Democrats' Competing Midterm Messages on the Economy

Democrats' Competing Midterm Messages on the Economy
AP Photo/Mel Evans
Democrats' Competing Midterm Messages on the Economy
AP Photo/Mel Evans
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As the midterm election season heats up, a mixed economic message is coming from Democratic congressional candidates as the progressive wing finds itself at odds with party moderates. Partly, this is a reflection of the difficulty the out-of-power party has getting traction during robust economic times. The 2018 midterms are taking place at a time when the unemployment rate is at its lowest point in 18 years. But this dichotomy is also indicative of the Democratic Party’s leftward movement. The moderate wing is in shock after 10-term New York Congressman Joe Crowley lost a primary battle Tuesday to Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old underfunded outsider candidate to the left of "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders. 

Progressives have absorbed the Sanders playbook and are campaigning on platforms advocating free college tuition, free single-payer health care, and a jobs guarantee program for all. This is on top of calls for a $15 minimum wage and a new affordable housing mandate to address income and wealth inequality. They insist that this all can be done by taxing Wall Street, millionaires and rolling back the recent Republican tax cuts.

They will get a chance to test their liberal economic message in one of the most watched midterm races, a congressional election in Orange County, California, where Mimi Walters is the two-term Republican incumbent. This is an upscale swing voter district that Hillary Clinton won by five percentage points. Democrats have identified it as a key district to flip in their quest to retake the House. Facing Walters in the November general election is Katie Porter, a Democrat who finished a distant second to Walters in California’s “top-two” primary system.  

Porter, a university professor and a protégé of Elizabeth Warren’s from her Harvard days, has been dubbed the “Elizabeth Warren of the West.” She has endorsed Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for All” proposal, touts Nancy Pelosi’s plan to roll back the recently passed tax cuts, and insists that wealthy corporations “pay their fair share.”

However, her close association with Warren, which includes a fundraiser headlined by the Massachusetts liberal and numerous photos with her, are viewed as a vulnerability by some Republicans. “Katie Porter is out of touch with this district as a far-left progressive,” said Courtney Alexander, communications director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with the Republican House leadership. “Going into the fall, she will be a sharp contrast to the Republican message of less taxes.”  

Meanwhile, a more nuanced Democratic economic message has emerged in other districts. Some Democrats aren’t clamoring for massive government giveaways. Instead, they argue that the recent tax cuts have produced less than advertised by the Trump administration. They point out that wages are not rising as fast as essential household items such as food, gas and prescription drugs. “There’s a lot of economic insecurity below the surface when voters start looking at their monthly bills,” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the last year wages and compensation have risen 2.7 percent, while the price of household expenses as measured by the Consumer Price Index is up 2.8 percent. In other words, increases in wages and household expenses are basically even. While the prices of some items in the CPI, such as clothing, home furnishings and used cars, are doing down, Democrats point out that prices are rising on essential items such as health care and prescription drugs. “The must-have items in people’s lives are going up faster than wages,” Lake added.

This glass-half-full message is being used in swing districts where open opposition to President Trump is not necessarily a winner.  One such race is for the open seat in the southern tip of New Jersey where Jeff Van Drew is running as a conservative Democrat. The Garden State’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the Atlantic City casinos, went for Trump by four points and is full of blue-collar workers who vote their pocketbooks.

Van Drew (pictured) is emulating the strategy employed successfully in last year’s Pennsylvania special election by conservative Democrat Conor Lamb. Van Drew has an A-rating from the NRA, and as a state senator voted against raising the minimum wage. While the national Democratic Party is behind Van Drew, a local progressive group, Action Together New Jersey, is distraught about his candidacy and is advocating that Democrats write-in anyone but him.

The results of races such as these two will provide an early window into the 2020 presidential election. Right now, it’s unclear whether the winning formula will entail doubling down on the progressive message or embracing a center-left platform – or whether neither one of them will work. The 2017 tax cuts, which no Democrat in Congress supported, have been in effect for only six months, and their full impact will not be felt until after the midterms. For now, Republicans are trusting that low unemployment, stronger economic growth, and increased consumer confidence will prove to be a winning formula.  

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.



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