Throughout the four-day convention that ended in fireworks in a Delaware parking lot Thursday night, it was clear that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is working to build a broad coalition that even includes disaffected Republicans.
And he isn’t alone.
The day after she won the Democratic nomination in Iowa’s 2nd District, former state Sen. Rita Hart released a list of 20 Republicans supporting her campaign. After winning the Democratic nod in the Kansas Senate race, state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican herself, released a TV ad featuring a GOP state legislator who said he was voting for her.
Biden showcased his own GOP support during the national convention this week, where he officially became the Democratic presidential nominee. The convention featured Republicans from former Ohio Gov. John Kasich to rank-and-file GOP voters who were supporting Biden over President Donald Trump, and a video highlighting Biden's bipartisan bond with the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Biden began his acceptance speech Thursday night with a pledge to work for all Americans.
"That's the job of a president -- to represent all of us, not just our base or our party," Biden said. "This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment."
The emphasis on disaffected Republicans during the convention underscores the broad coalition Democrats are looking to build in the battle for the White House and for Congress.
Democrats’ path to the Senate majority involves winning traditionally Republican states, including Arizona and Iowa. Democrats won the House in 2018 due in part to victories in diversifying GOP strongholds such as Orange County, California. And they’re looking to grow that majority by flipping seats Trump carried in 2016.
Asked about the importance of disaffected Republicans in a winning coalition, Biden pollster John Anzalone said that coalition is like “a puzzle.”
“Maybe some pieces of the puzzle are bigger than the others, but they're all important, right?" Anzalone said. "And this is an important group."
Battle in the ’burbs
When Democrats highlighted support from Republicans during the convention, it was clear to Sarah Chamberlain who Democrats were targeting.
“Obviously they're going for suburban women,” said Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.
Multiple campaign strategists also said suburban women were a key bloc of Republicans who rejected Trump and helped Democrats win their House majority in 2018. Of the 43 House seats Democrats flipped two years ago, 40 were designated as varying degrees of suburban.
And a majority of those districts had a history of supporting Republicans. Twenty-three of the districts Democrats flipped in 2018 had supported Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, including Texas' 32nd District. In 2018, Democrat Colin Allred defeated GOP Rep. Pete Sessions there by nearly 7 points.
“We have created a permission structure for Republicans who feel like this version of the party does not represent them, or independents who are looking for a political home, that they can find their values represented in members like me, and in, hopefully, presidents like Joe Biden,” Allred said in a recent interview.
Some strategists also used the phrase “permission structure” to describe Democrats’ decision to highlight Republicans backing Biden at their convention. Anzalone likened the move to when Alabama GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby announced shortly before the 2017 special election that he would not vote for former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was facing allegations of sexual misconduct.
Other strategists doubted that highlighting Republicans at the convention would have any impact on voters. But they said voters’ views of Trump would dominate the election.
”It is a referendum on Trump all the way up and down [the ballot],” said one Democratic strategist involved in House races.
Chamberlain, whose group has conducted focus groups of suburban women, said she did not believe Republican women in the suburbs were abandoning the party.
“If they're voting for Biden, and that's a big ‘if,’ they're still willing to listen to the Republicans and see what we have to offer,” Chamberlain said.
But Anzalone noted that traditionally Republican voters are also increasingly identifying as independents in polling. The percentage of Americans identifying as Republican or Republican-leaning dropped from 44 percent in May to 39 percent in June, as the pandemic and protests against racism and police brutality rocked the country, according to Gallup.
Anzalone said Biden is currently leading among independents, as well as college-educated voters, suburban voters and seniors.
“This coalition for Biden is completely new, different and expansive,” Anzalone said.
Winning over Republicans and GOP-leaning independent voters is key for Democrats looking to hold onto 2018 gains. But they’re also an important voting bloc as Democrats reach deeper into Republican territory to grow their House majority and win the Senate.
Disaffected Republican voters are particularly important in changing states such as Arizona, where Democrats are targeting GOP Sen. Martha McSally.
Two years ago, moderate voters helped Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema defeat McSally, who was later appointed to the Senate to replace McCain. Arizona pollster Paul Bentz, who works for the GOP-leaning firm High Ground, noted roughly 195,000 voters split their tickets between GOP Gov. Doug Ducey and Sinema in 2018.
"That collection of individuals is still very much alive and well in Arizona and probably even larger now than it was two years ago,” Bentz said.
Winning over Republicans is also important for Democrats defending House seats that Trump carried in 2016, including Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin. Trump won Slotkin’s district by 7 points in 2016.
“I can't win just on the number of Democrats that are in the district,” Slotkin told fellow Michanders during a virtual convention watch party Wednesday night.
Swing voters, Slotkin said, “need to feel like there's an agenda in the Democratic Party that isn't just being anti-Trump, but is positive and affirmative.”
For Hart in Iowa's 2nd District, stressing Republican supporters is partly about forging a coalition that can withstand the uncertain dynamics of the presidential race, campaign manager Zach Meunier said. Democrats have a voter registration advantage in the rural district in southeast Iowa, but Trump won it by 4 points in 2016.
“We also just are living in a world in which we don’t know what Nov. 3 is going to bring at the top of the ticket,” Meunier said. “So we want to make sure we’re making clear voters, no matter who they’re voting for at the top of the ticket, have a home here.”
For his part, Biden continued to reach out to voters across the political spectrum as he accepted his party's nomination.
"While being Democratic candidate, I will be an American president," Biden said.