One of the Net­roots Nation’s open­ing day after­noon pan­els addressed an issue per­ti­nent to the upcom­ing midterms: with mil­lions being spent on nation­al cam­paigns, Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates have found it dif­fi­cult to main­tain a foothold in red states. The ques­tions on every­one’s minds are: how can can­di­dates invest in pro­gres­sive infra­struc­ture over the long-term to secure repeat vic­to­ries? And how can pro­gres­sives invest in the com­mu­ni­ties that are more inclusive?

Join­ing polit­i­cal strate­gist Joe Sud­bay were Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ricky Hur­ta­do of North Car­oli­na, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Anna Eski­mani of Flori­da, and J.D. Scholten of Iowa, who ran against Steve King in both the 2018 and 2020 Con­gres­sion­al election.

Sud­bay began the con­ver­sa­tion by ask­ing the pan­elists to dis­cuss their own cam­paigns and the vot­ing trends they see in their respec­tive states.

Hur­ta­do, of North Car­oli­na’s 63rd Dis­trict, achieved a his­toric vic­to­ry in the deep-red Ala­mance Coun­ty dur­ing the 2020 gen­er­al elec­tion. He was the first Lati­no to be elect­ed to the North Car­oli­na state leg­is­la­ture and one of the two leg­isla­tive seats that flipped from red to blue last year.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Hur­ta­do attrib­ut­es his suc­cess to his con­sis­tent com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment with the com­mu­ni­ty, but espe­cial­ly Latine voters.

He said that one thing that set him apart from oth­er can­di­dates was his tire­less can­vass­ing efforts to rebuild trust in com­mu­ni­ties that have been his­tor­i­cal­ly ignored in the legislature.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Eski­mani, the first Iran­ian-Amer­i­can to be elect­ed to the Flori­da leg­is­la­ture, said that one of the things Democ­rats need to start invest­ing in are intern­ship and men­tor­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties for young Democ­rats beyond the cam­paign cycle.

“Repub­li­cans in Flori­da are good at tak­ing care of peo­ple,” she said. “If you’re a Repub­li­can, there’s oppor­tu­ni­ties as a young con­ser­v­a­tive.” Democ­rats, she con­tin­ued, need to start invest­ing in that same robust train­ing pro­gram to cre­ate a steady pipeline of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates to run against those efforts.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Eski­mani also cit­ed anoth­er fundrais­ing-relat­ed chal­lenge: not get­ting mon­ey ear­ly enough. When funds are donat­ed late in the cycle, mere months before Novem­ber, cam­paigns don’t have enough time to cre­ate cam­paign mate­ri­als that tru­ly uplift the can­di­date they represent.

This, she said, is no way to chase the non-par­ty-affil­i­at­ed vot­ers or rea­son­able Repub­li­cans who could poten­tial­ly be swayed to join the Demo­c­ra­t­ic camp.

As the dis­cus­sion pro­gressed, Scholter asked the oth­er pan­elists how they were able to com­bat mis­in­for­ma­tion and get their mes­sages out there, espe­cial­ly in the age of COVID-19, the dis­ease caused by SARS-CoV­‑2.

Both Hur­ta­do and Eski­mani were firm in their answer: field.

COVID-19 has cer­tain­ly proven a chal­lenge for can­di­dates wish­ing to fight mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns. But Hur­ta­do sees this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for pro­gres­sives to engage in more com­mu­ni­ty out­reach, through phone calls and indi­vid­ual con­ver­sa­tions, to counter mis­in­for­ma­tion spread­ing online.

By engag­ing the com­mu­ni­ty through per­son­al rela­tion­ship-build­ing, he was able to cre­ate a per­son­al con­nec­tion with vot­ers so that if they were to encounter a smear cam­paign “they can look at it and say ‘that’s not Ricky.’ ”

Eski­mani agreed, and added that it’s impor­tant for local pro­gres­sives to invest in long-term com­mu­ni­ty rela­tion­ships, not just engage­ment on the cam­paign trail.

The three pan­elists also not­ed that it was impor­tant, in these con­ver­sa­tions, to address the dis­con­nect between what peo­ple per­ceive as pol­i­cy ver­sus pol­i­tics. 

Scholten recalled a poll he con­duct­ed in bat­tle­ground states to gauge the tem­per­a­ture of voter’s per­cep­tions of Demo­c­ra­t­ic candidates.

Sim­ply adding a “D” next to a can­di­date’s name could impact their pop­u­lar­i­ty by sev­er­al points, indi­cat­ing that vot­ers’ per­cep­tions of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic brand aren’t always favor­able, even if they over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port Demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, prin­ci­ples, and pol­i­cy direc­tions, like rais­ing the min­i­mum wage.

Eski­mani said the key to bridg­ing this gap was to meet peo­ple where they were at. Vot­ers, she said, are moti­vat­ed by self-inter­est. She sug­gest­ed Democ­rats need to iden­ti­fy that self-inter­est “and tie it to the col­lec­tive good.”

“Don’t be afraid to have that wonky con­ver­sa­tion,” she continued.

Our team at NPI does not agree that vot­ers are moti­vat­ed by self-inter­est. If that were true, Repub­li­cans would­n’t win a sin­gle elec­tion, because they con­sis­tent­ly back poli­cies that help the already wealthy and pow­er­ful while oppos­ing poli­cies that would help mil­lions of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies — like the child tax credit.

There are only a few super wealthy vot­ers and a lot of low and mid­dle income vot­ers; yet we know that a lot of low and mid­dle income vot­ers reg­u­lar­ly vote for Repub­li­cans, and against their self-inter­est. That hap­pens because peo­ple vote their iden­ti­ty and their val­ues as opposed to their self-interest.

So while Eski­mani is cor­rect that dia­logue is very worth­while, appeal­ing to peo­ple’s self-inter­est is not a recipe for pro­gres­sive vic­to­ry. Instead, pro­gres­sives need to frame shift and engage with vot­ers at a deep­er level.

Vot­ers want to know what a can­di­date’s val­ues are. They want to know whether a can­di­date will gov­ern acces­si­bly and trans­par­ent­ly. Research has shown again and again that can­di­date elec­tions come down to iden­ti­ty and trust.

Can­di­dates like Hur­ta­do and Eski­mani have found suc­cess because they have built strong rela­tion­ships with vot­ers. Trust is the foun­da­tion of healthy can­di­date-vot­er rela­tion­ships. If more can­di­dates can fol­low in Hur­ta­do and Eski­mani’s exam­ple, Democ­rats are like­ly to have more suc­cess in down­bal­lot races.

About the author

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

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