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Respect your voters

Democrats are strongly united around their fear and loathing of Donald Trump. Party loyalists give him a 7 percent approval rating in the latest Gallup poll. But focusing on the president’s flaws masks serious splits that could limit Democratic chances of recapturing Congress this fall, or defeating Trump in 2020.

Two recent statements graphically illustrate this division. Hillary Clinton analyzed her defeat in 2016 by saying, “If you look at the map of the United States, there is all that red in the middle where Trump won. I won on the coasts … I won in the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward, and his whole campaign, ‘make America great again,’ was looking backwards.”

Compare that to Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers in western Pennsylvania, who praised Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Democrat running for Congress in suburban Pittsburgh: “He’s a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending Democrat.”

Lamb narrowly won his election. Clinton lost the same Congressional district by 20 points to Trump, on her way to losing Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes, or less than 1 percent. That defeat, combined with close collapses in Michigan and Wisconsin, cost her the White House.

Clinton did win the coasts, and those regions do tend to be “diverse” and “dynamic.” Democrats also do well in heartland urban centers like Chicago, Minneapolis and Denver.

But there’s a reason why Democrats have lost the presidency and both chambers of Congress. Clinton’s sneering comment about “all that red in the middle” that was “looking backwards” by backing Trump reveals a profound lack of respect and understanding for voters in “flyover” country.

This is hardly the first time. Clinton’s crack during the campaign that Trump supporters filled a “basket of deplorables” was, she admits, a “political gift” to the Republican nominee. And in 2008, Barack Obama described GOP voters as “bitter, they cling to guns and religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

Trump’s successful appeal to these disaffected voters was deeply cynical and insincere. A thrice-married billionaire from Manhattan has nothing in common with voters in places like Pennsylvania’s 18th district. He exploits their “antipathy to people who aren’t like them” in a dangerously demagogic manner.

But it was the prejudiced perspective voiced by Democrats like Obama and Clinton that gave Trump his opening: a perspective decidedly not shared by Conor Lamb. Lamb talked freely during the campaign about his Catholic faith and Roberts praised him as “God-fearing” — hardly a compliment in the relentlessly secular precincts of, say, Palo Alto or Cambridge.

Yet religious observance was a key variable in the 2016 election. Voters who attend worship services at least once a week, 33 percent of the total, backed Trump by 14 points. Those who “never” set foot in a sanctuary, about 22 percent, went for Clinton by 32 points.

The union leader also stressed Lamb’s “gun-owning” credentials; the Democratic candidate, a Marine, ran ads of himself blasting away at a rifle range. This is another critical fault line. About one-third of Americans own guns, and they backed Trump by 32 points. Non-gun owners supported Clinton by 35 points.

The threat to the Democrats is that the party’s left wing, the Sanders-Warren cabal, will dismiss Lamb’s victory as an aberration, cling to their fantasy that this is a left-leaning country, and try to purge candidates who don’t meet progressive litmus tests. They almost succeeded in ousting Rep. Dan Lipinski, an anti-abortion centrist in suburban Chicago, and more attacks from the left are looming in other primaries.

Only 26 percent of voters called themselves liberals in 2016, and yet an arithmetically challenged leftist, Bob Moser, wrote in Rolling Stone, “The America of the future looks absolutely nothing like the 18th district in Pennsylvania. And the future of the Democratic Party looks nothing like Conor Lamb.”

That might be true in California, which Clinton won by over 4 million votes, or New York, where she led by 1.7 million. But many parts of America, “all that red in the middle,” will continue to look very much like the 18th district of Pennsylvania. And more candidates like Conor Lamb are precisely what the Democrats need to return to power.

Democrats cannot give up their basic principles of equal rights, social justice and economic security. But too often they sound like cultural snobs who have lost respect for voters who own guns, attend church and feel dislocated by social and economic change.

And when you lose respect for your voters, you lose elections.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at

Cokie & Steve Roberts

Cokie & Steve Roberts

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