Can The Democratic Party Get Back On Track, In Ohio And Nationally?

Jul 2, 2017

If you are a baseball hitter and you have a game where you go 0-4 – no base hits in four at-bats – you're not a happy camper.

But you are not totally despondent. In baseball, there is usually a game tomorrow and you have a chance to go 4-4.

In baseball, things tend to even out in the end.

Not so in politics. Or not always so.

This year, the Democratic Party has fielded candidates in four special congressional elections meant to fill the seats of Republicans who took jobs in the Trump administration.

The Democrats are 0-4.

And their next time at bat could well be the 2018 mid-term elections, where they have high hopes of wresting control of the U.S. House away from Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republicans.

They lost two elections on June 20 – the district in the northern suburbs of Atlanta that had been held by Tom Price, Trump's Secretary of Health and Human Services; and a South Carolina district formerly held by Mick Mulvaney, Trump's director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In Georgia, a record amount of money – over $50 million – was spent on that one congressional race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

Handel won by 3.8 percentage points – far less than the 20 percent or so Price used to win by.

But close counts in horseshoes, not in elections.

The fact is the Democrats lost all four.

It has the world of punditry asking the question – are the Democrats just dead in the water? Dead at the federal, state and local levels?

David Pepper, the Cincinnatian who chairs the Ohio Democratic Party, cautions that people should not read too much into the losses in the special elections.

"In the case of Ossoff, you had a candidate who never really defined himself for the voters,'' Pepper told WVXU. "The Republicans defined him for the voters in a pretty conservative district.

"The Republicans threw $30 million at Jon Ossoff, almost all of which was spent tying him to (House minority leader) Nancy Pelosi,'' Pepper said. "They morphed Jon Ossoff into Nancy Pelosi. And, still, they only won by a few percentage points."

All is not lost in the quest to take back the House, Pepper said, if the party, at the national level, has the kind of candidates who have the resources and the political skills to define themselves and deliver a message that will resonate with voters – even those voters who cast ballots for Donald Trump last fall.

One of Ohio's most high profile Democrats – Tim Ryan, the congressman from the Youngstown area who took on Pelosi for minority leader last year and lost badly – went on CNN June 21 and very bluntly stated what he thinks is the problem with the Democratic Party.

"The brand is just bad,'' Ryan said. "I don't think people in the Beltway are realizing just how toxic the Democratic Party brand is in so many parts of the country.

Toxic. That is a strong word to use when describing the message of your own political party.

Note, too, that Ryan's district has already been targeted by the Republicans in 2018 and they have lately been firing pot shots at Ryan for suggesting that the nation might be better off with a single payer health care system.

Some of the young, progressive activists in the party are suggesting that whatever it is that the Democrats have been doing in recent elections – especially in Ohio's statewide elections – is not working and the party needs to take a new path.

P.G. Sittenfeld, the 32-year-old Cincinnati council member, is one of them.

Sittenfeld ruffled the feathers of much of the Ohio Democratic Party establishment last year when he took on former governor Ted Strickland – who was then 75 – for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination.

P.G. Sittenfeld

The council member from Cincinnati was clobbered in the primary, but, in hindsight, there are some Ohio Democrats who say that, if he had won the primary, he could not have done worse against Republican incumbent Rob Portman than did Strickland. Strickland walked away with only 37 percent of the vote and Portman walked away with six more years in the Senate.

Sittenfeld was recently interviewed by the Washington Post for a story on where the Democrats should turn for their next generation of leaders.

After that interview, Sittenfeld shared with WVXU some of his ideas for getting the party back on track.

Here's a somewhat condensed version of what Sittenfeld had to say:

  • Find new voices, especially younger ones who "have the ability to get voters excited."
  • Look to cities and local governments because that's "where much of the action is" and city governments are "laboratories for innovative, forward-looking policy."
  • Don't shy away from a progressive message, but make sure it is grounded in a strong economic message people can relate to.
  • "Democrats need to stop the mindset of 'wait your turn' and encourage fresh young voices to get involved.
  • Get rid of the congressional gerrymandering that is stifling the party in winning House seats.
  • "Authenticity is paramount…being comfortable in one's own skin and sincere and steadfast in one's convictions matters hugely."
  • Having real political skills matter.
  • And, finally, "we absolutely cannot be contemptuous of voters who don't 100% agree with us." Find common ground with those who disagree.

Now, you may read through this list and think that many of these points are arguments for P.G. Sittenfeld as a candidate for higher office – youth, local government experience, political skills, etc.

And he admits that they are.

"I offer these suggestions humbly,'' Sittenfeld told WVXU. "Perhaps I will be someone to put them into practice one day."

Right now, though, he says he is focused on being re-elected to another four-year term on city council. Four years ago, Sittenfeld was the top vote-getter in a field of 21 candidates running for nine council seats.

"I'm not taking anything for granted,'' Sittenfeld said of his run for re-election. "I'm running like I am coming from 40th place in the field."

David Niven, associate professor of American politics at the University of Cincinnati, said most of Sittenfeld's ideas for the party make a lot of sense; and, yes, some of them are clearly self-serving.

"I particularly agree with him that the cities are the source of ideas in American government these days,'' Niven said. "The big cities – their mayors, their city council – they are sort of the Democrats' government-in-exile now."

And Niven – who, in the past, has written speeches for Strickland – said he also agrees with Sittenfeld that Democrats need to "stop castigating folks whose votes you might someday want to win over."

Democrats, Niven said, need a message that is consistent with who they are. That, he said, was one of Hillary Clinton's problems last year.

"While Clinton had a lot to offer, she obviously had long standing ties to Wall Street and financial interests that didn't fit the moment or the message,'' Niven said. "It undermined her message. She's didn't have the Jack Kennedy image of 'I'm rich and you can enjoy it with me.''''

The Democrats need a more appealing message, one that the average voter can relate to.

"The Democrats always seem to be saying, 'Eat your rice cakes,' while the Republicans are saying 'Here, have some French fries,''' Niven said. "The voters will usually pick the French fries."

Pepper said the Ohio Democratic Party is trying to build a bench of young candidates, with its "Main Street Initiative," which recruits and runs young candidates for local offices.

"And once they get to local office, we try to teach them how to run a statewide campaign, if that's what they want to do,'' Pepper said. "When I was on Cincinnati City Council, I couldn't tell you about anything in Ohio outside of City Hall. I had to learn it myself."

He points to Luke Feeney, the 37-year-old mayor of Chillicothe, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year in Philadelphia, and 26-year-old Kelsey Swindler, a member of Wilmington City Council, as typical of the kind of candidates the party is seeking to promote.

"Now Luke Feeney may want to be mayor of Chillicothe for the next 20 years; that's up to him,'' Pepper said. "But if he wants to move up the ladder, we are there to help him do it."

"The only way our party is going to rebound,'' Pepper said, "is by growing candidates from the ground up. And hope that we are right in believing voters want change."