Various online voices are fisking Jonathan Martin’s New York Times story on the challenges faced by Democratic candidates in the South.

Martin’s story implies that progressive candidates are exciting the Democratic base but turning off rural white voters in the South:


The campaigns of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas may have electrified black and progressive white voters — just as Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments may energize Mississippians to support Mr. Espy — but they had an equal and opposite effect as well: in rural county after rural county, this trio of next-generation Democrats performed worse than President Barack Obama did in 2012. …

“There’s a baseline percent of the white vote you have to get to win and you can’t get to it just through young and progressive excitement,” said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who worked on Mr. Obama’s campaigns there and last week wrote a memo urging his party to grapple with why they got close but lost some key races this year. “The path from 48 to 50 is like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.”

There’s no doubt that Democrats face an increasingly uphill struggle, for whatever complex of reasons, among rural white voters in the South. Schale’s diagnosis — that the Dems are missing out on these rural white voters by overdosing on “progressive excitement” is dubious. This seems particularly nonsensical given the examples — O’Rourke and Abrams did shockingly well in Texas and Georgia, wildly surpassing expectations in close losses that represented the best outcomes for Dems in years; Gillum lost a coin-flip election in a tossup state, with results about the same as the more moderate Bill Nelson.

Or take Arkansas. It’s hard to imagine a candidate more ready-made for Schale’s prescription than Rep. Michael John Gray, a folksy Democratic farmer who focuses on bread-and-butter populist issues and does his best to steer clear of more controversial social issues. Nearly every answer he gives to a reporter includes the words “reasonable” and “common-sense.” He nevertheless lost his seat this year in his Trump-country district. Or Clarke Tucker, who followed the Schale playbook in his run for Congress in the Second District, choosing not to back Medicare for All and promising to oppose Nancy Pelosi’s bid for Speaker. He was still thumped outside of Pulaksi County.


That’s not to say that Tucker or Gray did anything wrong. These were tough districts. Just like in districts across the country, it made no difference whether the Democratic candidate was “progressive” or “moderate.” Conservative Democrats lost ground among white rural voters, too. 

My lukewarm take: Candidate quality matters but a candidate’s ideological particulars are a pretty small portion of that sauce; in any case, structural factors, demographics, and partisan polarization matter a whole lot more. Democrats are going to struggle in places like Arkansas, where rural white voters will tend to back Republicans, for the foreseeable future. This is simply the reality of realignment. Pundits and strategists will claim, against all available evidence, that Dems would have better results if only they adopted the particular policy preferences of those pundits and strategists. And the New York Times will give more ink to wondering how the Democratic Party will survive when the people least likely to vote for Democrats don’t.


Martin’s article does not offer evidence, if there is any to offer, that Democrats should focus on a demographic overwhelmingly likely to vote Republican rather than, say, suburban voters increasingly voting for Democrats, or driving up turnout among the Democratic base (if you hit control-F as you peruse the article and type “voter suppression,” you will come up empty). Lots of reactions to the story today from the web, here’s a sampling:


(Full thread from Favreau here).