Let’s hope that a story published by Politico on Monday about the kind of campaigns Democrats plan to run to retake the Senate proves inaccurate.
“Democrats’ surprising strategy to win the Senate: Be boring,” is the headline for the story, which describes the overall strategy for Senate Democratic candidates as “shock and blah.”
“The blah comes from the Democratic candidates themselves, who are abiding by a cardinal rule of politics: When your opponent is self-destructing, get out of the way,” the article says. “They’re intentionally playing it safe and boring, figuring their elections will mostly be a referendum on Trump and that animosity toward the real estate magnate will put them over the top in key swing states.”
This is bad news for at least two reasons.
First, this strategy hews to a “cardinal rule of politics” in a year in which cardinal rules are made to be broken. The fact that we have Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee proves that point. This is not a politics-as-usual year, and this electorate has proven its willingness to jettison the candidates that present themselves either as status quo candidates or as risk-averse counterpoints to brash candidates skilled at making a big show of standing for something that distracts from the wrongness of the thing they are standing for.
Candidates should instead be making clear that they identify with the anger of working families and retirees who feel economically vulnerable, who haven’t seen their incomes rise this decade, and who see members of the millennial generation struggling under extreme levels of college debt – if they can afford to get into college at all. Candidates should be tapping into the distrust people have with the dominant political and financial powers and channeling that disconnect into a politics that reclaims power concentrated in the hands of the few and redistributes that power to all of the people.
That leads to the second reason boring is bad: Senate campaigns must be about building a mandate. Campaigns at their best build a consensus among the electorate for how Washington should lead economic and political transformation, on issues ranging from the minimum wage fight for “$15 and a union” to curbing once and for all the role of money in politics. If there is anything to be learned from the success of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and how Hillary Clinton felt compelled to adjust her positions in response, is that there is a demand for bold change. Senate candidates should be cultivating that demand and satisfying it with proposals for making our economy and our political system work for working people again.
Notably absent from the Politico story is Russ Feingold, the former senator who is running to reclaim his seat in Wisconsin against incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. That’s probably because Feingold is not running to be boring; he’s chosen to press aggressive stands on relieving student debt, increasing the minimum wage, paid family leave, strengthened Social Security and opposition to trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On Monday, Public Policy Polling had Feingold up 10 points over Johnson. Last week, Roll Call’s Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report changed its rating of the Wisconsin Senate race from “tossup to “tilts Democratic.” “Right now, all of the polling data points to anything from a narrow to significant lead for Feingold,” writes Nathan Gonzales for Roll Call.
In a year in which the conventional wisdom of political strategists has proven utterly wrong, the progressive populist instincts of a candidate like Feingold would appear to be a better compass for how to take the Senate in November.
An earlier version of this article misstated when the Roll Call story on the Wisconsin Senate race was published.