For Democrats, courting Trump's voters is like threading a needle

Mid-term election candidates are looking beyond the so-called 'Obama coalition'. Will they succeed?

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a popular progressive politician, is running for a seat in the US Senate. AFP
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While the Republican Party’s internal battle is all about former US president Donald Trump and Trumpism, the conflict playing out on the Democratic side is between the party’s moderate and more progressive wings. It comes in two distinct forms.

The first manifestation is between candidates who seek to broaden the appeal of the party beyond what has come to be defined as its “base", and those who believe that the path to victory is simply to expand the turnout among that “base vote".

This was on display in Pennsylvania where Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a popular progressive politician, was running against moderate US Congressman Conor Lamb for a seat in the US Senate. Mr Fetterman’s agenda matched that of Senator Bernie Sanders, whom he supports, on most issues, except one: the former is not opposed to fracking, an industry that is popular in the state.

Mr Fetterman’s persona is as compelling as his progressive politics. More than 200 centimetres tall and with a shaved head, he looks more like a professional footballer or wrestler than a politician. He also has a direct, plain-spoken approach that is appealing to the very middle-class, non-college-educated white ethnic voters whom Democrats have long ignored. Mr Lamb, on the other hand, appears well groomed, polished and a bit too careful. In fact, the main theme of Mr Lamb’s campaign was that he was “more electable” than Mr Fetterman.

Many establishment Democrats favoured Mr Lamb. They continue to believe that a combination of a liberal social agenda and courting what they call “the Obama coalition” – black, Latino, Asian, young, and educated women voters – is the path to victory. As a result, Democrats have been losing elections in Midwestern states and have handed white working-class voters to Republicans on a silver platter. Mr Fetterman, on the other hand, courted that Democratic base while expanding it by making it clear to white voters that he would also fight for them. He decisively won the primary with more than two-thirds of the vote.

The outcome of this year’s internal conflicts in both parties will set the stage for 2024

In neighbouring Ohio, another Democrat, US Congressman Tim Ryan, also courted working-class voters and won a clear victory. Like Mr Fetterman, Mr Ryan made it clear that he understood their concerns with the loss of jobs and the dislocation they were experiencing in a changing economy. Both politicians will face Trump-endorsed candidates in November. Should they win, it not only would help ensure Democratic control of the Senate, but it will also demonstrate that Mr Trump and the GOP’s hold over white working-class voters can be broken – provided, of course, Democrats pay attention to them and their needs.

There is another, more convoluted way that the Democrats’ moderate-progressive internal debate is playing out this year.

Polling now demonstrates that more liberal Democrats are no longer attached to Israel. While the Democratic establishment insists that their party is unified behind its government, more liberal Democrats are more favourable to Palestinians and conditioning aid to Israel. This has played out in a few contests in the last two election cycles, with progressive congressional candidates defeating more mainstream supporters of Israel.

This year has seen an increase in the number of progressives challenging moderate Democrats in congressional elections. While the views of most of these progressives are more balanced on Israel-Palestine than their opponents, the issue has not been central to any of these contests. Instead, they have debated progressive concerns such as Medicare for All, a proposal for a single-payer health insurance programme that provides healthcare coverage to all Americans. Other issues include climate action and free public education.

Concerned with stopping the advance of progressives in Congress, the pro-Israel lobby Aipac helped launch new political action committees – or Pacs. Already this year, these Pacs have spent more than $10 million in just a few races trying to defeat progressives.

What’s ironic is that, while the sole purpose of these Pacs has been to defeat “enemies of Israel", never once do they mention this in their advertising campaigns. Most of their expenditures have been for advertising that smeared the reputations of the progressive candidates, accusing them of being too radical, not supportive of President Joe Biden, or just not “real Democrats". This is even though large donations to these Pacs have come from Republican billionaires and the largest of these Pacs has also endorsed more than 100 Republicans, most of whom were supporters of Mr Trump’s claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

To date, the record is mixed. The anti-progressive aide has so far won three competitive races and lost two, including an important contest in western Pennsylvania in which they spent more than $3m in negative ads to tear down a candidate who eventually eked out a victory last week. In another of these contests, the progressive is in a virtual tie and a recount is under way.

While, for better or worse, fear of alienating Mr Trump's base has created a fragile unity among Republicans, Democrats are struggling to find the basis for unity between its progressive and moderate wings.

The problem for Democrats is that the influx of millions of dollars in dark money expenditures may help defeat a few progressives who support justice for Palestinians, but it’s also deepening splits within the party. And until Democrats can unify around an approach that broadens their base with a progressive agenda that appeals to both what they currently identify as their base and those white working-class voters they have long ignored, they will continue to have trouble winning in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

With this in mind, the outcome of this year’s internal conflicts in both parties will not only determine which one controls the Congress, but also set the stage for 2024.

Updated: October 27, 2023, 3:58 PM