Dec 12, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats aim to steal GOP playbook on patriotism and freedom

Photo illustration of Wes Moore, Josh Shapiro, stars, and stripes.

Photo Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Graeme Sloan for The Washington Post, Mark Makela/Getty Images

A pair of newly elected governors — both potential Democratic rising stars — want to steal the GOP's thunder on patriotism and freedom.

The big picture: There's a 32-point gap between the share of Democrats who say they're "extremely proud" to be an American compared to Republicans who say the same, per Gallup.

  • But after the Big Lie, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the Dobbs decision, Democrats say there's a real opportunity for candidates across the party to counter the GOP's stronghold on this messaging.
  • Democratic governors-elect Wes Moore of Maryland and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania both made this messaging central to their campaigns against Trump-backed election deniers.

Why it matters: Dems have a huge branding problem, with voters questioning "whether the party shares essential values like patriotism," the center-left Democratic think tank Third Way has warned.

Driving the news: While addressing reporters at a Democratic Governors Association press conference in New Orleans, Shapiro said "freedom" 14 times in his five-minute opening remarks. Moore used "patriot" or "patriotism" seven times in his.

  • Moore is a Black veteran whose service in Afghanistan was central to his campaign.

Between the lines: Mainstream Democrats prevailed in November, while far-left candidates underperformed — a potential playbook for use against Trump-aligned Republicans, Third Way found.

The backdrop: Democrats in the mold of Moore and Shapiro talk about sweeping policy agendas — education, health care, jobs — through the lens of freedom.

  • "Freedom isn't telling women what they're allowed to do with their bodies," Shapiro said. "Freedom isn't telling people they can work a 40-hour workweek but can't be a member of a union. Freedom sure as hell isn't telling people that they can vote but some politician is going to pick the winner."
  • Democratic operatives say this approach can energize the Democratic base in swing states while appealing to Republicans and independents.

What they're saying: "There was an idea that Republicans own the value of freedom, so we should go out there and talk about other values that people more closely associate with Democrats," said Lis Smith, senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg's 2020 presidential campaign. "They couldn't have been more wrong."

  • From the early days of the 2020 primary, Buttigieg (a veteran) connected different parts of his policy agenda to freedom — things like the right to unionize and his "Medicare For All Who Want It" plan.
  • President Biden's 2020 campaign centered around his love of a country that, as he put it, needed its "soul" saved from bad actors on the right.

Don't forget: Democratic groups fighting for abortion rights in Kansas this year used phrases like "constitutional freedoms" in their political campaigns around the ballot initiative to appeal to voters in the middle and on the right.

  • "That shows you can take an issue that might be controversial in a more conservative state and turn it into a winning issue if you frame it under the umbrella of freedom," Smith said.
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