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Will the Democrats’ working-class strategy pay off?

Senate races in Pennsylvania, Ohio provide complicated test cases

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks with guests during a rally at the UFCW Local 1776 KS headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., in April.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks with guests during a rally at the UFCW Local 1776 KS headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., in April. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — There has been plenty of talk over the past few years about the Democrats’ problems appealing to white, blue-collar voters.

From Stanley Greenberg’s article “The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem’” (2017) to his report “Polling: How Democrats Can Win Back the Working Class” (2021) and Democracy Corps’ report “Getting Heard By Our Discontented Working Class Voters” (2022), there has been no shortage of concern about the party’s future.

November’s midterm elections will present something of a test for Democratic strategists. What kind of coalition — and candidates — will get the party back on a winning track?

Does the party need to reach out to non-college educated, blue-collar whites, or should it seek to build a coalition around centrist Democrats, particularly suburban voters with at least a college degree? Or, is the key mobilizing progressives who voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 but now seem less enthusiastic about his presidency?

Of course, party leaders don’t have to make an either-or choice. Democrats would like to find candidates and messages that appeal to a variety of voters. 

Still, Democrats need to have some idea what the core constituencies of a winning coalition look like. Rural America does not look like an option for the Democrats, nor do white evangelicals.

The obvious test of whether Democrats can win back white, blue-collar voters will take place in November in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the party already has two Senate nominees who hope to do just that.

In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman easily won the Democratic Senate primary, garnering almost 60 percent of the vote over Rep. Conor Lamb, who won just a quarter of primary voters.

Lamb, who grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, has an undergraduate degree and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. A veteran of the Marines, he clerked for a federal judge, was an assistant U.S. attorney and was elected to the U.S. House in a special election in March 2018. His grandfather and uncle served in elective office.

Fetterman, who was born in West Reading, Pa., earned an undergraduate degree from Albright College, an MBA from the University of Connecticut and a master’s in public policy from Harvard. 

Fetterman eventually moved to Braddock, a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, where he served as mayor and director of the city’s youth program. He has multiple tattoos, often wears a sweatshirt or hoodie, and doesn’t look or sound like a traditional suit-and-tie politician. 

In November, Fetterman will face celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who attended prep school, has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and earned medical and MBA degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Oz served in the Turkish military so he could keep Turkish citizenship.

Oz has lived in New Jersey but moved to Pennsylvania when he entered the Senate race.

In Ohio, Democrats have nominated Rep. Tim Ryan, who grew up in northeastern Ohio (Youngstown). He graduated from Bowling Green State University after initially attending Youngstown State. He has a law degree from the Franklin Pierce Law Center. He served briefly in the state Legislature before winning a U.S. House seat in 2002.

After the 2016 election, he challenged Nancy Pelosi in the race for Democratic leader. 

Ryan looks more like a traditional politician. He talks frequently about the economic threat from China, and he often stresses that the Democratic Party must appeal to working-class voters.

His opponent, Republican J.D. Vance, earned an undergraduate degree from Ohio State and a law degree from Yale. His book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” was a bestseller and was turned into a movie. He has worked for a variety of venture capital/investment firms, and his Senate campaign has received heavy financial backing from conservative libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Vance late in the primary.

Fetterman and Ryan embrace organized labor, have no trouble preaching the benefits of blue-collar jobs and are comfortable campaigning in places like Youngstown, Scranton and Westmoreland County, Pa.

Oz and Vance embraced Trump because they wanted his support. But the two Republicans have much more “elitist” connections, educations and style.

We will see how well Fetterman, who is a progressive on many issues, and Ryan do, but there are other potential Democratic strategies for increasing the party’s prospects in November, and they don’t all rely on Democrats winning many blue-collar voters who now identify as Republicans.

Democrats could make a major effort among progressives, seeking to improve turnout by embracing their priorities. After all, that’s how state Rep. Summer Lee won the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania’s 12th District over a Democrat backed by the establishment and endorsed by retiring Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle. Lee was endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

That’s a risky approach, however, given the importance of suburban swing voters and the GOP’s eagerness to brand Democrats as socialists, anti-police and advocates of “open borders.”

Of course, Democrats could reach out to centrist voters, seeking to put together a coalition that relies on suburban voters, college-educated whites and minority voters — just the coalition that proved so successful in 2018, when they reclaimed the House majority.

This year’s midterms may not be the best test of Democratic strategy, nominees and messaging. After all, Biden’s poor poll numbers, inflation and the seemingly daily dose of bad news will make it challenging for any Democrat who is not running in a safe Democratic seat. 

But, sooner or later, Democrats must decide what kind of party they want to be. And they must find nominees who can deliver the party’s message effectively.

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