Opinion | Democrats, Going in Reverse

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The Democratic Party’s performance is moving in the wrong direction.

Last year, in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, a young Marine Corps veteran and moderate Democrat named Dan McCready lost a House election by just 0.4 percentage points, 49.3 percent to 48.9 percent. It was an especially impressive performance because Donald Trump won the district by almost 12 percentage points in 2016. Ultimately, the victory by McCready’s opponent was nullified because of evidence of ballot fraud, and the district scheduled a do-over election, without the Republican whose campaign committed fraud.

That do-over was held last night, this time with McCready running against a Trump-friendly state senator named Dan Bishop. And although McCready put up another impressive performance, it was weaker than his 2018 showing. Bishop appears to have won the race by two percentage points.

The two elections are obviously not a perfect comparison. They featured different Republican nominees, and turnout was lower last night. But the comparison still fits a pattern, one I described in my column earlier this week:

Democrats aren’t having a very strong 2019.

Their attempts to investigate Trump for his many scandals have been unimpressive, disappointing their loyal voters and failing to persuade more swing voters that Trump is unfit for office. The party’s presidential candidates have also chosen to support — and in some cases emphasize — a few policies that are deeply unpopular, such as border decriminalization and the elimination of private health insurance. The candidates aren’t focusing enough on kitchen-table issues that matter most to voters, like wages and living costs.

I still consider Trump to be an underdog to win re-election next year, and McCready’s performance last night is consistent with that. His share of the district’s vote was six percentage points higher than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. But he achieved that strong result in part by avoiding some of the stances that are hurting the party. (He opposes “Medicare for all.”)

Beating Trump next year is vital for the well-being of the country. It’s past time for Democrats to get more serious about doing so.

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North Carolina’s 9th congressional district stretches from Charlotte and its suburbs to the military-heavy city of Fayetteville. “If you had told me yesterday McCready (D) would carry Mecklenberg Co. (Bishop’s base in Charlotte burbs) by 12.6% after winning it by just 9.5% in 2018, I would’ve bet he’d win. But his poor showing among rural Trump Dems (yes, they’re a real constituency) cost Dems a pickup,” Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report wrote. “Dems underestimate how much room there still is to fall with these anti-elite voters at their own peril.”

Nate Cohn, writing in The Times: “In Republican-held congressional districts, the Democratic candidates who supported Medicare for all, for instance, fared as much as a net three points worse [last year] than those who did not, after controlling for other factors like recent presidential and congressional election results.”

On Twitter, Cohn added: “My ‘interactions’ are full of people asserting things like: there are no swing voters; the only thing that changed in 2018 is turnout, Democrats can’t and haven’t won over any Trump voters. And whatever you think of the optimal strategy for Democrats, this is all facially untrue.”

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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