OPINION — Do you know what a “Dannycrat” is? Spenser Stafford does. That’s because she’s a registered Republican who is planning to vote for Danny O’Connor, the 31-year old Democrat running in Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 12th District. Also, she is engaged to marry O’Connor after the election.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, are you a Democrat now?’” Stafford told CNN. “And I was like, no, I cannot identify as a Democrat. I’m a Dannycrat!”
O’Connor can’t possibly get engaged to enough Republicans to sway the election his way, but he’s going to need more Dannycrats on his side anyway — namely moderate Republicans and independents who don’t call themselves Democrats, but are willing to vote for a Democrat on Tuesday nonetheless. Whether that’s because they oppose President Donald Trump, want wholesale change in Washington, or just don’t like the way congressional Republicans are running the place, O’Connor’s only potential path to victory is by winning over those Dannycrats, including some of the Republicans who helped Trump carry the district by 11 points in 2016.
The same math applies to national Democrats’ chances of winning and maintaining majorities in the House and Senate and even taking back the White House in 2020. They might be able to increase their volume by running up their margins with progressives in blue states, but they can only increase their power in Washington by picking off areas that backed Trump in 2016.
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Keeping it local
The special election in Ohio’s 12th district is one of those opportunities, but it’s more than just a question of whether Democrats win or lose a House seat. It’s also an early test to see if the national party can learn to love a local Democrat like O’Connor, who doesn’t share the fiery, anti-Trump rhetoric of national progressives but can win in his district and represent an important piece of the American electorate in the process.
So far, O’Connor has taken a doggedly pragmatic approach to his pitch to voters. If anyone is looking for pitchforks, torches, or anti-Trump screeds, they’re in the wrong district for that. “We have folks who are focused on dividing and conquering and not getting stuff done for normal folks,” O’Connor said at an Ohio church Sunday, according to the Daily Beast. “And that’s a problem. Because we need to send people to Washington who are committed to having a servant’s heart.”
That’s a long way from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s playbook that ousted veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley last month in New York and rocketed her to instant rock-star status among grass-roots progressives in the process. But between O’Connor and Ocazio-Cortez, the voice that would make a difference in the Democrats’ bid for a majority is O’Connor’s, if he can flip a red seat blue, not Ocasio-Cortez’s, when she kept a safe Democratic seat in safe Democratic hands.
Democrats have other pickup opportunities among persuadable Republicans in Trump territory all across the country. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams needs independents and even some Republicans to win the governor’s mansion in a state the GOP has dominated since 2002. The same goes for Tennessee, where Phil Bredesen poses a huge risk for Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn in their battle to replace Bob Corker in the Senate. Bredesen is a popular former governor, but he can’t mathematically get to Washington without a boost from Republicans and independents.
Like so many states and districts across the country, the fundamentals in Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio’s 12th — including party registration, past voting patterns and local party infrastructure — favor Republicans. But the moment is fueling Democrats. A Monmouth University poll last week showed O’Connor and his Republican opponent, Troy Balderson, essentially tied. Monmouth pollsters pointed to independents as the key demographic responsible for the shifts in the race. Currently, independents prefer O’Connor over Balderson 48 percent to 32 percent, with 17 percent undecided. A June poll showed independents with a similar level of support for Balderson (33 percent), but O’Connor had just 30 percent. That 18-point swing comes from the Dannycrats.
Learning from 2006
When Democrats won the House in 2006, they did so with the help of dozens of moderates who would later just as often speak out against their party as they voted for President George W. Bush’s agenda. Democrats won 31 seats that election, including several in Republican strongholds such as Indiana, Iowa, Texas, Kansas and North Carolina. Among those new members were former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler in North Carolina, Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill in Indiana, Bruce Braley in Iowa and Nick Lampson in Texas.
In the years that followed, a House Democratic leadership aide told me that those moderate members would be “tolerated but not rewarded” for voting the preferences of their districts instead of supporting the leadership agenda. That attitude can’t repeat itself if Democrats want to win and then retain a majority this time around.
Democrats have an opportunity this year to pitch themselves as the adults in the room who value a diversity of viewpoints, as opposed to the president’s instinct to attack and humiliate people who disagree with him, including some from his own party. Republicans and independents need a place to go if they don’t want to vote for Trump. By embracing the Dannycrats, the Democratic Party could be that place.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.