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Can moderate Democrats rise again? The answer may be in Ohio

By Evan Halper • Jul 25, 2018 at 2:00 PM

MANSFIELD — If the thick New England accent did not already reveal that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was not from around here, the polemic he launched into at a campaign rally in a union hall did.

“We have an administration that is reckless,” Walsh said, attacking President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. “It is reckless.”

That’s not the approach that Danny O’Connor, one of the congressional candidates Walsh was here to boost, typically takes. He is seeking to represent Ohio's 12th Congressional District.

“No one asks me,” O’Connor says about Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy. “I love asking people, ‘What are you worried about? What keeps you up?’ It is, ‘My social security, my health care.’ It is economic opportunity, student debt. If that is what people are telling me they are worried about, that is what I am going to talk about.”

In May, O’Connor — the Franklin County recorder — emerged victorious among the seven Democrats who want to replace Patrick Tiberi in the 12th district, which includes all of Morrow, Licking and Delaware counties, and parts of Franklin, Richland, Marion and Muskingum counties.

Ohio Sen. Troy Balderson narrowly won a 10-way Republican primary for the post Tiberi, a Columbus-area Republican, vacated to head the Ohio Business Roundtable.

O’Connor and Balderson will represent their parties in an Aug. 7 special election for the remainder of the term Tiberi vacated when he left office in January, as well as in the November general election for a two year term that begins next year.

O’Connor, 31, defines himself as a progressive, but he is highly selective about which pages of the progressive playbook he uses. You won’t hear him talking about Trump much at all. Or calling for socialized medicine. Or demanding a government-guaranteed minimum income.

But as a Democrat running in what was long assumed to be a safely Republican district, he’s happy to have the outside help, even at the price of an occasional discordant note.

It’s a strategy that may be about to pay off. In 2016, Donald Trump won this district by 11 points. The seat was held for 18 years by John Kasich, now Ohio’s Republican governor, who still lives within the district’s heavily gerrymandered boundaries. He handed it off to Tiberi, another business-oriented Republican, who held the district for 17 years until he stepped down to take a post heading the Ohio Business Roundtable.

Yet polls show the race to fill the remaining months of Tiberi’s term to be a toss-up two weeks before the Aug. 7 election. It’s the latest in a series of special elections in the last 18 months in which Democrats have performed far better than normal patterns would predict.

Like other Democrats in tough districts in the Rust Belt and the South, O’Connor has surged in the polls by hewing to the kind of pragmatic liberalism many party activists had forsworn after the Democrats’ painful loss in the presidential election.

The energy on the party’s left has gotten lots of attention, especially after the victory in late June of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent in a primary election in New York.

But the candidates who have won the biggest elections in the last year have mostly not come from the party’s Bernie Sanders wing. These candidates may be anti-establishment, vowing to jettison Nancy Pelosi from her leadership role, but they are thoroughly moderate.

The centrists are back. They just prefer you not call them that anymore.

As with so much in the Democratic Party these days, what the center should look like remains very much up for debate.

While O’Connor campaigned recently through his awkwardly shaped district, which stretches from the rapidly growing and well-to-do suburbs of Columbus into the depressed, industrial Trump strongholds an hour north, another big political event was taking place nearby. Its organizers have no affiliation with O’Connor, but they are encouraged by his success.

The Washington-based think tank Third Way, a growth-oriented, business-friendly policy powerhouse, had convened in Columbus with potential new recruits from 32 states, as well as some longtime allies, to map out a strategy for taking back the White House in 2020. An overarching concern of the group is the influence that the Democratic left, personified by Vermont’s Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has gained since the last election.

The conference leaders presented their new brand as “Opportunity Democrats” who would work to democratize economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, which has been increasingly concentrated in a few coastal areas. They showed maps of the large swaths of America that have seen a net loss in businesses over the last decade and questioned how it is possible that Switzerland dwarfs the United States in the number of apprenticeships available to aspiring skilled workers.

“Restoring the right to earn was a central promise of (Trump’s) pitch,” said Jon Cowan, the think tank’s president. “He got the question right. He got the answer appallingly wrong.”

The organizers insisted socialism is also the wrong answer. But they also strained to shed their long-standing brand as moderates, acknowledging that label no longer appeals to voters and insisting it does not accurately reflect their agenda for a new economy.

“We had to look at the baggage of our own brand and say, ‘is this the right way to brand us?’” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, who directs politics and policy at Third Way. “People will still call us moderate Democrats. But a lot of people here would not call themselves that.… You don’t have to be a self-described moderate to believe there is a path other than the end of capitalism.”

The rebranding of the center-left comes as the quest to find a unifying message for Democrats grows increasingly complicated with each unanticipated electoral victory. Ocasio-Cortez, a political newcomer, dislodged one of the most powerful House Democrats in the primary by running in New York City as an unapologetic democratic socialist. O’Connor is having his success running on a platform that looks more like that of the congressman she beat.

How far Democrats should go in stoking class resentment was a persistent theme at the Third Way event.

“You are not going to make me hate somebody just because they are rich,” said Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat from the Youngstown area who has campaigned for O’Connor and who says voters in struggling Rust Belt communities want opportunity and government investment in local industries, not guaranteed government income. “People are dying for some new ideas. Are we really going to go through the next decade having the same arguments we have had for the last 30 or 40 years when the entire economy has changed?”

Back in O’Connor’s district, the centrist candidate has drawn support from progressives by aligning himself closely with organized labor and narrowly focusing on a handful of economic issues that have broad appeal.

“People want pragmatism,” said O’Connor, who ran an ad pronouncing he would not support Pelosi to lead the Democrats in the House. “If there is a good idea, it does not have to be a Republican or Democratic idea. If it will benefit the people in this district, I am going to embrace it.”

One sign of that pragmatism is O’Connor’s praise for Kasich on the issue of health care. The governor championed the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — a stand that angered many conservative Republicans. Kasich, a sharp critic of Trump, also declared last year’s tax cut fiscally dangerous, a criticism O’Connor echoes.

The governor has declined to endorse O’Connor’s opponent, state Sen. Troy Balderson, who says he agrees with Trump on everything but the president’s tweeting habit. Trump tweeted his “Full & Total Endorsement” of Balderson on Saturday.

In an area traumatized by the opioid epidemic, O’Connor’s pitch to preserve government health care programs has particular appeal.

“You talk to doctors, especially rural doctors, and ask what getting rid of the Medicaid expansion would do to fighting back against opioid addiction, and they will tell you it is the single most devastating thing you can do,” O’Connor said. “You have to be such an extremist to oppose having that in place.”

In fact, O’Connor said, one of the first things he’ll do if he wins will be to call Republican Kasich and suggest they join forces in the fight.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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