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Red state progressives sometimes lukewarm but still loyal to moderate Democrats

by Renee Hickman /
Image: Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) speaks on the phone before a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill on Jan. 22, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) speaks on the phone before a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill on Jan. 22, 2018 in Washington, DC.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — Progressive voters in red states are showing a willingness to be pragmatic ahead of the midterm elections, but for moderate Senate Democrats in those states, an enthusiasm gap remains a concern.

Following the defeat of Hilary Clinton, some observers had predicted a takeover of the Democratic Party by more left-leaning activists who would demand greater ideological purity from their candidates. But in conservative states like Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia, where Senate Democrats up for reelection are some of the country’s most vulnerable, progressive activists say they are taking a more pragmatic view, even if they admit feeling lukewarm about the candidates at the top of the ballot.

“I’d take somebody who agrees with me 60 or 70 percent of the time over somebody who agrees with me zero percent of the time,” says Micah Weglinksi, a progressive activist in West Virginia, where Democrat Joe Manchin is fighting to keep his seat despite the state’s deepening conservatism.

Weglinski is among those who first discovered activism after the 2016 election. He met fellow newcomers Sara Anderson and Megan Smith at a town hall event held at the office of Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito, and the trio now have a podcast called New Activists on the Block, where they feature candidates for office and discuss progressive issues.

In interactions with their listeners, they said they occasionally hear from West Virginia progressives who are disgruntled with Manchin, a Democrat who is friendly to the coal industry and carries an A rating from the NRA (his 2010 campaign ads featured him shooting a copy of the cap and trade bill with a rifle).

But the fire-and-brimstone crowd is the exception, not the rule, they say.

“We have some folks who are in the ‘burn the house down’ category,” said Smith. But they seem to be in the minority, she said, calling most of the activists she encounters in the state “strategists who know how to maximize what we’re doing."

Weglinski said that despite disagreements, Manchin’s votes against the repeal of Obamacare and the GOP tax bill have built up substantial good will among progressives in the state. “Those are two things he definitely deserves credit for,” said Weglinski.

In Columbia, Missouri, activist Kate Canterbury’s organization CoMo for Progress is, as its name suggests, focused on progressive issues. But it steers clear of working directly with either party. Though the state’s Democratic senator Claire McCaskill also faces ones of the country’s toughest re-election fights, Canterbury said her organization is focused instead on registering and educating voters, and encouraging progressives to run for local office.

“We need to start at the bottom,” said Canterbury. She hopes to see candidates for local office getting exposure this year and eventually working their way up to the federal level. But she thinks having local progressive candidates who people are excited about at the bottom of the ballot will help McCaskill and other federal Democrats in the long run — energizing and driving turnout among those who would be likely to support them.

Abby Ang is one of those volunteers who is most motivated by candidates further down the ticket. A graduate student at Indiana University, Ang said she got involved in politics for the first time in 2017.

She now spends six to seven hours a week volunteering to call voters for Dan Canon, a progressive civil rights attorney running for Congress in Indiana’s 9th district. But as the general election draws closer, Ang said she knows she’ll be making some tough decisions about how to manage her time volunteering with the campaigns.

“Ugh. Donnelly,” Ang said of Indiana Democratic senator Joe Donnelly.

She takes issue with Sen. Donnelly’s stance on abortion in particular, including his vote for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks that failed in the Senate in January. But, given the prospect of a Republican replacing the senator, Ang said she would choose Donnelly even if she is less sure she would put in the kind of effort she has for Canon.

Ang and other activists may be motivated by enthusiasm for down-ballot candidates, but they are also the people Democrats expect to make up the backbone of their campaigns — putting in the volunteer labor that fuels their ground games. Still, some activists feel that efforts by moderate Democrats not to appear too aligned with the left risk leaving their most enthusiastic supporters behind.

Nicole Mattson is a spokesperson for the Fargo, ND chapter of Indivisible, a national progressive organization that sprang up following the 2016 election. She said her group was willing to contribute support and volunteer resources to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s re-election campaign despite Heitkamp’s conservative stances on some issues.

Heitkamp’s record includes votes against expanding background checks for gun purchasers and in favor of the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. In September, Heitkamp drew attention when she appeared at a rally for Trump in which he singled her out among the Republican officials on stage with him, calling her a “good woman.”

Mattson said that while it’s understandable for Heitkamp to be wary of alienating conservative voters, she thought the campaign was not yet doing enough outreach to progressives in the state. “I’m concerned that she’s taking those votes for granted,” Mattson said.

Mattson said memories of election night in 2016 would keep her fellow activists energized through the midterm campaigns, but should also serve as reminder that electoral success is never guaranteed, even among core supporters.

“The blue wave is not inevitable,” she said.

A previous version of this article misattributed a quote to Sara Anderson. The speaker was Megan Smith.

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