The path forward for Democrats runs through the upper Midwest

Thomas Spragens is an emeritus professor of political science at Duke University.
Thomas Spragens is an emeritus professor of political science at Duke University.

Several different arguments have been put forward about what Democrats can learn from the past two elections.

Some have argued the Democratic Party must reach out to the rural voters who have become the base of the new Trumpian Republican Party. Others have said Democrats need to appeal more to working-class voters by going farther to the left, economically speaking, possibly by choosing more Bernie Sanders-like candidates.

These admonitions may make sense for the long haul. But they miss the most obvious and important lesson and reminder that the electoral outcomes in 2016 and 2018 offer to Democrats: The path to victory in 2020 is to reconstruct the tripartite axis of American Progressivism. That’s Progressivism with a capital “P” — the early 20th century precursor of the New Deal.

The three geographic components of the Progressive electoral coalition were the East and West coasts and the Upper Midwest — embodied, respectively, in the persons of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, California Gov. Hiram Johnson and Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette, who also represented his state in the U.S. Senate and House.

Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because she neglected and wound up losing the Midwestern part of America’s Progressive coalition. Donald Trump won because he very narrowly won the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. If the Democrats keep the states they won in 2016, then all they would need to do to regain the presidency in 2020 would be to bring those three states back into their win column.

And the recent mid-term election shows those states are ripe for the picking. With Democrat Tony Evers dispatching incumbent Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeating incumbent Bill Schuette in Michigan, all three of these states now have Democratic governors.

And Democrats Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin — along with Democrat Amy Klochubar in Minnesota — all won re-election to the Senate. So the lesson for Democrats for 2020 should be to do whatever it takes to win in the arc that runs from Pennsylvania westward through Minnesota.

That means a focus on policies that would appeal to the legatees of Minnesota’s old Farmer-Labor Party, a progressive populist coalition of farmers, workers, small business owners and professionals that was a powerful force in the New Deal era and later produced leaders such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone.

It means reminding voters from these states that Donald Trump’s budget proposals slashed funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that is so essential to their economic and recreational well-being. It also means envisioning a 2020 ticket that looks more like Joe Biden and Amy Klochubar than like Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Gillum.

This suggestion may disappoint those Democrats who champion the maximum diversity that can be packed into a two-person ticket. But this kind of ticket would take dead aim at the Pennsylvania-Minnesota arc, while still appealing nationally to women and working-class voters. (Moreover, whatever incompetencies may plague his presidency, Donald Trump does possess great political antennae. And the only potential Democratic candidate being widely mentioned that he reportedly fears is the warm-hearted but tough-talking guy from Delaware who has a middle-class provenance and Pennsylvania roots.)

This strategy would also have appeal in states like Iowa, North Carolina and Florida that once voted for Obama and should be in play in 2020 — especially given Florida’s recent significant expansion of its electorate by enfranchising former felons who have served their terms. So the Democratic Party needs to not get giddy over winning the House nor be goaded into distraction by Trump’s fits of distemper, but instead to keep its head, use its eyes and put a capital “P” on its progressive ambitions. Doing that can allow it to focus on winning back those Midwestern states that were a key part of America’s Progressive coalition in the past — and that offer them the clearest and best path to victory in 2020.

Thomas Spragens is an emeritus professor of political science at Duke University.