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Can Sam Rasoul Bring the Democratic Party Back?

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by David Jonas, cross posted from KnowVA

It’s easy to place a lot of hope on Delegate Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, Virginia.

For a Democratic Party that has lost again and again in parts of the country far away from major metropolitan areas, Rasoul represents a ray of hope that progressive politics can win anywhere in the country. He’s only 35, has a background in business, and has focused his legislative agenda on healthcare, redistricting reform, renewable energy, and reducing gun violence. All from a seat that sits a stone’s throw away from coal country.

Last week, Rasoul made headlines when he quit his leadership post in the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, arguing that the Democrats hadn’t done enough to connect with everyday voters. By leaving his post, he said he hoped to spend more time connecting one-on-one with voters and offering a different, more inclusive vision. Rasoul seems particularly intent on growing the Democratic Party through both process and through the grassroots. Thanks to gerrymandering, House Republicans in Virginia hold a 2-1 advantage in terms of seats, and being in the deep minority in a part of Virginia with many fewer Democrats gives Rasoul a particularly unique viewpoint on how Democrats are judged outside the major corridors.

In an editorial published on Blue Virginia just after his announcement to leave his leadership position, Rasoul laid out something of a formula for how Democrats can connect with voters of all stripes moving forward. You should read it all, but below are his seven steps for building trust voters in whatever strategy Democrats ultimately pursue:

  • FIGHT LIKE HELL FOR WHAT WE BELIEVE IN – We can fight for the progressive values and issues we stand for, and play to win. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi (similar to our Donald Trump) was eventually defeated after many years when the Left focused on the issues, excluding personal attacks. We must fight for our issues, not against Trump the person. The 2016 election showed us this only backfires.
  • BUILD UNITY ON VALUES, NOT IDENTITY POLITICS – Trust is built in HOW we fight, or our values in action. Let’s define our values and have the discipline to live them “beyond a reasonable doubt.” We must leave identity politics behind and rally around our common values as Justin Trudeau is doing in Canada.
  • BE REAL ABOUT THE MIRROR, FORGET THE WINDOW – Critically acclaimed leadership writer Jim Collins discusses in his study of top leaders over 40 years that the most successful leaders had the uncanny ability to look in the mirror in times of failure, not out the window. We should keep our focus on how we can grow from lessons learned.
  • EVERY CORNER STRATEGY – Sincere involvement means we need a multi-year strategy of supporting candidates in every corner of the Commonwealth. In the information age, campaign dollars have a sharp diminishing return. We can get more utility by investing in our message and organizing in every community. If our purpose and values are solid and we find and train good candidates, then our message will spread.
  • EMBRACE PROGRESSIVE POPULISM – Robert Reich has it right; progressive politics can win. The people want fundamental change with real ethics reform, big money influence out of elections, Glass-Steagall reinstated, and the end of gerrymandering! The citizens are tired of establishment politics. We must be sincere about ceding power to the people as these steps are essential to rebuilding trust.
  • RADICALLY EMPATHIZE – Empathizing does not mean we must agree, but Martin Luther King Jr. was successful when he preached we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Split up Trump voters. Yes, some may be racist or bigoted, and we should aggressively condemn their actions, but many did not begin as Trump voters. Empathy is tough and we need to listen to the concerns of all Americans.
  • STOP NEGATIVE POLITICS – We are disrespecting voters when we try to scare them into voting our way. Our obsolete campaign tactics erodes trust with voters. They feel manipulated; the same feeling as we have with a bad car salesperson. We should never say anything about anyone unless they would agree with it if they were in the room. Don’t be a bad car salesperson, respect the voter enough to come to her/his own conclusion.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but there’s an interesting fusion of ideas here. At first blush, it looks little different from the platform Bernie Sanders ran on to some success in the Democratic primary, but there are a few elements in here that seem necessary to grow the party’s geographic influence.

The idea of competing everywhere harkens back to Howard Dean’s successful 50-state strategy and seems like a better investment of campaign dollars than television ads that have diminishing returns. I couldn’t agree more with the need to radically empathize with all voters, even the ones we vehemently disagree with—which was one of Barack Obama’s trademarks in rising to national prominence to win the Presidency in 2008. And a renewed focus on good governance reforms like campaign finance, ending partisan gerrymandering, and bolstering ethics is an absolute no-brainer.

I have some quibbles with the rest. I’m not so naïve to think we can get rid of negative politics, but I do think Democrats would be wise to be much more selective in their attacks. Progressive populism has never really reckoned with how voters feel about having their taxes raised, but there’s plenty we can do on economic fairness and combating monopolies without massive tax increases. And I worry that moving away from “identity politics” is a backdoor attempt to push civil rights and freedoms into a second-tier of legislative priorities.

But I don’t have to agree with every plank to see that major reforms are necessary in the way that the Democratic Party goes about winning elections. Democrats have gotten to the point where 80% of our base will mobilize and vote every year. What we need now is a way to reach that next 20-30% of voters who only turn out when they’re inspired and feel connected, not to mention independent voters who deep down want government to be responsive to everyday people (who might not have access to a lobbyist or trade association).

To operationalize something like the above is insanely difficult, as Democrats tend to resist marching orders and disagree on big-picture strategy. And who knows if Delegate Rasoul has the energy or capacity to get buy-in from party regulars and activists, much less pro-business Democrats who can point to a Democratic Governor and two U.S. Senators with some measure of pride.

But it’s clear that Democrats have built a coalition that is geographically isolated and unable to win at every level—local, state, and federal. There are Republican governors in states as blue as Massachusetts and Maryland, and yet, the Democratic brand does not enjoy any such leeway in similarly red states. Maybe a Trump administration will be so bad that voters flock to Democrats in 2018, but you can’t build an electoral strategy around hoping your opponents simply fail.

Sam Rasoul is onto something, and Democrats would be wise to consider some of the reforms in strategy he’s proposing. We know that these voters are out there waiting to be inspired, persuaded, and mobilized. I wouldn’t expect miracles, but just a small nudge in geographic diversity will net us voters and future candidates to start winning more seats on the margin.

I agree with Delegate Rasoul: It’s time for a bigger tent.

  • Elaine Owens

    I was heartened to learn that Ralph Northam was in Roanoke yesterday to discuss the opioid epidemic with medical personnel at Carilion Clinic. While here, Northam also met with Sam Rasoul and a group that grew out of the Sanders campaign, Our Revolution, for what was termed a “listening session,” as well as the Law Enforcement Opioid Summit at the Hotel Roanoke. I would strongly encourage anyone who can influence the Northam campaign for governor to suggest that he start visiting all over SW Virginia. He is almost unknown out there and can get free local media coverage simply by showing up. Will he carry either the 6th or the 9th congressional districts? No, but he can gain votes that will be in addition to the votes he will win in the blue parts of the state. His expertise as a doctor is a perfect fit for making inroads into a region hard hit by opioid addiction and by a lack of medical facilities. I will never forget how Doug Wilder traveled all around SW Virginia, talking to people and garnering some votes. At the time, I lived in Amherst County, about as rural/small town as you can get. Wilder stopped his station wagon to greet people at a service station not a mile from my house. I knew three neighbors who decided to vote for him because of meeting him that day. First rules for the Democratic Party if it wishes to reach rural/small town/working class voters: Run candidates in red districts. Show up and listen. Play a long game, one that the party won’t win right away.

    • David TSJ

      Well said. Couldn’t agree more.

    • Sam Rasoul

      You are exactly right Elaine. He is the right person to connect with folks out here. I will keep telling them on my end.

      • Elaine Owens

        Thank you, Sam. It is vital that we return to some semblance of a two-party system in rural/small town Virginia. There are problems with education quality and funding, infrastructure, job loss and recruiting new jobs, etc., that needs Democratic input. No one benefits from one-party, monopoly politics.

        • A_Siegel

          And, on ‘state-wide’ level, switching ‘super-Red’ districts/precincts from 90-10 to 75-25 GOP/Dem starts to add up.

          And, … having alternative voices (even in minority) drives the Overton Window. As per your point, ‘needs Democratic input’. If respected voice in community, that ‘input’ might be heard more often — even if not always heeded.

  • John Farrell

    So lets start pandering to racists, homophobes, mysoginists, islamophobes, xenophobes and other haters in every corner of Virginia. Just like the Republicans.

    And while we are at it, let us abandon civil rights, equality of opportunity and opposition to institutional racism in our law enforcement and justice system because only women, New Americans and people of color care abound those issues.

    And never draw attention to our opponents when they reveal themselves to be a racist ’cause that sure wasn’t effective against Senator Macaca.

    Let us also waste time, money and energy contesting R+9 HOD districts in the Valley and the far Southwest instead of picking up suburban seats in districts carried by Obama, Herring & Clinton that are still represented by the other guys.

    Isn’t that exactly what has been done every odd numbered year for the last several decades?

    And that’s fabulously effective, right.

    And this navel gazing is prompted by the thrashing Democrats received in Virginia in 2016. Oh, wait. We won.

    Seems Sam has a solution in search of a problem.

    • Purple

      … said, the guy who is championing the strategy that lost the Presidency, House, Senate, Supreme Court, majority of state legislatures, and majority of state governor’s mansions.

      • John Farrell

        Because we’ve done so horribly in Virginia that we only have two Democratic US Senators and a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and just picked up one Congressional seat and are getting closer on 3 others despite rank partisan gerrymandering.

        It’s a shame things are going so badly here for Democrats.

        Anonymous trolls are the bane of comment sections. You want to toss
        pointless half-witticisms around – try posting in your real name, coward.

        • Purple

          It’s a discussion about an idea – whether or not the Democratic party should reach out to rural areas or continue to focus on the cities, what does it matter WHO has the idea, or who contributes to the discussion ?

          You say things are going great for Democrats in Virginia, really ? How close was the AG election, etc, Dems won against Cuccinelli by 50,000 votes, what if it hadn’t been Cuccinelli and Jackson ? Are Democrats in control of the state legislature ? What would it be like if Democrats also had the rural vote in Virginia ? Are these what you consider “pointless half-witticisms” ?

          Tell you what, you think I’m a troll, fine, this is my last post on your forum. Just go on and keep doing whatever you’re doing dude, have at it, just keep calling everyone who doesn’t agree with you a racist, keep pandering to urban people, and keep on keeping on. Stay in the bubble. Purple out, baby.

          • Why did you respond to someone who has nothing to do with this blog, other than commenting here, as “your forum?” Do you think all liberals, progressives, Dems, etc. are alike or something? As for your comments, so far they’ve been relentlessly negative, harsh on Democrats, which is fine, but what are you proposing exactly? I’m still not at all clear, other than reaching out to rural voters, which I don’t disagree with but which I’d also point out that we did with Creigh Deeds (got absolutely wiped out, particularly in rural areas, despite living in rural Bath County his whole life) and Mark Warner (spent/spends huge amounts of time in rural Virginia, but got killed there by Ed Gillespie in 2014).

    • 13thHODVoter

      Solution in search of a problem? Sam can tell you that’s NOT “exactly what has been done every odd numbered year for the last several decades.” On the contrary, the House Democratic Caucus spends most of their time and money defending vulnerable incumbents instead of supporting viable challengers. Until the VA House Democratic Caucus starts playing offense and stops playing defense, they are doomed to remain in the minority.

      • John Farrell

        Remind me which female challenger in a Valley R+9 district did the caucus fund to the tune of $500,000 only to see her lose by 15% while John Bell and Atif Qarni were desperate to hire GOTV staff to knock off R incumbents and got little or nothing.

        Let’s grab the low hanging fruit of HOD Rs in districts carried by Herring, Obama and Clinton. Let’s get strong candidates, like Kerry Delaney and Rebecca Geller, give them lots of GOTV staff to get our voters out and take these seats this year while sweeping the state wides and stop wasting time on R+6 or higher seats where we’ve got no shot.

        • Agree 100%. For instance, Dick Saslaw and Company flushed $500,000 down the toilet bowl (I told them this AT THE TIME, so it’s not “Monday morning quarterbacking,” by the way) to try and save Phil Puckett’s State Senate seat despite the fact that it’s a greater-than-2:1 Cooch district. Again, I told them this at the time, the response basically being that I didn’t know what I was talking about, trust them, blah blah. The end result: exactly as I predicted, the brilliant “blue team” candidate lost by…yep, a 2:1 margin. And no, they have never apologized to me for telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about, etc. Nor do they ever apologize to anyone, nor do any “heads roll,” even though they are wrong a great deal of the time.

  • Purple

    THIS.

    This guy is making sense.

  • Elaine Owens

    You know, when I advocated that we run candidates in rural districts, I wasn’t saying that those candidates need to parrot the positions of GOPers, whether implied racist or xenophobic. I was speaking as a Democrat who really gets sick and tired of going to the polls on election day for local elections and for members of the General Assembly and being greeted with two options: either the R guy (always a white guy) or writing in some name. I don’t follow John Farrell’s logic at all. I’m not advocating that we run another Creigh Deeds clone for statewide office. That’s not what Ralph Northam is. That would be suicidal. I’m simply saying that having a party that tries to enlarge its base is better than one that contents itself with close wins in statewide elections, but then cedes all but the most urbanized ares to the opposition without a fight for office.