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.