Jan 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats skip labels to overcome party divide

Sen. Tammy Baldwin is seen speaking with Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
Mandela Barnes listens to fellow Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who he hopes to join in the U.S. Senate. Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Democratic Senate hopeful Mandela Barnes has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who represent vastly different wings of their party.

Why it matters: The Wisconsin lieutenant governor is one of several Democratic candidates this year who aren't embracing or eschewing labels like "progressive" or "moderate." Instead, they're campaigning with a foot in both worlds and demonstrating a new mold — and potential electoral path — for their embattled party.

  • "I know that the only way we can govern at our best is when we have all of these varied interests at the table, all of these varied experiences at the table," Barnes told Axios in an interview.

In Georgia's gubernatorial race, Stacey Abrams "has admirers on both wings of her party," the New York Times wrote in a recent article about her ability to transcend labels.

  • And one of the state's new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff, also embraces this hybrid-Dem mold.
  • While he's more moderate than Abrams and doesn't lean into liberal policy phrases, he agrees with several of the wing's core principles, as The New Republic noted.

In New York, newly inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams is by no means a progressive hero, but he did get the endorsement of the city's biggest public-sector union.

  • District Council 37 opted for Adams after seriously considering endorsing his more progressive challenger, City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
  • Adams also successfully cobbled together a winning coalition last year that brought unions together with Black and Latino voters, while focusing less on labels and more on pragmatism.

The big picture: It's not that these candidates aren't supportive of liberal issues or progressive platforms — in fact, the opposite is true.

  • The difference between the 2018 campaign and this era of polarized politics, is now they're bucking ideological silos to try to build a winning coalition.
  • This is especially true in places that aren't necessarily Democratic territory.
  • "In 2022, we have to do more to make sure that we are not just listening to the intra-party debate, but listening to what the voters are saying, the real-world experiences people are dealing with," Barnes told Axios.

By the numbers: In a 2021 youth survey by the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, 76% of young voters are rejecting partisanship and looking for "more open-mindedness" in politics.

  • Some Democratic strategists say a hybrid candidate model is one way to try to appeal not just to Democratic-base voters but also those like independents and soft Republicans who feel politically lost — especially after the Trump era.
  • A glimpse of this played out last summer in the special election for Ohio's 11th House District, when progressive Nina Turner didn't run with Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) endorsement front-and-center.
  • Despite having been co-chair of Sanders' presidential campaign, Turner and her team didn't want to give her opponents an easy way to argue her ties to a progressive icon would pit her against Biden, or make her unwilling to work with more moderate Democrats.

In last fall's Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe — who fought for progressive touchstones like Medicaid expansion and increased ballot access in his state — was careful in appearing too far left in his race against conservative Republican Glenn Youngkin.

  • While McAuliffe invited and campaigned with Abrams — who also sent out fundraising appeals on his behalf — he avoided other prominent progressives, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told the Times.

What they're saying: Democratic operatives and consultants tell Axios their party candidates need to refrain from nationalizing their races, ignore the Washington drama and focus on everyday people.

  • "The more complex the issue and big the spending is, the more you have to find those really succinct and powerful connection points with the voters you need to persuade," Democratic pollster and consultant Joel Benenson said.
  • Fellow Hillary Clinton campaign alum Jesse Ferguson told Axios: “It's more important for people to believe the candidate and see them as authentic than it is for them to have the right label on their jacket.”
  • "It's not 'progressive' Democrat or 'moderate' Democrat — it's 'Democrat-who-delivers,'" Ferguson added.
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