Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander spoke to the Democratic National Committee Saturday. He urged the party to stick to its principles.
“When Democrats make our argument,” he said, “then we have a chance to win.”
He’s right, to a point. Kander made the party’s argument in 2016, and he barely lost to Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri.
On the other hand … Kander did lose. In fact every statewide Missouri Democrat lost in 2016.
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Republicans maintained their veto-proof majorities in both houses of the General Assembly last year. The GOP maintained its grip on the state’s congressional delegation. And Donald Trump carried the state by 19 points.
So making an argument obviously isn’t enough. Democrats in Missouri — and across the country — are deluding themselves if they think their problems are only about communicating a message.
Democrats must find better candidates, or their status as a minority party will continue.
This can be hard to see. In the aggregate, more people typically vote for Democratic candidates than Republican ones. A Democrat won the national popular vote. In a recent poll, a generic Democrat beat Trump by eight points.
But people don’t vote for generic candidates. They vote for actual people. And when the race pits a real Democrat against a real Republican, the real Democrat usually falls short.
The truth is Democrats have done a woeful job recruiting and nurturing quality candidates capable of running and maintaining credible campaigns against Republicans.
Part of this is cultural. Democrats are considered the party of government, yet for three decades political activists — listening to Rush Limbaugh and reading National Review — have gravitated to the GOP. The party has recruited those activists to seek positions on school boards, city councils and county commissions.
Those candidates have since ascended to visible positions in state legislatures and lower-level statewide offices. That, in turn, has helped Republicans build a strong, rotating roster of young candidates.
Democrats have largely ignored that strategy.
In 2016, Kansas Democrats had a chance — on paper —against Kevin Yoder in the Kansas 3rd House District. The 3rd has lots of moderate voters. Hillary Clinton won the district in November.
Yet Yoder won by 11 points. Why? Because the Democratic nominee was an unknown entity utterly unprepared for a campaign. Given even a crack of daylight, Democrats were unable to find anyone ready to seriously challenge the Republican incumbent.
Paul Davis is the suggested Democratic choice for Kansas governor in 2018. But he’s also the one Democrat considered strong enough to run for the open seat in the 2nd House District. Is it really possible the party has only one serious candidate for both offices?
Contrast that with Kansas Republicans, whose statewide bench includes Yoder, Kris Kobach, Jeff Colyer, Derek Schmidt, Susan Wagle and Ron Estes, now running in the 4th House District special election.
The 2018 governor’s race in Kansas should be a walkover for Democrats, yet today few would give the party an even chance of prevailing.
It’s the same story in Missouri. Name a Democrat who might take on Gov. Eric Greitens in 2020. Stumped?
The challenge extends beyond Missouri and Kansas. Democrats may have a winning message on the economy, health care, education. Yet who delivers that message? Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a veteran politician easily mocked by younger Republicans.
Democrats cheered Kander in their weekend meeting, just as Kansas Democrats cheered Sen. Bernie Sanders in Topeka Saturday.
Millions of angry voters have poured into the streets. Hundreds have packed into town halls across the country, making the argument for Democratic views on health care and immigration.
But making the argument isn’t enough. The hard work of finding and supporting winning candidates, at all levels, is a crucial part of the equation. Turning out voters is critical as well.
Unless Democrats understand that, they’ll continue to stand on the outside, looking in.