Democrats battle to win back white, working class voters after last week’s stinging election defeat played out on Capitol Hill Thursday when Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan announced he would challenge Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader.
Leadership elections in both the House and Senate have shown the concern among Democrats as members representing blue or battleground states that Trump won are demanding a larger voice in a party that has increasingly embraced what has become the Obama coalition of minority and young voters.
Senate Democrats attempted to address the disconnect with white voters by dramatically adding to their leadership ranks. The caucus leaders include Sen. Bernie Sanders, who amassed broad support among not only progressives but white working class voters with his populist appeal. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state with a large number of white, blue collar workers, was also added to the ranks.
Manchin said these voters have looked elsewhere because “they lost all hope that anybody cared.”
“People have to know we care about them,” he said.
In the House, meanwhile, Democrats are more resistant.
Earlier this week, the party unexpectedly delayed a scheduled leadership vote and now Ryan has emerged as the face of a movement seeking more of a focus on the economic concerns of rust belt and rural voters. Ryan calls his challenge an "uphill" battle but says it's necessary for the party's future.
The battle over the future of the House Democrats has also become a battle over demographics. Pelosi is a liberal who has led Democrats in the House since 2003 from a West Coast district, state and region that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Ryan, 43, was elected in 2003 and only knows Pelosi as his caucus’ leader. He hails from a battleground state that Trump won easily with the support of frustrated white working class voters.
“A lot of our caucus is bicoastal,” Ryan told reporters this week. “States like Ohio don’t have the kind of representation … that we need to take the majority back.”
The members most open to having a “discussion” about the direction of leadership is propelled by states where Democrats have lost voters at the state and Congressional level but also lost at the presidential level in 2016.
Trump won Ohio by 8.5 percent and Democrats hold just four of the 16 Congressional seats, the lowest number since 1947.
Trump also won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states that Republicans haven’t won since 1988 (and 1984 for Wisconsin.) Those states have similar stories as Ohio. Michigan also has the fewest number of Democrats serving – five – since 1947.
G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a battleground state that Trump won and also has fewer Democrats in the House – just two - than anytime since the 1860s, said he supports Pelosi but is also advocating for a new direction.
“We’ve lost 60 seats over the last few years, we’ve got to get creative in … reversing that trend,” Butterfield said.
Democrats have been losing the support of white men for decades - an exodus that began during the Civil Rights Movement and expanded when the so-called Reagan Democrats voted Republican in the 80s. But the presidential election this year was the most pronounced. Trump won white men by 32 points. Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama among white men by less: 27 points.
Pelosi on Thursday denied that the Democratic Party has failed white working voters. Pointing to Democratic support of the auto bail out, union contract negotiations, safety regulations and a higher minimum wage, Pelosi said Democrats’ problem has been messaging. She used the example of a married couple to relay her point.
“You may think you’re messaging but if your spouse isn’t messaging, they don’t think we are communicating,” she said.
Her messaging has shifted. In a news conference Thursday, Pelosi unprompted discussed white workers.
“When we talk about blue collar jobs, the Rust Belt states … we have to talk about how innovation is central,” Pelosi said.
To not alienate the diversity that makes up the Democratic Party, and perhaps also because of the recognition that white male voters continue to be a shrinking percentage of the electorate, she stressed inclusion.
“This is not about jobs for blue collar workers who might be white. This is for everyone,” Pelosi added.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, a close friend and supporter of Pelosi’s, stood by her leader, criticizing those who are quick to diagnose the problem. She said Pelosi should not be blamed for the lack of rural support.
“If there is agreed discontent, I don’t think it has anything to with the fact that Nancy Pelosi didn’t speak to them,” Maloney said. “A lot of them are represented by Democrats who certainly know how to talk to them.”