Republicans were beside themselves. Beshear recounted Kasich’s response after he was called to defend himself for his choice at a fundraising event: “He said, ‘You know, when I arrive at the Pearly Gates, I don’t think Saint Peter is going to ask me what I did to reduce the size of government. I think he’s going to ask me what I did to help my fellow man.’” Kasich’s open and moral method of communicating, Beshear argues, illustrates how Democrats should connect with people in an easily understandable way.
The Costs of Compromise
Many Democrats remain wary of de-prioritizing social issues, arguing that public attention is required to enact social progress on a national scale. To these party members, the impactful nature of these issues requires their prioritization among all Democrats.
However, Democrats can hold socially progressive viewpoints and still access people who believe differently than them about abortion or gun control, as shown by the success of Bustos’ pro-choice, pro-gun control platform in her red district. By centering her focus around family-oriented issues while campaigning in her district, Bustos was still able to support pro-choice and pro-gun control legislation as a member of Congress: throughout her tenure, she’s voted against eight bills that would limit women’s access to reproductive care.
The Democratic Party will always be pro-choice, but such social stances will remain irrelevant if Democrats can’t win the offices that allow them to impact voters. Reaching a majority in the House is likely impossible without winning some rural, socially-conservative districts. In order to win red-district voters, Democrats should refrain from focusing heavily on social issues that aren’t salient to them.
Myriad factors are necessary for Democrats to win and keep control of swing and red districts, and no consistent formula exists for victory in the party’s non-native territory. Groen emphasized the importance of recruiting good candidates to run on all levels of government. Bustos expressed the necessity of working across the aisle to get things done for constituents. Beshear asserted the importance of Democrats showing that they truly care about their voters.
If Democrats seek victories on the national level in such divisive times, they must turn to leaders like Bustos and Beshear who can connect with voters on all sides. Relatable, centrist Democrats can indeed consolidate support even in regions in which Republicans may have the upper hand. For Democratic candidates, this means meeting voters where they are—maybe on Saturday morning at a grocery store in Western Illinois.