For the past several decades, Democrats have been focused on the ideal of a reclaimed Democratic South and have gone to great lengths to make inroads there. They do this even though their resources and their platform are much more suited to their party’s gradual advances in the Western United States rather than the South.
In 1968, Richard Nixon ran his presidential campaign by banking on the strategy of his Republican predecessor, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who devised the “Southern Strategy” along with his top advisers. After almost 90 years of Democratic control of the Solid South, Goldwater had managed to win the Republican nomination by running to the right of moderate New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and by campaigning nationally against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Goldwater had managed to dislodge five solidly southern states from the Democratic bulwark. Lyndon Johnson still won in one of the most impressive of presidential landslides, but four years later Nixon repeated the strategy with a focus on “state’s rights” and “law and order.” Future Nixon Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman made Nixon’s thinly veiled rhetoric more explicit: “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”
Although not as pandering as Alabama Governor George Wallace (whose campaign that year won five states in the Deep South), Nixon’s campaign took Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida. Although Nixon had won the South and the rural Great Plains, as well as much of the center of the nation, it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign that the modern Republican coalition was forged. Unlike Nixon, whose political positions changed with the direction of the wind, Reagan ran on a solidly conservative platform, and managed to hold on to the thriving evangelical movement developing in the Midwest and the Great Plains. Combined with appeals like “I believe in states’ rights” and to the need to deconstruct the “welfare state” and “affirmative action” as well as a policy of New Federalism, Reagan and his main strategist Lee Atwater rode a landslide into the White House and established a lasting Republican coalition.
After Michael Dukakis’ debilitating loss to George H. W. Bush in 1988, a group called the Democratic Leadership Council took hold of the Democratic Party leadership. The DLC hailed a new era of Third Way, centrist leadership centered around Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, with the goal to recapture the ideal of the Solid South and to appeal to centrist, working-class whites in the South and to bring them back into the Democratic fold. In pursuit of this, the Clinton campaign moved rightward on criminal justice and the economy and managed to restore Democratic control of the House, Senate, and Presidency. While this move to the center was a good quick fix for the Democratic Party’s woes, this strategy shifted the national conversation rightward and allowed for the Republican Revolution in 1994 by campaigning on tax breaks and welfare reform.
Fast forward 22 years and the major coalitions had changed little. Republicans have continued to focus on appealing to cultural conservatives in the South and Great Plains, to economic conservatives in the Midwest and East Coast, and as of the 2016 election, to economic nationalists in the Midwest as well.
And now here we are in 2017. Democrats have unified control of six states: Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, California, and Hawaii. As the Republicans in power struggle to make headway on issues like healthcare and tax reform, Democrats looking have already begun to look for promising national leaders and contenders for the 2020 presidential election. Numerous names have been floated including East Coast favorites like Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker as well as Governors like Andrew Cuomo and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Those looking to rebuild the so-called Blue Wall in the industrial Midwest have looked to Senators like Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, and Al Franken due to a depleted bench of governors in that region. But more and more Democrats are looking beyond the Mississippi for their candidates, and that’s a good thing.
In the past eight years as Governor of California, Jerry Brown has been growing a crop of excellent leaders like Senator Kamala Harris and Brown’s likely successor Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Meanwhile western Governors like John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Steve Bullock of Montana, and Jay Inslee from Washington have become more prominent on the national political scene. Inslee especially has had his name in the news as a result of Executive Order 13769, or the “Muslim Ban,” against which Inslee and the Washington Attorney General have lead the charge, leading to a restraining order on the ban’s first incarnation on February 3. This is welcome news to one of the early harbingers of the Democrats’ move westward, former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination himself. Hart managed to get then-DNC chair Howard Dean to place the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008, then and now a growing metropolis that is thriving under Hickenlooper.
Dean promised a “Fifty-State Strategy” based on contesting elections in every state regardless of whether pundits consider them “winnable.” In 2006 this strategy won Senate seats in Montana and Missouri while in 2008 this strategy got Democrats elected to the Senate and House in Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oregon. But Dean himself is from Vermont and the party’s two leading contenders for the presidential election in 2008 were from Illinois and New York, hardly venturing outside Democratic strongholds. Stories from 2008 and 2009 like this one from RealClearPolitics and this one from Voice of America News showed a mild interest for Democratic leaders to appeal to Westerners with a strong message on the environment, progressive individualism, public land, and policies that appeal to the burgeoning Hispanic population and the labor movement in states like Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Much hoopla was made around Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Attorney General who successfully took the Governor’s seat in North Carolina by .2% that Trump won by around 3.7%. But what didn’t get much coverage was Steve Bullock’ successful run for reelection in Montana, where he won by 3.8% in a state that Trump won by over 20%. Bullock did so not by running as an all-around moderate, but by focusing on issues that his constituents care about, with a platform that included equal pay for equal work, an infrastructure package, and a strong pro-choice stance.
And Bullock’s success is representative of growing Democratic fortunes across the Western United States. Traditionally progressive states like California, Oregon, and Washington have lead the way on issues like raising the minimum wage, pushing for renewable energy, expanding Medicaid, and passing same-sex marriage. Meanwhile Harry Reid has spent years building an effective political infrastructure in Nevada that delivered the state to Clinton by a 2.5% margin in 2016 and has slowly turned the state purple, especially in Clark County, based around Las Vegas, which has gone blue in the last seven presidential elections. Not only did the so-called “Reid Machine” elect Catherine Cortez Masto to the Senate, but he also turned two red House districts blue and swept Democrats into State Assembly majorities in both houses. Reid did this by focusing on get-out-the-vote drives and voter registration for key Democratic constituencies, as well as building a well-oiled fundraising apparatus capable of taking on nationally-backed Republicans.
If there is any American myth that may have died with the 2016 election, as Nate Silver has said, it is the myth of the “Blue Wall,” or the idea that Democrats have built up an effective majority in numerous key states in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast that left a candidate like Hillary Clinton relatively safe with the electoral college. As Silver showed then and the election did in November, the Democrats cannot depend on past constituencies and shifting national demographics to deliver them electoral victories in the future. While Barack Obama won two solid victories in 2008 and 2012, the past eight years has been marred by setback after setback for Democrats at the state level, primarily in the Midwest, which has allowed Republicans to build an enthusiastic coalition of voters that delivered them victories in 2016. As Nate Silver showed at one point in August 2016 when a Clinton landslide seemed a possibility, demographics are helping the Democrats in states like Arizona, but they will not come easily. Democrats have long salivated at the idea of Arizona turning purple, but the state continues to be dominated by Republicans at every level.
But things have changed since November, and the ball is now in the Democratic Party’s court. Newly-elected DNC chair Tom Perez has promised a return to the fifty-state strategy and a national party that is focused on rebuilding from the state level upward using grassroots organizing and fundraising. Perez has a herculean task to accomplish along with Deputy Chair Keith Ellison and Finance Chair Henry Munoz III, including healing rifts between the Sanders-led progressive wing and the center-left wing from which Perez hails. However, he has cited Democratic successes in retaking the State House of Representatives in Alaska and gains against Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas at the state level as a template for future Democratic gains. 2017 and 2018 provide the Democratic Party and the National Committee in particular with plenty of chances for trial but few for errors. In particular there are special elections in Kansas and Montana for House seats to replace Trump cabinet nominees as well as Senate elections in Nevada and Arizona and gubernatorial elections in Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Only time will tell if Democrats have learned the right lessons from the past eight years. The style of grassroots organizing that flourished in the 2016 presidential election, especially in the Sanders campaign, has continued to build momentum through the Women's March Movement. Meanwhile numerous progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress have built on the model of individual-based fundraising that could flourish well in the Western United States. More and more major Democratic leaders will continue to look westward to find their successors and candidates, and the Western Democratic model for organization will likely continue to thrive as its methods are adopted by the next generation of political leaders.