The 2022 election results are in: Democrats have proclaimed victory in this year’s midterms, retaining their Senate control and keeping the House to a razor-thin Republican majority. Yet let’s not take such a starry-eyed view of the Democrats’ performance in 2022, because a fundamental issue within Democratic campaign strategy still exists: Democrats have a branding problem.
It’s no secret that Republicans have chosen hot-button cultural issues like education policy, elections, and immigration to unify around. In an era where the party is arguably still defined by a single standard-bearer, former President Donald Trump, Republicans have been extremely successful staying consistently on-brand. A cohort of news media outlets sympathetic to these messages is undoubtedly helping as well.
Democrats have no such sense of unity – they tout candidates across the country, but cannot seem to commit to one consistent branding message. In this day and age, where national media attention is more essential to election victory than ever before, unified branding would go a long way in helping Democrats accomplish their election goals. To focus on topics like abortion, Social Security, and affordable housing would help Democrats build a more coherent election strategy and nationally-consistent reputation.
I sat down with former Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) to discuss the recent midterms and Democratic strategies for future success. He reflects on his own campaign, which bucked trends in 2017 by winning in the deeply red state of Alabama. Part of this success could be attributed to his unsavory opponent: Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct towards minors near the end of his campaign. Though his moderate Democratic platform garnered support in 2017, his reelection bid in 2020 against a new Republican candidate was ultimately unsuccessful. In his time after office, Jones has stayed busy with his SuperPAC and frequent campaign visits to fellow Democratic politicians across the country.
Jones’ victory – and his advocacy for fellow Democrats in red states after his time in the Senate – provides valuable insight into the future for Democrats outside of their blue strongholds:
The Gate: So I want to start by asking about your first campaign, the Roy Moore campaign, the special election. How did the race being a special election change the level of national attention and amount of donations within the race?
Doug Jones: The fact that it was a special election didn't really change it too much until the real allegations came out. In the beginning, people assumed that the Democrat had no chance of winning. We had always seen the possibility, because we always thought that either would either be Roy Moore or Luther Strange, who was the appointed Senator at the time, former attorney general. And we saw that they both had problems. We felt like in a special election, when there's going to be a low turnout, that if we could get that base vote out and pull some other folks over, we could win the race. And also, the fact that control of the Senate was not in play: it was a 52-48 Senate at the time. It was gonna make it closer if I was to win, but it was not going to flip control. So there wasn't that same heightened sense of urgency. What really happened, though, is that people understood Roy Moore was a flawed candidate to begin with. And then there was the allegation. It became a bigger issue than just simply Republican and Democrat. It was right versus wrong. It was a flawed candidate versus somebody with a real platform of doing things for people.
The Gate: And did that affect your national coverage and your donations?
Doug Jones: Oh, my God, yeah. We started getting a lot of money when people just knew it was Roy Moore, because of his anti-LGBTQ [stances], his race issues, his [views against] the separation of church and state. After the allegations hit, money was just falling from the sky. I didn't have to do fundraisers. Every time he opened his mouth, more money would flow in. There were times we would raise a million dollars a day. It was stunning.
The Gate: Okay, so let's shift over to your second campaign. Frankly, you were facing very tough odds as a Democrat in a Republican-voting state with a stronger Republican opponent than Moore. How did you try to attract the national attention you needed to garner out of state support and donations? Was the focus of the second campaign actually winning the seat or achieving that more long term goal of increasing Democratic involvement in Alabama?
Doug Jones: It was both. We raised a lot of money to run a really strong campaign. And so the goal for me was to try to convince enough people that there was value in having both a Democrat and a Republican in the Senate, that we could play off each other. And Richard Shelby and I were very consistent in a lot of our approaches about economic development for Alabama. It always breaks down on cultural lines. It was on guns. Yeah, even though I'm not trying to just take away everybody's guns. In fact, I'm a gun owner. Guns and abortion issues, those kinds of issues, just kind of take hold. And then you have more people coming out to vote for Donald Trump, and they're not going to vote for me. And so the goal was to win reelection, but we always knew that it was going to be an incredibly steep climb. But the goal was also to just to stay involved and to have that voice for Democrats out there. And we ended up even though the percentage of the total vote was not much better than any other Democrat, we still got in terms of raw totals, more votes than any Democrat in history, which is that base to build on.
This midterms cycle saw many Democrats in lean-red states aiming for victories in a year difficult for the party. Democrats like Tim Ryan in Ohio and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina ran strong campaigns and attracted millions in funding, but ultimately could not overcome the Republican tilt of their states. The Georgia Senatorial runoff election between Democratic incumbent Rev. Raphael Warnock and football star Herschel Walker, whose campaign has been marred with troubling allegations of domestic violence and pressuring past partners into abortions, still remains undecided. The week before the midterms, I asked Sen. Jones about how Democrats in less hopeful races can attract funding and improve the Party’s reputation in the long run:
The Gate: Let's pivot to the midterms now. Could you describe why you believe Beasley is such a strong and electable candidate? What do you think Cheri Beasley can do in this final week of the campaign to come closer to either electoral victory or shifting the long-term trends more Democratic?
Doug Jones: I always believed the Beasley race was going to be a sleeper for Democrats. She's run twice, statewide. In one, she came within 401 votes of being elected as Chief Justice out of 5.5 million that were cast. So she's a proven vote getter and somebody that the state was familiar with. [Her Republican opponent] Ted Budd, on the other hand, is a kind of MAGA extremist. The votes that he took were not really good for North Carolina, whether it was veterans, whether it was against the CHIP bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. I thought those could be exploited. For independent expenditures, Cheri Beasley has outraised Ted Budd three to one. And that's from individuals who are saying “I see something in this race”. It's also a Southern, fairly conservative state. It's really trended more purple, just not a deep purple. So I think though, that in the last couple of weeks, in part due to efforts that we started after I visited and campaigned with her one weekend, really getting the word out, she has attracted more. You know, we've been doing some things through my SuperPAC to help with online organizing, boosting her sentiment score, boosting her reach among people in North Carolina. And I think that that has helped. But sometimes as you get closer to the election, these groups look and get a snapshot. Where are we? And where can we put our best money? And money starts shifting around the table at that. Republicans do it, Democrats do it.
The Gate: And so how does that differ from Georgia? It’s similarly in the South, but more purple. Is that the only reason why it's getting more national attention and more funding?
Doug Jones: No, I think it’s in part getting more because you have an incumbent that you're trying to protect for the Democrat. Republicans see how flawed Herschel Walker is. But because he's a football star with name recognition, they see the opportunity to flip that seat to help get control. That's why there's more of a focus on Georgia than there is in North Carolina. It's the states you can flip that are often the ones that garner attention, if it's close. Clearly [that’s happening] in Georgia right now. It's a lot closer than it should be.
The Gate: Do you think that Democrats should pursue races against controversial candidates [like Walker] with a more serious goal of winning, versus prioritizing that paradigm shift of gradually becoming more Democratic?
Doug Jones: Well, no. You can't control who they're going to come down to nominate. I think Democrats have to work on their brand before they can expect to win, even against a flawed candidate like Herschel Walker or an extremist candidate like Ted Budd. You still have to present an alternative. You have heard this in Georgia: “Yeah, I don't really particularly care for him. But this is about getting control of the Senate. I am not going to vote for a damn Democrat.” Democrats have to do things to improve the brand of the Democratic Party, because right now, it is not that great in the South. We've got those opportunities, but we end up too many times focusing on candidates, as opposed to the long term policies. Right now, if Democrats had spent the last 10 years talking about protecting Social Security and Medicare, expanding Medicaid, national security and jobs, plans to make sure inflation is low, housing, how we're going to protect women's rights to choose, and not go to the extreme in that, we’d work that electorate. I think we'd be in better shape than we are.
The Gate: And do you think that’s what will improve Democratic prospects in those red states long-term?
Doug Jones: Absolutely, over the last 20 years, voters in the middle, the number has shrunk. The voters in the middle always decide the elections. You've got the party faithful. And over time, the middle has shrunk. And Republicans have gained more in terms of the party faithful. We've got to start growing that middle back. That's about branding. It's about trying to get back to the kitchen table issues.
As the midterms were approaching, Sen. Jones traveled to many securely Republican states like Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas to support Democratic candidates there, even though his chosen candidates were unlikely to win their races. I asked Sen. Jones about the purpose of these trips:
The Gate: Are these trips for that kind of branding?
Doug Jones: Absolutely. No question.
The Gate: So can you describe how that shifts the paradigm towards Democrats? Even in those red states?
Doug Jones: Well, it gives Democrats some hope. It gives them opportunities to get their message out. Good examples: I am seeing Republican after Republican in Oklahoma coming out and endorsing [Democratic candidate] Kendra Horn. The more that you can get good candidates out there giving that message, the more people understand it. The young people that are coming up are seeing it and saying, “You know, look, this is somebody we can support.” Going into Kansas, the way I did, is all an opportunity for people to see Democrats with a different brand other than a farther left brand, that folks like Bernie Sanders [and] AOC [advocate]. And I'm not criticizing that brand. But for some, a lot of the states in this country, that is not a brand that Democrats can particularly run on.
The Gate: About your personal race, do you think your campaigns in Alabama helped start the state on a path away from a red electorate? Did it help with branding there?
Doug Jones: No, I don't think it helped as much as I thought it would. In part, because everybody got so excited with the race in 2017, that we had everybody running for office in 2018. And everybody got beat. And I kept telling them that we're gonna get beat. But they got demoralized a little bit. I think it helped a lot with Democrats in the midterms across the country in 2018. Because people saw in December of 2017, that Alabama could elect a Democrat, who is authentic, moderate, common sense, trying to work with on both sides of the aisle getting things done. Even though candidates like AOC got the attention, it was really the moderates, like Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria and Lucy McBath and those that really were the backbone. It's a little bit harder in Alabama where the legislature is so gerrymandered and the Trump vote in 2020 is so strong.
The Gate: Do you have any final thoughts about shifting Democrats’ reputation and how to attract positive national attention in those red states for Democrats?
Doug Jones: I really think that we have to do more than just wait for a good candidate to show up, or the candidate that will attract some attention. Democrats have to start investing in the South and the Midwest and in these red areas. Because it's not just the Senate. It's local congressional districts. It's the State House and the State Senate. It's the county commissioners. I think Democrats have to start investing more on the ground game, every day, every month of every year, to get that message out and to challenge those that are really not, in my view, representing the best interest, financial interest, well-being of folks in the South, and instead playing only to their interest in cultural issues, which are important. I don't want to make any mistake, that issues, cultural issues, religious issues, all of those are important to people, they really very much are. But we've got to throw a balance in there to say, “Yeah, we understand and we appreciate that. Yeah, but let me show you some other reasons why it doesn't have to be all or nothing”. And I think Democrats have to do a much better job of doing that on a daily basis. 24/7, 7 days a week, 52 weeks out of the year.
The image featured in this article is licensed from reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by the Digital Campaign Manager Doug Jones for Senate and can be found here.