Alaska as a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model

Hillary Clinton got less than 40% of the vote and Trump won by nearly 15%, but once-solid-red Alaska now has a moderate-independent governor, and one house of its legislature is controlled by a Democrat/Independent alliance. Both the Bernie and Hillary factions in the Democratic Party have something to learn here.


Now that Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress, and a sizeable majority of governorships and state legislatures, one of the most contentious arguments in politics concerns how Democrats should try to turn things around. That argument is particularly bitter, because to a large extent it carries over from the Bernie/Hillary contest in the 2016 primaries. Each faction has its own vision of how to win back the country, and sees the other’s vision as a recipe for disaster.

Berners think the problem is voter apathy and the solution is a national progressive agenda for radical change: Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free college, and a massive jobs/infrastructure program. The Democratic Party needs to stand for something, and the something it needs to stand for is the very specific legislative agenda Bernie Sanders ran on. In addition, Democrats need a new, younger image. (Bernie himself may not be young, but his fans are.) We can’t just trot the old war-horses out with a new focus-group-tested message and expect cynical millennials to buy it.

Clintonites look at the independents and moderate Republicans who have been alienated by Trump and see a chance for a broad non-ideological coalition, if Democrats don’t alienate centrist voters by pushing radical progressive policies in districts that historically haven’t supported them. Professional-class white women, for example, have traditionally trended Republican, but they’ve seen the GOP rally around a serial abuser who makes common cause with white supremacists, they believe what the scientists say about climate change, they worry about how their children are going to replicate their success, and they might be ready to say “Enough is enough.” However, that doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly become converts to Denmark-style socialism. Candidates who are too far left might turn them off and leave us stuck with Trump-like conservatives.

Both sides can argue that recent results support them: Berners say that the Clintonite approach has been tried and failed; shifting rightward to occupy an ever-receding center is how we got into this sad position in the first place. Clintonites can ask where the Berner approach has ever worked. Sure, it hasn’t been tried often, but where has it succeeded, other than in places (like Vermont) where Democrats would win anyway? Berner idealism sounds airy to the nuts-and-bolts politicos of the Clintonite establishment: State-by-state, district-by-district, look at the demographics and show me which voters we’re going to turn around.

Recent results. The post-2016 special elections provide fodder for both sides. In general, the elections were held in strongly Republican areas and Democrats did significantly better than in previous cycles. But how and why?

For example, the biggest headline has been Doug Jones’ upset of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race: Alabama, one of the reddest states in the nation, now has one senator from each party. Granted, all sorts of special circumstances (i.e., a Republican opponent who started out controversial, and then got credibly accused of sexually pursuing underage girls) had to work in Jones’ favor, but you can spin the final results either way. Jones’ margin came from overcoming voter apathy and rallying the Democratic base in the black neighborhoods of cities like Selma. But the defection of moderate Republicans from Moore was also an important factor, and Jones himself did not run a progressive campaign. On health care, for example, he defended ObamaCare and said abstractly that “healthcare is a right, not a privilege limited to the wealthy“, but he never endorsed Medicare for All. His gun control position was fairly tepid. Economically, he talked about an unspecified “living wage”, but also about “streamlining regulations” for businesses. Some progressives even argued against voting for him.

Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia’s 6th congressional district was similarly spun both ways: Ossoff wasn’t progressive enough, so he lost because “he didn’t stand for anything“. But Georgia-6 is a classic suburban-Republican stronghold that Tom Price had won by 23 points just months before. Narrowing that loss to five points was a huge accomplishment that a Bernie-style progressive, centrists argued, couldn’t have equaled.

Virginia’s state elections were similarly ambiguous. New Governor Ralph Northam ran a centrist nice-guy campaign and won handily (after beating Bernie-endorsed Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary). But downballot elections demonstrated a liberal appeal that was surprising for Virginia, like trangender woman Danica Roem beating a religious conservative who authored a “bathroom bill” targeted at transgender people. Democrats didn’t just pick off competitive swing districts, they won in places where they hadn’t even run candidates in previous elections.

Northern exposure. Now let’s talk about Alaska. If you think about Alaskan politics at all, you probably think it’s dominated by conservative Republicans. Republican Don Young has held the state’s lone House seat since 1973. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are both Republicans. (However, Murkowski won as a write-in candidate in 2010 after losing the Republican primary to a more conservative candidate. She won as a Republican again in 2016.) In presidential politics, Alaska is a reliable red state. Democratic candidates rarely even go there, and none has won its 3 electoral votes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton 51%-37%. Nationally, Alaska’s most famous politician is Sarah Palin.

But then there’s this: In 2014, Republican Governor Sean Parnell lost his re-election bid when two other candidates joined forces: Republican-turned-independent Bill Walker ran on a bipartisan ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott as his lieutenant governor. Something similar has happened in the 40-seat Alaska House: 17 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 3 moderate Republicans have formed a majority coalition that made Democrat Bryce Edgmon the Speaker.

More is changing than just party labels. Politico reports:

In the past four years, Alaska has raised its minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana and passed the strongest universal voter registration bill in the country. Governor Bill Walker—an ex-Republican who has the support of organized labor and most liberals—and the House majority coalition are publicly advocating the introduction of a statewide income tax, a move long thought impossible in Alaska’s notoriously libertarian political climate. [links added]

The gerrymandered Alaska Senate is still solidly Republican, so those changes in the law had to come by referendum. But those referendum victories say something about where the voters are. Trump may have beaten Clinton handily, but at lower levels of politics the state is looking more purple all the time.

How did that happen? Politico credits three young men with engineering the turnaround over the last six years: Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (also profiled by Ozy), Forrest Dunbar, and John-Henry Heckendorn. Their strategy doesn’t follow either the Berner or the Clintonite model, though it contains pieces of both. Here are the key elements, as I glean them from several articles.

  • Run everywhere. The typical approach of the Democratic establishment has been to identify key swing districts and focus resources on them, rather than shotgun their efforts all over the map. The exception was Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, which arguably played a role in the big Democratic wins of 2006 and 2008. (In 2004, Kreiss-Tomkins was a teen-age Deaniac.) Focusing on key districts overestimates the predictability of politics. (No sensible Democrat would have wasted his effort by running for the Senate in Alabama, but Doug Jones did and now he’s a senator.) What’s more, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for long-term failure: Every time you fail to run a serious campaign, it becomes harder to argue that the district is winnable in the next election.
  • Think locally. The other half of running everywhere is that you can’t manufacture cookie-cutter candidates in your state (or national) headquarters and expect them to win everywhere. Local candidates need to be able to shape their own messages around the party’s deeper values rather than sell a cast-in-stone national agenda to a district that doesn’t want it. A gun-control candidate, for example, is not going to win in rural Alaska, where almost everybody hunts. (That doesn’t mean you give up on gun control as a party. But you can’t make gun control a litmus test for that district.) Other Democratic values, though, might be viable to those same voters: Alaskan outdoorsmen are in the perfect position to see the impact of climate change and the cost of letting oil companies do whatever they want. A district with few blacks may not care about Black Lives Matter, but the rights of native peoples might be a major issue.
  • Don’t settle for the people who want to run, find the people who ought to run. The biggest mistake of the Democratic establishment is to favor candidates with political experience. They’ve paid their dues and they know how the game is played, but they may not be who the voters are looking for. Kreiss-Tomkins, Dunbar, and Heckendorn put a huge amount of effort into examining individual districts, finding people who are locally admired, and convincing them to run.
  • Where Democrats can’t win, support independents. In some districts, the Democratic brand is so toxic that putting a (D) next to a candidate’s name makes him or her unelectable. In those districts, you want to get the Democrat out of the race and rally around a candidate who can credibly run as an independent. (In Alaska, the AFL-CIO signed on to this strategy, and the Democratic Party ultimately came around.) If the person who would best represent this district used to be a moderate Republican, so be it. Better a candidate who will vote with you on half the issues than far-right candidate who will be against you on everything.
  • Make the nuts-and-bolts of politics as easy as you can for neophyte candidates. There’s a lot to know about running for office that has nothing to do with governing: raising money, getting media attention, organizing events, dealing with election-law paperwork. You can’t recruit new-face candidates unless you can help them leap those hurdles. Ideally, this is what the state and national party organizations would do, but it rarely works out that way. In Alaska, Heckendorn set up a political consulting firm whose mission was to “franchise” a statewide model of how a person without political experience could run for office.

One more thing. I didn’t find any example of Kreiss-Tompkins, Dunbar, or Heckendorn saying exactly this, but to me it fits right in with what they’re doing: Focus on goals, not techniques.

To explain what I mean by that, let’s talk about health care. I happen to support a Medicare-for-All model, but that’s not my primary position. What I care about primarily is the goal, not the technique: When Americans get sick, they should get the medical care they need, and they shouldn’t go bankrupt paying for it.

I support Medicare-for-All because to me it looks like the most effective technique for achieving that goal. But in truth, I don’t really care how it happens, and I don’t think voters do either. The RomneyCare/ObamaCare approach was to build on the existing crazy-quilt of coverage — employer-based insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, government-subsidized exchanges, CHIP, the VA, and so on — and keep expanding it until everybody is covered. If that gets us to the goal, I’m happy. The British approach is essentially the-VA-for-All, with the government running hospitals and hiring doctors. That could work too. When conservatives talk about market-based approaches, I’m skeptical, and I wonder if they’re entering the discussion in good faith. But if they are, I’m listening. If there really is some way the free market can play a role in getting everybody the care they need without forcing people into bankruptcy, I’m open to it.

Summing up. In order to turn things around, the Alaska model says that Democratic Party needs to focus on providing services to people who can win, not on electing its own insiders. It needs to recruit new faces who have their own accomplishments and stories to tell, not run the same people who have lost before. It needs to run everywhere, even in districts that look hopeless, and give local candidates the freedom to shape a message that best represents their districts — even if that message leaves out the word “Democrat”. It needs to project national values and goals, but not tie every candidate to specific pieces of legislation that local voters might hate.

Both Berners and Clintonites will find things to like and things not to like about that strategy. In some races, it will lead to progressive candidates winning by raising millennial fervor. In others, centrist candidates will win by converting former Republicans, like suburban Christian Moms and gun-toting environmentalists. What both factions ought to like about this strategy, though, is that there’s a glimmering example of how it can work.

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On February 19, 2018 at 10:15 am

    two thumps up on both the article and the strategy

  • S David Blakeley  On February 19, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Just to drill into health care a little: what usually gets missed when people bring up the UK National Health Service, which, as you say is more or less VA for All, is that there is a parallel system of private doctors, hospitals, and health insurance for those who can afford it and want more than the NHS. The private physicians can also be in the NHS, for that matter. My doctor when I lived in London saw both private and NHS patients. So the market based system so dear to Republicans still exists. Our system could work the same way. Let’s face it: the richer you are, the better your healthcare is likely to be. But everyone will get a certain standard of care with universal coverage.

  • Alan  On February 19, 2018 at 11:43 am

    I look forward to your thoughtful posts every week.

    This seems like a sound strategy! And the “run someone everywhere” strategy parallels a technique Republicans have been using for decades: play the game at every level, from school board to Presidency. Playing at every level lets you find and refine candidates who build local trust. And it means you can get a lot of your agenda implemented (or, perhaps more accurately, functionally subvert laws passed at other levels).

  • Guest  On February 27, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    I do appreciate the fair and balanced approach here, and do like the strategy you’ve mapped out. It also seems like a much harder pill to swallow for Clintonites/corporate centrists. It could be my own bias, but it seems like all your points are things Bernie/progressives have been or are doing. Dean’s 50 state strategy was from his halcyon days on the left side of the democratic tent, Bernie ran locally to begin with and kept a softer stance on guns than a typical liberal might prefer, ran as an Independent, etc. Progressives don’t kowtow to political experience for it’s own sake certainly, and have been laying impressive groundwork to support neophyte candidates nationwide.

    It brings to mind when Bernie caught grief for backing the Omaha democratic mayoral candidate with a very questionable abortion stance. His response to NPR: “The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue….If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation.” Bernie’s words and actions seem to fit snugly in the model you’ve established here. Let’s hope the Clintonites can move in the same direction.

    One note on the Doug Jones example, he may not have run a progressive campaign but with this comments on a living wage and healthcare being a right not a privilege of the wealthy, he was certainly giving progressives lip service. It may continue to work with fresh-faced locals, but on the national stage I think people, and independents and moderate republicans particularly, see right through it. I believe Trump voters would sooner vote for a Bernie than a Clinton type, despite the Clinton types being more conservative overall. I don’t have the polling data in front of me, but would be surprised if they said the contrary.

  • Anonymous  On March 2, 2018 at 7:52 am

    weeklysift,thank you for your blog post.Really thank you! Awesome.

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