In the past few months, Democrats have been on a search for saviors who can lead them out of the wilderness. Even though nationally it’s still unclear who will take on the party’s mantle in 2020 — Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Cory Booker and countless others have been floated as possibilities — there’s been an uptick in the number of Democrats writ large who want to run for office on the local level. In the midst of this surge of enthusiasm, I’ve noticed that a particular crop of white young men from state-level offices have captured national attention. Their prominence, coupled with their appeal to a certain kind of voter, has left me wondering what these men say about the strategic direction of the Democratic Party.
Self-possessed, serious, maybe a little self-serious — these politicians seem to be taking stylistic cues from the dominating political figure of their era, President Obama. Army veteran Jason Kander proved masterful in creating a compelling personal political narrative during his bid for a Missouri Senate seat; a campaign ad showing him assembling a rifle while blindfolded went viral. Jon Ossoff, who ran in a special House election in Georgia, admitted that his careful parsing of language, often about Americans coming together, made him sound a little like Obama. Tom Perriello, a candidate in the Virginia gubernatorial primary, spent formative time abroad and came home adamant about creating a new kind of Democratic politics. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a well-credentialed (Rhodes Scholar, Naval Reservist) Midwesterner who seemed to come out of nowhere to wide, approving attention as he sought the chair of the Democratic National Committee in February.
They are all, as Obama was when he burst onto the national scene, young, well pedigreed, and varying degrees of attractive on the Brooks Brothers scale; each inoffensively clean cut, the sort of guy who cuts himself off after two light beers because he has to wake up early.
These men are figures of relative obscurity who have capitalized on a political moment to vault their careers several levels up. The same could be said for Illinois state Sen. Obama, who made waves in 2004 with a blockbuster convention speech. This group’s moment is different than Obama’s, though — these politicians caught the Democrats’ magpie eye following the rise of Donald Trump, though it should be noted that all did so while losing elections.
Each has claimed in his campaign that he is a droplet of that fresh blood needed to reinvigorate the party, a clean slate upon which to write the Democratic compact of the future. This was more or less Obama’s line when he entered the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton all those years ago; he had no Iraq War vote to sully his record, no decades of political battles weighing him down.
But Obama, of course, was a figure of incredible historical import — the first black major party nominee and then the first black president. His promise of change was economic — he was the (relative) outsider fixing the mess of the financial crisis created by craven New York and D.C. insiders — but also cultural: voters, black and white, could cast a ballot for him and be a part of history.
Kander, Ossoff, Perriello, and Buttigieg offer the promise of change as well, but the meaning of that change is more vaguely implied. Each has promised to bring the message of the Democratic Party back to the people it has forgotten. That’s all well and good, but who exactly are those people?
Since the election, a debate has been raging in the Democratic Party about the best path to electoral victory: appeal to whites who voted for Obama and later Trump, or turn out those who stayed home in 2016, namely black voters?
This group of newcomers’ appeal is in part to white voters, and the attention given to Kander, Ossoff, Perriello and Buttigieg in recent months suggests Democrats are, consciously or not, leaning most toward the plan of winning back white voters. Election results for these men do show certain promising patterns. Though Kander lost his Senate race, he outperformed Clinton’s 2016 and Obama’s 2012 showing in a number of places and outright won counties that neither Clinton nor Obama could swing, namely Platte and Clay, outside Kansas City. Both Platte and Clay are wealthy and white places — each is 87 percent white, and the median income is $68,254 in Platte, $62,099 in Clay — and are in Missouri’s 6th Congressional District, represented by Republican Sam Graves. Graves won reelection in 2016 with 68 percent of the vote in the district.
The counties have similar demographics to Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where Ossoff campaigned and lost, but by a slim margin. Republican Karen Handel won that race by about 4 percentage points, a notable result since only a few months before, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price overwhelmingly won reelection in the district with 62 percent of the vote. Ossoff ate into Republicans’ support substantially in the district.
The Kander/Ossoff appeal to suburban voters (Kander helped Ossoff campaign) seems built in part on their ability to assure voters with a more rightward cultural bent that Democrats aren’t to be disdained. Kander’s ad showing him assembling a rifle blindfolded became a sort of shorthand for his understanding of a certain milieu — gun owners and Second Amendment advocates — while Ossoff became known for his keen ability to say almost nothing controversial. Young, handsome, kind of preppy, it made him a nice blank slate onto whom voters could project their desires.
Perriello, too, has demonstrated success with white voters, despite losing the Virginia primary against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. He performed best in the parts of the state that are largely white and rural. Northam (who had the advantage of being a party insider) won areas like Hamton Roads, which are filled with black voters, the kind that swung the state blue for Obama in 2008. Perriello courted rural Virginians specifically, spending far more time in the state’s non-urban areas than Northam did, according to a candidate tracker from the Virginia Public Access Project.
Given that Buttigieg has only been elected as mayor, it’s more difficult to know if he has broader appeal, though South Bend is whiter than many other urban areas — 61 percent — and solidly Democratic.
There’s a risk that in hyping the effort to win back white Obama/Trump voters, black candidates get lost in the shuffle or female candidates are passed over because of a Hillary Clinton hangover. (The fear of the complicated challenges that women face when running for office is real.) Nina Turner articulated this view to me back in January: “African-Americans, no matter what, will vote hook or crook for Democrats, and so that particular demographic is owed a lot more by the Democratic Party than what we have gotten, and what I mean by that is no African-American woman has ever been governor in this country. Democrats need to be making sure that happens.”
Thrown into relief against Turner’s sentiments, the attention that Kander et al. have received seems significant. Buttigieg, known pretty much only to the good people of South Bend prior to this winter, was recently on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” talking about Republicans’ appropriation of the idea of freedom and on Chelsea Handler’s show chatting about what it’s like to be a Democratic mayor in a deep-red state. Kander had enough grist coming off of his loss to start a voting rights group, Let America Vote, and be named the head of a DNC voting rights commission. A Nexis dive of coverage from the last six months finds him quoted in numerous national outlets on voting rights issues — The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Houston Chronicle — but also written about as a potential presidential contender in The Hill and in a recent Washington Post profile.
Ossoff’s campaign is now infamous for how much press attention and money it received, while Perriello got endorsements from a series of high-profile Obama administration officials and was profiled in national outlets. (I wrote about him in March.) Pod Save America, the brainchild of former Obama staffers that has become a de facto outlet for Democratic politicians, the fireside chat for “the Resistance,” has hosted and promoted all of these young, white Democrats.
And it’s not as if there is a dearth of minority talent. Turner herself has been floated as a potential 2018 Ohio gubernatorial candidate, while Stacey Abrams, another black woman, is making a bid for the Georgia governor’s mansion, and Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, recently announced a long-awaited bid for Maryland governor. Where is their national party hype machine?
It might be that at the heart of the matter, Democrats have internalized most acutely the accusation that they shamed and alienated white constituencies by elevating cultural conversations around issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and gay rights. The more subtle argument, that exciting the party’s base — namely, minority groups — could be just as electorally rewarding, has been less interrogated. There are years left for younger Democratic talent to develop, and perhaps for the party to again focus on strengthening its base. But for now, at least in its promotion of rising talent, it seems the Democratic approach is lopsided.
CORRECTION (Aug. 10, 1:40 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Pete Buttigieg had not run in a statewide election. He ran for state treasurer in 2010.