BALTIMORE ― Democrats are pushing back against the notion that President Donald Trump won the election because of his economic pitch to blue collar workers in the Rust Belt, a region that helped catapult him to the White House.
Trump stormed traditional Democratic enclaves armed with a populist, anti-trade message, successfully carrying many Midwest counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In Wisconsin, for example, Trump succeeded in flipping 22 counties that voted for Obama.
On Thursday, at their annual retreat in Baltimore, House Democratic lawmakers insisted that the Trump campaign’s racist, xenophobic undertones did far more to bring voters to his side than his promises to boost the economy.
“Just dog whistle politics is what it was,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (Ohio), whose district includes most of the black-majority areas near Cleveland and Akron.
The congresswoman dismissed criticisms that the Democrats’ messaging was out of tune as “overblown,” maintaining that Trump reached voters on “a very different level, an emotional level, a racial level, a fear level, an anger level.”
Trump won the GOP nomination by denigrating immigrants, Latinos, Muslims and others. He preyed upon the nation’s anxieties of such groups, going so far as to propose a ban of all Muslims entering the United States. Earlier this month, he appeared to deliver on that promise in part by signing an executive order restricting travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.
As Democrats huddled this week to chart their way ahead, a key item on the agenda was how best to tailor their message ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think we have to look deeper, because if we only talk about the economic message, we’re not going to win the next election,” Fudge said. “We have to figure out how to get to the hearts of these people.”
To that end, Democrats will produce two separate post-election “autopsy” reports on their disappointing performance last year. Rep. Sean Maloney (N.Y.) is conducting his own independent review of the election results, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its chairman, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), are working on a more thorough report that will be released later this year.
A preliminary autopsy shared with members at the retreat found that Democrats relied too heavily on their strategy of tying House Republicans to Trump’s most controversial comments.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who led Democrats to power in the 2006 midterm elections, argued that the right way out of the wilderness will be to continually point to the differences between Democrats’ policy positions and those of the Republicans.
“Donald Trump makes that a little easier for us,” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, calling the president “incompetent” and “incoherent.”
Fudge said that Democrats should “stop listening to the consultants” and learn from those members who found success in 2016.
“Hillary Clinton did very well in my district. She won 70 plus percent. But I did better than that ― 80 percent plus,” she said. “So that means there’s something they see in me that they don’t see in her. So the first thing is to figure that out.”
“We have to build our party from the ground up, and I think we haven’t been doing that,” Fudge added, calling on the party to focus on school board, mayoral and county races to build the next generation of candidates.
Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the recruitment vice chair at the DCCC, said the committee had already spoken to 40 people who are interested in running for Congress. She pointed to the anti-Trump protests around the country as a reason Democrats should be hopeful about the future.
“I think this energy that we are seeing is very palpable in the candidates that are coming forward to run for Congress,” Clark said.
Democrats are optimistic that Trump’s haphazard performance and his low approval numbers will translate into gains at the polls. Still, there is fear among the caucus it may not be enough to win a majority considering the considerable GOP advantage and Trump’s uncanny ability to find a message that resonates with voters.
Rep. John Yarmuth (Ky.) reflected on one such marketing ploy Trump used during the campaign, when he asked African-Americans, “What the hell do you have to lose?” by voting for him.
“I thought it was stupid at the time, but it probably ended up being one of the most significant statements in the last 20 years,” Yarmuth said. “I think that resonated with a lot of people because they already knew what Hillary was offering.”