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Est. April 5, 2002
June 22, 2017 - Issue 704

2017 Special Election Lessons
Teachers and Democrats

"Democrats, unions, and teachers
need to develop a message that
resonates with its core electorate
and the broader public that is consistent
with its mission and agenda."

Having lost the 2016 presidential contest, Democrats are out of power in all three elected branches of the federal government. The hotly contested 2017 special elections for open Republican Congressional seats, vacated by Republicans now serving in President Trump’s cabinet, are over, and he has held serve in all four—Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, and Georgia—after campaigning for each candidate. Given Trump’s declining rates of approval in national polls, Democrats were hoping to begin their march to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The races were close in Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina compared to previous contests, but Democrats, and their allies, pinned their hopes and money on upsetting the Republican in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, although their candidate lost by a larger margin than his South Carolina counterpart, making it the most expensive Congressional battle in American history.

Jon Ossof, the Democrat running in the Georgia Sixth, made most of the right moves in his campaign: constructing a message focused on local concerns and issues, organizing a get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiative targeting the 13 percent African American population in the district that had a low turnout except for the two Obama elections, and not making opposition to President Trump a centerpiece of his political operation. However, he still lost to his Republican opponent, Karen Handel, by five points 52.6 to 47.4 percent. While Ossof was somewhat impaired by inclement weather, a series of flash floods in the district on election day, a close examination of his political strategies reveals failures that Democrats must overcome if they are to prevail in the 2017 gubernatorial and the 2018 midterm contests. But his major error, in my view, apparently based on hubris, was his decision not to move into the district. Even more disconcerting was the fact that Democratic operatives ignored it.

First, as noted in a previous column, the progressive Democratic wing (led by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders) and the Democratic National Committee (led by former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez) have not resolved their stark differences. These two factions have remained polarized since the 2016 presidential election despite their recent so-called unity tour, where they respectfully articulate their previously held positions while sitting beside each other on the same stage. For example, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sanders responded, “I don’t know” when questioned whether or not Ossoff is a progressive. “Some Democrats are progressive, and some Democrats are not,” he said.

After receiving stern criticism from Democrats, he amended his remarks by stating that it was imperative that Ossof be elected to Congress. At the same time, Sanders insisted on stopping in Omaha, Nebraska to endorse a Democratic mayoral candidate who has a mixed record on a woman’s right to choose an abortion. It remains unclear if Sen. Sanders, who refuses join the Democratic Party while desiring to lead it and the Democratic National Committee can resolve these contradictory positions as they attempt to pump up Democrats for the midterm races.

Second, Democrats, teachers, unions, and other public-sector stakeholders need to design new methods to reach the growing youth, minority, and female groups in its traditional base. Young people have flocked to Sen. Sanders unlike any other Democratic candidate since former President Obama and minority turnout (African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian) has not equaled that of the two Obama presidential campaigns which was the highest in history. Contemporary plans to replicate this unprecedented achievement have fallen far short. The old strategy of relying on leaders and celebrities of color to do the heavy lifting to energize their ethnic constituents is a tired and increasingly failing tactic. Given the current makeup of the Democratic Party, it will be impossible for Democrats to increase their numbers at the state and national levels unless they adjust to today’s social and cultural realities.

Third, Democrats, unions, and teachers need to develop a message that resonates with its core electorate and the broader public that is consistent with its mission and agenda. Republicans have been consistently successful in recruiting Democratic majority and minority officeholders and citizens to vote for them and/or their policies even when they were not in their best interests. They have been able to accomplish this feat through substantial campaign contributions for local, state, and national offices, federal government faith-based grants to minorities and evangelicals which enabled former President George W. Bush to carry Ohio in 2004, with a sixteen percent share of the African American vote, guaranteeing his reelection.

Subsequent grants by billionaire Republican benefactors to major organizations representing minority and majority communities have also been central to their political accomplishments. Moreover, their micro- and macro-marketing techniques for their programs have been superior to those of Democrats who have not effectively countered the advertising/promotion inaccuracies and exaggerations that receive broad and largely unchallenged coverage in the liberal and conservative media.

Finally, the Democrats have to project a clear economic and jobs message that reaches across racial lines in urban and rural regions. The aforementioned are tough lessons that must be addressed if Democrats are to have success in returning to power. Sticking to the same old playbook will not yield the anticipated results. But the most critical issue is leadership. Who will spearhead these proposed changes to enhance the future of the Democratic Party? Do teachers and unions accept the gravity and precariousness of their situations? Will new Democratic leaders emerge, or will past losers remain in control of the party and continue rearranging the deck chairs on the Democratic Titanic? The upcoming 2017 and 2018 political fights will send a clear signal as to the future of Democrats, teachers, and unions.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
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