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Democrats wrestle with Rust Belt dilemma

One month ago, Democrats viewed Arizona and Georgia as winnable states for the first time in decades. And demographic trends seem to have put Texas in play as well.

But then came Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump, powered largely by her unexpected weakness across the traditionally Democratic industrial states of the Rust Belt.

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Now, party officials in the fast-growing, so-called purple states that so recently looked within reach — all of which also fell to Trump — are increasingly wary that national party leaders will redirect their focus toward Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, denying them the critical attention and resources that might otherwise accelerate their movement toward swing state status.

“Right now Democrats need to make sure we correct but we don’t over-correct,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “This isn’t a situation where we need to be making false choices. We need to understand we won the popular vote, [but] we lost states we should not have lost.”

The worry is at the heart of the quandary the party now faces as it attempts to find a middle ground between the coalition that elected Barack Obama to two terms but failed to materialize for Hillary Clinton, and the suddenly ascendant one that elected Trump to the presidency.

Current and aspiring leaders of the party have in recent days repeatedly pointed to the importance of keeping white working class voters in the Democratic column, speaking of the need to reconfigure the economic message coming from their standard-bearers up and down the ballot so that it appeals to all voters, not just the African-American and Hispanic constituencies that make up the party base.

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That’s been a top stated concern of both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as they seek to map out the party’s future; Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown kicked off the week with a New York Times op-ed making a similar case.

Yet Democrats in places like Arizona, Georgia and Texas — states where growing minority populations hold long-term promise for the party — fear the reaction to Clinton’s loss could lead to a zero-sum approach where the rush to win back wayward white voters in the Rust Belt comes at their expense.

“I do have this worry where there’s going to be an opportunity cost scenario, where they say we know how to win in these states, but not these others,” says Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego. “But the thing I like to point out to people is the same working class people in Michigan are in Arizona. They vote the same, they may just not live in the same geography.”

Arizona and Georgia Democrats are quick to note that the party is as close as it’s ever been to being competitive at the presidential level in those states. On the strength of a surge in Latino voters, Clinton lost Arizona — where the GOP nominee has won in 16 of the last 17 elections — by less than 4 percentage points. In Georgia, Clinton lost by just five points as African American voters turned out for Clinton.

Those results came despite minimal national investment in those two states. The Clinton campaign and its supportive super PAC ended up pumping ad money into both toward the end of the race — and Clinton herself visited Arizona once — but the vast majority of her team’s time and resources went toward core swing states.

“What was going on in Georgia is real. It was the most competitive presidential election in Georgia since 1992 and we did it with minimal resources,” said Reed. “We’re going to continue to do our work here and grind it out, but for the national Democratic Party it’s really important for us — we need to win Southern states going forward. And it sends a message even to the Rust Belt and Midwestern communities [that] when you bring along Southern states, it helps us maintain our status as a national party.”

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The Arizona and Georgia margins turned out to be closer than in Ohio and Iowa — two swing states Obama won twice — and Trump became the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in the same election. As such, much of the public conversation surrounding the party’s post-Clinton future has zeroed in on what went wrong in those traditional battlegrounds.

“Our national committees are not the most forward-looking institutions. The way these committees work is: it’s better to fail doing a conventional thing rather than trying something new,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist in Arizona. “We’ve lost a ton of voters in the Midwest. Maybe they’ll come back, I don’t know, but those voters haven’t voted for any Democrat other than Barack Obama in a long freaking time. But with minimal investment in Arizona and Texas, those are the states where we gained voters, with almost no involvement from D.C.”

Nonetheless, the party is unlikely to undergo any significant reallocation of resources for at least a few months, while it goes through a protracted period of soul-searching and elects a new Democratic National Committee chairman who will help direct such decisions.

“The conversation that people have in the initial aftermath of a shocking defeat is hopefully different than the one that we will have when we’re really mapping out the future,” said Seth Scott, an aide to Phoenix’s mayor who served as Clinton’s Arizona state director, and who said the state would be crucial to any Democrat’s White House hopes in 2020. “The last two weeks have been really difficult, not only for all of us personally, but for a party that is trying to grapple with not only how we lost, but how we lost to the person we lost to, and the way we lost.”

And in the meantime, the party will go through a series of autopsies of what went wrong in November, a process that will likely include more rounds of second-guessing about the Clinton campaign and national Democrats’ money distribution.

“Look at what happened here in Texas without heavy investment or infrastructure. We won four of the five big metro areas in Texas,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. “Whoever the new DNC chair’s going to be, we’re hoping that there will be an emphasis on areas that will have growth opportunities, and Texas is one of them. But we’re already not getting those resources. So are they taking anything away from us? No, we’re not getting it already.”

Reed, the Atlanta mayor, makes the point that Clinton lost North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes — where her team spent tens of millions of dollars — by just roughly one point less than she lost Georgia and its 16 votes.

“It would be a mistake to not look at the gains that were made in Georgia,” said Rebecca DeHart, executive director of that state’s Democratic Party, nodding to the looming uncertainty about resources.

“It’s the million dollar question. Literally.”

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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