How to Win in Trump Country
We sat down with three of the five Democrats in Congress who won in Trump districts. They told us what the Democratic Party can learn from their victories.
How do we politically engage and persuade those with whom we disagree?
That should always be an animating question for anyone engaged in politics. But as our politics have become more polarized, we find the leading voices on all sides are usually more adept at talking with people who already agree with them.
We launched More Perfect Union as an advocacy journalism organization three years ago based on the idea that core economic justice issues—such as the dignity of work, the exploitative power of powerful corporations, and the desire for economic freedom—are priorities that span partisan divides and unite workers across ideologies.
As part of our advocacy, we’re constantly thinking about how to engage in persuasion with people who vote differently than we do. For that reason, we wanted to talk specifically with members of Congress who have won successful persuasion campaigns in Trump country. If we are going to win economic policy fights, we need to find ways to win in red areas more consistently.
So we sat down for a candid and very wide-ranging conversation with three of the five House Democrats who have been victorious in clear Republican-majority districts: Marie Gluesenkamp Perez from Washington’s 3rd district, Mary Peltola who represents Alaska, and Jared Golden from Maine’s 2nd district. (Marcy Kaptur and Matt Cartwright are the other two.)
Among the topics we discussed:
• How do you talk to people who voted for Trump?
• How do you rationalize and explain your disagreements with core Democratic voters on issues like student debt cancellation?
• How should Democrats rethink candidate recruitment, and how can progressives prioritize finding working-class candidates?
• What’s your advice for President Biden as he campaigns for re-election?
• What have you learned, for better or for worse, about how politics in Congress works?
We also asked why Democratic congressional candidates aren’t competitive in large swaths of the country, including in many working-class districts.
“I think we're not winning because we don't respect working people,” Rep. Gluesenkamp Perez told us. “There's been this like hyper-credentialing of who we think makes a good candidate—you've got to have like a JD, no kids, a trust fund.” As a result, she said, “we are not putting forward candidates that understand how to talk about these issues and who take them personally.”
Rep. Golden replied, “I remember when I decided to run, the first connection I ever had with the national party was they wanted to send someone out to the district and they came by my house and they sat down there like, Let's Rolodex your phone contacts and assign a dollar figure to each of these people to get a sense of how much money they thought I might be able to raise. And that was like priority number one, right? I do think that the national party thinks too much about money and political connections, rather than saying, let's go find the best person who is going to really resonate with the community and then build the apparatus around it.”
“I completely agree with that,” Rep. Peltola said, “and I think my situation mirrored that. There are people out there every day working on quality-of-life issues where they are. We need to find the people who have that clinical condition of public service and are of service. I think a lot of veterans fall into that category. I think a lot of working moms fall into that category. And it shouldn't just be people who can raise a lot of money from their contacts.”
Watch the full conversation here.