Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Opinion | How a small group of Democrats won the culture wars

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Ahead of the midterm elections, Democrats debated internally about whether to engage with the MAGA crowd’s attacks on crime and cultural issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights or change the topic and focus on economic issues.

The former, as it turned out, was the right tactic, as a recent postelection memo shows.

The report comes from Shield PAC, a new soft money group of moderate Democrats that, as its memo explains, is designed to respond to “the Republican pledge to use the ideas and rhetoric of the far left to paint moderate, at-risk Democrats as radicals (‘woke socialists’) on culture war issues like crime and immigration.”

After Democrats lost House seats in 2020, Shield PAC interviewed 150 candidates and campaigns to find out why they thought they had lost. The answer was clear: “the GOP’s success in tying Democrats to toxic far-left ideas like ‘Defund the Police.’ ” This hurt Democrats, especially in swing suburban districts. The main Democratic response in 2020 had been to attack Republicans without defending their own side.

So for 2022, Shield PAC focused resources on nine competitive House races — each featuring a female Democratic candidate — with an emphasis on combating the $68.5 million the GOP spent on crime and immigration-related ads. This included Virginia’s 7th Congressional District (where Rep. Abigail Spanberger was the Democratic candidate), Virginia’s 2nd (Elaine Luria), Michigan’s 8th (Elissa Slotkin), Pennsylvania’s 6th (Chrissy Houlahan), New Jersey’s 11th (Mikie Sherrill), Kansas’s 3rd (Sharice Davids), Minnesota’s 2nd (Angie Craig), Washington’s 8th (Kim Schrier) and Nevada’s 3rd (Susie Lee). Democrats won all of them except Virginia’s 2nd.

The strategy was simple: Shield PAC targeted swing voters with digital ads and direct mail, generally focused on no more than 50,000 voters in a single district. They also engaged “trusted messengers with substantial local reach on social media” to reach persuadable voters.

After the election, Shield PAC assessed the effectiveness of its ads and found that a high percentage of voters recalled the ads. Moreover, the ads actually changed voters’ impressions of the candidates. The group reports:

In [Virginia’s 7th Congressional District], in the initial poll we did in the spring, 37% of voters believed that Spanberger was “soft on crime.” But after Shield PAC’s advertising, that number dropped to 32%. Additionally, in our original poll, 33% rejected the idea that Spanberger was “soft on crime”; after our advertising, that number shot up to 50%. In [Kansas’s 3rd District] and [Washington’s 8th District], Shield PAC helped hold the line on the share of voters who perceive Davids and Schrier as “very liberal.” In the initial survey, 33% labeled Davids and Schrier “very liberal.” After millions of dollars of right-wing ads describing the candidates as left-wing radicals, that percentage was exactly the same in our post-election survey.

Shield PAC also tested messaging for its moderate candidates who were willing to stand up to their own party. Here again, polls showed the ads helped maintain or improve the Democratic candidates’ overall favorability and their image as independent-minded.

The percentage of voters who shifted as a result of Shield PAC’s push was not enormous, but in a close election, victory happens at the margins. It’s hard to deny that one reason all those anti-crime ads did not work is because the candidates refuted them directly. The best evidence of Shield PAC’s effectiveness might have come from districts where it did not expend resources — such as the four New York districts that flipped to Republicans.

Coincidentally, I interviewed four of the nine women promoted by Shield PAC: Spanberger, Schrier, Lee and Craig. Each of them raised two other issues with me that might have contributed to their wins. First, they all leaned heavily into the abortion issue, painting their opponents as out of touch with their districts’ voters. They also emphasized the series of legislative wins in the past two years (e.g., the PACT Act, Inflation Reduction Act, gun safety reforms). Showing they had delivered for their district was a big part of their final push.

What does all this mean? No single thing contributed to Democrats’ surprising success in holding down midterm losses. All of these women were top-flight, engaging campaigners. All worked extremely hard. All stressed abortion and economic deliverables. And yes, they had a response to the “soft-on-crime” attacks.

Another reason for many of these Democrats’ successes was their national security backgrounds. Spanberger, Slotkin, Houlahan and Sherrill served in either the military or the intelligence community. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) endorsed Slotkin and Spanberger because of their national security bona fides.

Democrats in tough districts going forward would do well to follow an all-of-the-above approach. The party should find capable candidates who are strong on national security, lean into abortion rights, have a record of achievement to point to and don’t allow Republicans free rein to pelt them with culture attacks. If this year’s candidates were able to survive in an environment as tough as 2022, that formula should serve them well when the political headwinds are not as strong.

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