Barbershop: What A Democrat's Red-District Win Means For Midterms
Conor Lamb's upset win in Pennsylvania's special election poses questions for his party. Three Democrats talk strategy: Rep. Luis Gutierrez, strategist Maria Cardona and Guy Cecil of Priorities USA.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for The Barbershop - that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. In the chairs today, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois. He's with us from our studios at WBEZ in Chicago.
Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.
LUIS GUTIERREZ: Hey, Michel. Good to be with you.
MARTIN: And Guy Cecil is here. He's the chairman of Priorities USA, the big Democratic superPAC. In fact, it's considered the biggest. He's with us in our studios in Washington, D.C.
GUY CECIL: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us in D.C., Maria Cardona. She's a Democratic strategist with the Dewey Square Group. She served as an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Welcome back to you as well.
MARIA CARDONA: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Now, a reasonable person might be saying, this was a big political week. Why are we only talking to Democrats? And the reason is that we wanted to know what Democrats are saying about what they see as the way forward after a victory this past week - a tight victory, just a few hundred votes, but a victory nonetheless - for Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election for a congressional seat in Western Pennsylvania that went big for Trump in 2016.
So the first question is, what does the win mean? And I'm going to start with you, Guy Cecil, and that's because you've been quoted as saying that Mr. Lamb's win means that Democrats need to, quote, unquote, "meet voters where they live." And I wonder, what does that mean? Does that mean compromising on progressive issues, like Mr. Lamb notably downplayed opposition to Trump?
He took a conservative position on gun control. He was even photographed with one of his campaign ads doing target practice with a machine gun. He said that he personally opposes abortion, but he doesn't favor anti-abortion laws. I mean, is that the path to victory in November in your view?
CECIL: Well, I think part of the path to victory is making sure that we are actually contesting as many places as possible - that we are taking an expansive view of what it means for Democrats to be successful. It's not enough just to pick up a few seats here or there if we're leaving congressional seats, state legislative seats, on the table. And certainly, there are going to be times in those places where candidates disagree with the large majority of the party.
But it's also important to note that Conor Lamb ran against the president's tax bill. Conor Lamb spoke on behalf of protecting entitlements. In fact, he's one of the few Democratic candidates that I can remember who spent that significant portion of his victory speech actually thanking organized labor, which was pretty critical to his victory. And so certainly, there are core values that we care about as Democrats. But we have to make sure we give some space - that we don't just become a party of litmus tests. Because I think that's ultimately what's going to lead to the destruction of the Republican Party.
MARTIN: OK. Congressman Gutierrez, what do you think that Conor Lamb's victory means? And is there some bigger lesson there, or is this a one-off?
GUTIERREZ: I don't have any problem with people speaking to the constituency that exists in a congressional district. I think that's part of the answer. If that's what we're going to do, then we're not going to be really true to who we are, to our core principles and to our beliefs. And I think that that would be - I don't know, alienating from the general public. I don't think they want us to say, hmm, let me think what you're thinking, and let me repeat that to you, and let me get nice, soft and cozy with you.
But I do think you can speak to a district and say, hey, I'm a candidate that fits. And if it's real - if it's authentic - then you win. So I don't have any trouble with authenticity from Democrats viewing (unintelligible). But I would say, at the same time, that I think you have to also think about expanding the base of voters - that is the number of people that actually go to the polls on Election Day.
And so look - I'm going to leave Congress next January 2, and here's my focus. It's going to be in Pennsylvania. It's going to be in Ohio. It's going to be in Michigan. It's going to be in Wisconsin. Because I think we can take literally tens of thousands of permanent residents that today are permanent residents that can become citizens. I think that investment is going to pay off in 2020, No. 1.
I think we need to invest more in Florida, where I'm going to be spending some time. We have a crisis in Puerto Rico. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the island, most of them to Florida. You can't become president without winning Florida. And I'm going to go down there and say that Florida is really a metaphor for all that is wrong with Donald Trump.
GUTIERREZ: The way he's treating Puerto Ricans is the way he treats transgender community or women or any number of communities like Muslims and others. And so I'm going to go speak to them. So I think also expanding the base of voters is important.
MARTIN: OK. Maria, to that point, though, this was a special election, so Conor Lamb was chosen by party operatives. There was not a primary. And, you know, you remember in 2016 there was a whole big discussion about that - to superdelegates - you're one - have too much power or not enough? And so what do you say? What do you think this means?
CARDONA: So I think I'm going to kind of put the two opinions - Guy's opinion and the congressman's opinion - together because I don't think we have to choose. I think that the Democratic Party represents both the progressive values that we all value as a party and those voters that we have not yet spoken to, which means the voters that Conor Lamb spoke to in Pennsylvania, the voters that Doug Jones spoke to in Alabama as well as the voters and voters-to-be that Congressman Gutierrez is talking about.
MARTIN: OK, but then, you know what? Sometimes you do have to choose, which - what about this whole question of, say, the banking bill? The Senate just passed a bill that would roll back some of the regulations on banks and lenders. A number of Democratic senators voted for it. One of them was the newest senator, Doug Jones of Alabama, who was elected with strong support from African-American voters.
And some of the African-American media right now are furious about that. They're saying, you know, what was the point of voting for you if you're not going to act in our interest? So is that what a big tent means? Do what you need to - you see what I'm saying?
MARTIN: What they're saying is that the big tent means do whatever you need to do to get elected. Where does that leave the people who vote for you...
MARTIN: ...If they don't agree with you?
CARDONA: Well, I think, again, to Congressman Gutierrez's point, the candidate - or, in this case, the senator - and once you are elected, you have to be true to your own values as well. If this is where Doug Jones - if this is what he really believes, and he is voting his conscience, then I think that's fine. And he is going to have to explain that to his voters.
And perhaps there are other positions where his voters do say, OK. You will be representing my interests where it comes to that. And then they're going to have to make a choice. So yes, at the end of the day, it is all about choices.
But I don't think the Democratic Party has to choose between the progressive wing and the - and versus moderate every single time when you look at every district. And you don't have to make the judgment as to, OK. This is a moderate district. You can't talk about progressive values. Because I don't think it's either-or.
CARDONA: You know what I mean? So let me...
CARDONA: ...Give you an example. Conor Lamb, for example, to Guy's point - he talked about - more than so many people talked about the Affordable Care Act. I mean, I don't think you can get more progressive than that. That he won on that more so than on the tax bill.
MARTIN: Let's talk about Nancy Pelosi, though. So, Congressman, I want to go with you you on this because you don't get to vote on this anymore since you're...
MARTIN: ...Leaving Congress next year. And some people are saying, look, it's - Nancy Pelosi's an example of what needs to change. What do you say about that?
GUTIERREZ: Here's part of my problem with that. It's the Republicans' vilification of Nancy Pelosi. And I just want to repeat this because I think it's important. I mean, if it was a he and not a she, would we be having the same kind of vilification, and would it be having the same effect, and would we be doing it as ruthlessly as we are? I don't think so.
Having said that, look. I voted for her for speaker each and every time she comes up. I think it's a red herring in all of this. If people are going to vote for you or against you as a member of Congress - that is to say, they're going to put who you're going to vote for for speaker above health care, immigration, reproductive rights, decency in America, standing up to Donald Trump, then I think we really have a - we've really gone to the bottom of the barrel.
MARTIN: Well, there are, though, ads about Nancy Pelosi. So, Guy Cecil...
CECIL: I agree.
MARTIN: ...I'm going to ask you about that. What do you - is Nancy Pelosi an issue? I mean, is that - is the leadership - I mean, for some people, it's a metaphor at least as much as it is an issue itself. The argument is that the leadership is - of the Democrats, the visible leadership, are just - forgive me - apologies - too old.
CECIL: Sure. But this argument has existed basically since the beginning of time. I mean, when it wasn't Nancy Pelosi, it was Harry Reid. Tomorrow, it will be Chuck Schumer. Three days from now, it will be Jim Clyburn. Four days from now, it'll be somebody else. I mean, at some point, I'm not in favor of giving Republicans the power over the Democratic Party to choose who our leaders are. If individual candidates want to engage in that debate, engage in that debate. Ultimately, these elections are not going to be decided on Nancy Pelosi just like they weren't decided on Harry Reid or someone else. And so...
MARTIN: What is it going to be decided on?
CECIL: From my own perspective, it's three things. First, it's going to be health care and taxes. And what that represents in terms of what side you are on - you know, Priorities did a poll of Obama-Trump voters. And for the first time in our polling just this last month, a plurality of Obama-Trump voters now believe the president cares more about protecting the wealthy than helping them. There are these changes that are happening that were reflected in the Conor Lamb vote.
Number two - and I think this is built in - the Democratic base is more motivated and more excited about this election than they have been in any midterm election in a decade. And I think when you look at African-American turnout in Alabama, you look at a state Senate special election where we had the first Latina elected to the state Senate in Florida, you're seeing that motivation. I think it's going to be a very big deal.
And third, many of these House districts are in the suburbs. And if Donald Trump wants to campaign and go to suburbs and talk about how great of a president he is, what he's going to find is an enormous backlash of moderate voters, progressive voters. And I think it's only going to help us win.
GUTIERREZ: Michel, I think...
MARTIN: Go ahead, Congressman - quickly.
GUTIERREZ: I think we are very excited, but everybody has a base. And when you forget about your base, you lose elections.
MARTIN: Before we...
GUTIERREZ: And the Democratic Party base are African-Americans, are Latino. And in this case, regardless of ethnicity or race, they're women.
CARDONA: Yeah. I agree.
GUTIERREZ: And if you don't speak to them very, very clearly, guess what? That enthusiasm is going to quickly die out.
MARTIN: You didn't leave me enough time, congressman, to ask you if you were serious about offering Andrew McCabe a job...
MARTIN: ...Which you tweeted earlier today?
GUTIERREZ: Can I say something? Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm on the Judiciary Committee. I can use him. He should call me Monday. I think what they...
GUTIERREZ: ...Did to him is despicable.
MARTIN: All right.
GUTIERREZ: If he needs a few more days, let's put in those few more days and get the man his pension.
MARTIN: OK. That's Congressman Luis Gutierrez. He's a Democrat from Illinois. He joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Also with us, Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist here in Washington, D.C. Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA. Thank you all so much for being with us.
CARDONA: Thank you, Michel.
CECIL: Thank you.
GUTIERREZ: Thank you, Michel.