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Two presidential candidates emerged from the election

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Douglas Cohn

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Monday, November 12, 2018

The midterm elections flipped control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democrats and expanded the number of Republican held seats in the U.S. Senate. The voters sent a mixed message for Democrats to decipher as they look toward 2020.

Which messages worked and which candidates won in the midterms offer a road map for Democrats. Progressive gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Georgia came up just short despite heavy media coverage and rallies held by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and in Georgia, Oprah Winfrey.

While the race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp could go to a runoff in Georgia, the overall results suggest that the most progressive Democratic candidates succeeded in districts that are compatible, but faltered statewide. In Florida and Georgia, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates were African-American, and Trump’s openly racist rhetoric may have encouraged just enough people to vote their prejudices.

So what message do Democrats take from the midterms in their search for a 2020 nominee? We’re focusing on two very different candidates, one a proud centrist who works across party lines in the Senate, the other an inspirational progressive who achieved a national following for a Senate race he lost.

First up is Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who cruised to reelection in Minnesota, and who the country took notice of during the Kavanaugh hearings. She is a former attorney general, and her skillful but friendly questioning of Judge Kavanaugh, now Justice Kavanaugh, distinguished her during those contentious hearings.

You’ll remember she asked Kavanaugh if he’d ever blacked out from drinking, prefacing her question by noting that her father, now sober, had been an alcoholic. Kavanaugh shot back, “No, have you?” He later apologized but the cameras captured his angry retort along with Klobuchar’s cool and dignified demeanor.

But she is also something of a character. Displaying her wit and self-confidence as a speaker at the 2009 Washington Press Club Foundation dinner, she said of her first foray into politics: “I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends.” One can only imagine what Trump – who made an issue of Pres. Obama’s birthplace and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s, D-Mass., claim of Native-American ancestry – would do with this or guess how she would force him back onto substantive matters.

Klobuchar is centrism at its best. She holds her ground, she has broad support. She can win over Independents and Republicans.

At the more progressive end of the scale, Robert Francis (Beto) O’Rourke was an obscure three-term member of Congress from El Paso, Texas when he decided to run against Republican Senator Ted Cruz. It looked like a hopeless task, but he waged a social media campaign that captured the imagination of young people across the country. He visited every county in Texas. Many people hadn’t seen a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson when he first ran for Congress in 1937.

O’Rourke got 48 percent of the vote in Texas against a sitting senator. That counts for something, and it would not be surprising if he made a run for the White House. He has an inspirational, Obama-like message, and he refused to be swayed from his progressive stances on immigration and health care.

The distance between Klobuchar and O’Rourke on policy issues is not that great. And it wasn’t that great a divide between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016. But the differences between those two candidates became divisive and bitter, and that impacted their followers.

Democrats captured the House in the midterms with a disciplined message on health care, and by staying away from the intra-mural fights between center left and far left. That’s the other take away: If Democrats are going to defeat Trump in 2020, they’ll have to keep their eye on the prize, and take a page from Klobuchar and O’Rourke, a politics rooted in values and goals that can appeal to voters across the Hillary-Bernie spectrum.

Washington Merry-Go-Round presents today’s events in historical perspective. Douglas Cohn is a columnist, speaker and author of political and historical nonfiction. Eleanor Clift is political reporter, author, a contributor to MSNBC and blogger for The Daily Beast.

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