Several arguments have been made about what Democrats can learn from the past two elections.
Some have argued that the Democratic Party must reach out to rural voters — the base of the new Trumpian Republican Party.
Others have said Democrats need to appeal more to working-class voters by going farther to the left, economically speaking, possibly by choosing more Sen. Bernie Sanders-like candidates.
These admonitions to reach out to rural and working-class constituencies that support President Donald Trump — arguably against their better interests — may make sense for the long haul. But they miss the most obvious and important lesson that the 2016 and 2018 electoral outcomes offer to Democrats: The path to victory in 2020 is to reconstruct the tripartite axis of American Progressivism.
That’s Progressivism with a capital “P” — the early 20th century precursor of the New Deal. The three geographic components of the Progressive electoral coalition were the East and West coasts and the Upper Midwest — embodied, respectively, in the persons of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, California Gov. Hiram Johnson and Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette.
Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because she neglected and wound up losing the Midwestern part of America’s Progressive coalition. Trump won because he narrowly won the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. If Democrats keep the states they won in 2016, all they would need to do to regain the presidency in 2020 would be to bring those three states back into their win column.
And the midterm election shows those states are ripe for the picking. With Democrat Tony Evers dispatching incumbent Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeating Attorney General Bill Schuette in Michigan, all three of these states now have Democratic governors. And Democrat Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin — along with Democrat Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota — all won re-election to the U.S. Senate.
So the lesson for Democrats for 2020 should be do whatever it takes to win in the arc that runs from Pennsylvania westward through Minnesota. That means a focus on policies that would appeal to the legatees of Minnesota’s old Farmer-Labor Party, a progressive populist coalition of farmers, workers, small business owners and professionals that was a powerful force in the New Deal era and later produced leaders such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone.
It means reminding voters from these states that Trump’s budget proposals slashed funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that is so essential to their economic and recreational well-being.
It also means envisioning a 2020 ticket that looks more like tough-talking Pennsylvania native Joe Biden and Klobuchar than like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. This may disappoint Democrats who champion the maximum diversity that can be packed into a two-person ticket, but this combination would take dead aim at the Pennsylvania-Minnesota arc, while still appealing to women and working-class voters.
This strategy also would have appeal in states like Iowa, North Carolina and Florida that once voted for Obama and should be in play in 2020.
So Democrats need to not get giddy over winning the House nor distracted by Trump’s fits of distemper, but instead keep their head and put a capital “P” on their progressive ambitions. Doing that can win them those Midwestern states that offer their clearest path to victory in 2020.
Thomas Spragens is an emeritus professor of political science at Duke University.
Correction: Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Attorney General Bill Schuette in the Michigan gubernatorial race. Schuette’s title was wrong in an earlier version of this piece.