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Bob Hennelly

How Democrats can build a 2024 blowout

Starbucks workers strike outside a Starbucks coffee shop on November 17, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
An earlier version of this story appeared at Insider NJ. It has been revised and updated by the author. Used by permission.

Before the empowering implications of the 2022 midterms could be fully appreciated, Donald Trump declared he was running for president and the Republicans won the House by the slimmest of margins.

Those GOP gyrations, after the red wave failed to materialize, distracted attention from the historic opportunity that has opened for Democrats to build toward a blowout in 2024 — by building on a platform that for branding purposes we should call the Better Deal for American families. 

Looking at the confluence of demographic trends and the statehouse gains in 2022 in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it's possible we can actually take big strides toward voting the GOP into essential extinction by 2024, especially if Donald Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee.

You won't hear this from the corporate news media, which for three consecutive federal election cycles has failed to accurately predict the trajectory of the American polity, and has instead promoted narratives that favor what their focus groups determine will generate clickbait and deliver paying customers looking to buy a Mercedes or book a Viking cruise.

The revolution will not be televised — because the producers and programmers want you to remain a passive consumer sitting at home.

The Beltway polling and media pundits, with the notable exception of Michael Moore, wanted us to believe that down the homestretch of the national midterm campaign, outrage over the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade had been eclipsed by concern over the price of gasoline. Again, the media sees us only as consumers. Nothing else matters.

You have to wonder just how many women decision-makers were in those high-level corporate news network meetings.

What this reveals, as it did in 2016 when the same outlets failed to see or comprehend the rise of Donald Trump, is that the Beltway consensus is completely disconnected from the actual circumstances of the American people. In state after state, whether red or blue, thanks to an increasingly youthful and diverse electorate we see an emerging consensus that supports a woman's right to chose and other more progressive causes like Medicaid expansion and a living wage. 

Shailly Gupta Barnes is policy director at the Kairos Center and the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is co-chaired by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and carries on the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Reproductive rights measures passed in more liberal states but also in Kentucky and Kansas," Barnes said. "Medicaid expansion passed in South Dakota, that's a pretty red state — Arizona voted to cap medical debt. Obviously the political divide is still there, by party lean, yet we are seeing that issues that disproportionately affect poor and low-income people are gaining support, whether it be reproductive rights, health care initiatives, increasing the minimum wage or even proposals for rent control — these all had support in different parts of the country, and that was pretty unexpected."

This election was about a lot more than the complete electoral repudiation of Donald Trump. Throughout the campaign, the corporate news media failed to grasp the compound impact on the electorate of an ongoing mass death event, a violent right-wing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and unbridled corporate greed. They insisted on relying on the obsolete metronome of history they have come to rely on entirely to predict the future. 

This election was about a lot more than the repudiation of Donald Trump. The corporate media failed to grasp the compound impact of an ongoing mass death event, a violent right-wing insurrection and unbridled corporate greed.

Just how relevant is that Gallup "right way/wrong way" poll two years into a pandemic that killed more than a million Americans and sidelined millions more from the workforce? Perhaps media executives fell under the hypnotic repetition of the billions of dollars in right-wing anti-Democrat attack ads they ran that linked President Biden to an alleged crime wave that was creating mass chaos in the streets.

In both "reliably blue" New Jersey and New York, establishment Democrats started to believe the right-wing propaganda and ill-informed punditry about an impending red wave and found themselves on the defensive. Ironically, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lost his seat in the northern suburbs of New York under a barrage of TV ads that deceitfully attacked him as soft on crime.

This propaganda wave very likely disempowered the Democratic base, which dramatically underperformed in both states. Who wants to be on a losing team? That's what the media told us the Democrats were certain to be.  

"You look at this election, and the issues that folks are most focused on are the economy and crime. And on both fronts, the Democrats own it," Assemblyman Mike Lawler, Maloney's victorious Republican opponent, told CNN. "For the first time in our nation's history, [Democrats] own everything in Washington, Albany and New York City all at once."

Our regional political atmospherics are made toxic by the calliope of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, a right-wing tabloid, and the talk-radio behemoth WABC, both of which proclaim that New York City is immersed in a crime wave of unprecedented proportions. They always fail to note that the city's murder rate, which was as high as 2,250 a year in the early 1990s, is just a fraction of that today — and recent increases in crime are relatively small in historical terms. If it doesn't fit the Trump narrative, just omit it.

The reality is the 2022 results are not about Joe Biden but about the American people. It's clear enough that Americans are ready to embrace a 21st-century version of the New Deal that will uplift tens of millions of America's low-wage and low-income households who are the backbone of the essential workforce. We see this not just reflected in the success of incumbent congressional Democrats, including some of the most progressive, but in the dramatic increase in the number of successful union organizing drives across the county in places like Amazon and Starbucks. 

Last year, 47 million Americans left their jobs, which is that's four times the number Americans who belong to all member unions of the AFL-CIO, which has been in decline for more than 20 years and has made concession after concession to corporate America, accordingly diminishing its influence in Washington.

When it comes to engaging more voters and building their base, professional Democrats in California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey blew it. Perhaps corporate Democrats, busy trading stocks in those states, don't want to wake the "sleeping giant" the Rev. Barber references, comprising tens of millions of registered voters who often stay home because they are not engaged.

This year, more than 46 percent of voters turned out for the midterms. In battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where governorships were also at stake, turnout was more than 15 percent higher than in New Jersey, where it dropped to just above 40 percent. By contrast, in the 2018 midterms, New Jersey's turnout topped 55 percent. 

Similar drops happened in Texas where turnout dropped from 45.6 percent in 2018 turnout to 42.4 percent this year. California went from 48.3 percent to 43.9 percent, and Florida saw a similar drop-off.

Turnout was strong in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania — but dropped off noticeably in New Jersey, Texas, California and Florida. That probably handed Republicans the House.

In the 2020 presidential election, New Jersey's turnout topped 70 percent, one of the highest in the nation. But voter turnout apparently wasn't much of a priority in this most recent election. The state's AFL-CIO chose to put incumbency over the fundamental labor right of women's reproductive choices by endorsing two Republican incumbents, Reps. Jeff Van Drew and Chris Smith. That cynical impulse to follow politics as usual resulted helped hand the House speaker's gavel to the GOP.

In 2021, with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy facing an energetic challenge from Republican former Assemblyman Jack Ciatarelli, just 40 percent of voters bothered to vote, the lowest level in a century. Just a year earlier, Joe Biden had beat Trump by 16 points in New Jersey, yet Murphy eked out a startlingly narrow margin of victory from a disengaged electorate that also rejected veteran Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney. 

This year in the state's 2nd congressional district, where Van Drew faced Democratic former prosecutor Tim Alexander, turnout in some wards in Atlantic City, a traditional Democratic stronghold, failed break 10 percent. Van Drew was initially elected as a Democrat in this classic "Obama to Trump" district, one of almost 20 in the nation that went for Barack Obama twice before flipping for Donald Trump in 2016. 

The 2nd district includes all or part of five counties in southern New Jersey, including some of the poorest parts of the state. In Cumberland County, according to the United Way's ALICE Report, more than half the population either lives below the poverty line or struggles to make ends meet month to month. In Atlantic County that proportion is 46 percent, while in Salem County it's 44 percent. 

In 2019, Van Drew switched parties, telling CNN that an unnamed Democratic county chair had instructed him to vote to impeach President Trump or lose that chair's endorsement. Unlike Smith, New Jersey's other Republican member, Van Drew voted against both certifying President Biden's election and establishing the House select committee to investigate the Capitol Insurrection.

Van Drew got 128,199 votes this year, to Alexander's 79,362. Two years ago, with Biden at the top of the ticket, the district ws much closer: Van Drew prevailed with 195,526 votes to Democrat Amy Kennedy's highly respectable 173,849. 

"We came up short and that's on me," said Tim Alexander in a post-election phone interview. "There's no one else to blame. We didn't raise enough money to get the message across to enough people, and I think that was evident."

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Democrat-turned-Republican, represents some of the poorest parts of New Jersey. Flipping that district back is a crucial priority.

Alexander said that whether or not he runs for Congress again, he is committed to helping the Democratic Party get "50,000 new registrants district wide, or better, in order to flip this district. That's a lot of work. If we start to get some fundraising in April and launch people in August and September we can get that number by the end of the year. The state legislative races will benefit and it will make it easier for the next congressional candidate.

"Let's get Democrats energized, engaged and registered and listen to what people want, especially young people, and work to make those things a reality," he concluded. 

Chris Estevez is New Jersey legislative and political director for the Communications Workers of America. His union opted to work for Alexander because, Estevez said, it sees the long term potential for building community in places like Cumberland County, which have long been ignored and abused by the state's power structure, with serious consequences for the people who live there.

"We are working on a long game in building our communities and building our community's involvement in elections," he said. "So for us it's not about immediate elections, it's about building our voice. I don't think the Democratic Party [in New Jersey] had confidence in its message towards the end and it didn't stay the course. If it had put some resources in to push out the vote, we could have had different results."

Estevez says short-term infusions of campaign cash are beside the point. "People get asked to give money to political campaigns in the months leading up to the election," he said, "but what really needs to happen is people need to be asked to support community-building all year round."

According to the county ratings of population health complied by the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute, Cumberland County ranks lowest among New Jersey's 21 counties, with 25 percent of residents in poor or fair health, compared to 16 percent in the state and 17 percent nationwide. The teen birth rate in Cumberland County is three times higher than the state's as a whole.

Almost one in five young people between the ages of 16 to 19 in Cumberland County are "disconnected youth" who are neither working nor going to school. That's more than three times the state's rate and more than twice the national percentage. Multiple social science and labor studies have documented the linkage between that disconnected status and depressed lifetime earnings. In the 2nd congressional district, 13.4 percent of young people aged 16 to 24 — close to 10,000 people — fall into this at-risk category. The crisis of disconnected youth was greatly exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, which upended hundreds of thousands of families and disrupted basic societal institutions, including public education at all levels.

There are no doubt thousands of single-parent households in the 2nd district who number among the five million nationally who failed to collect their portions of the $14 billion in expanded child tax credits passed as part of the American Rescue Plan in 2021. It was permitted to lapse by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who theorized without evidence that the additional money might go to drugs and alcohol. 

Estevez says his union partners with Citizen Action, the nonprofit consumer and tenant advocacy group, to work in neighborhoods with services that help struggling households with free tax preparation, tenant advocacy, health care and seminars on home ownership.

Democrats need a door-to-door game plan on a much larger scale, to find the millions among America's struggling households who are entitled to the expanded child tax credit but have not applied. When you help families actualize that way you greatly improve their lives and improve the chances they will want to claim their stake in America's future by voting, because at that point the connection between social policy and their lives becomes real and tangible.

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