early and often

The 3 Democrats Who Could Save the Party

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

There have been plenty of laments about the state of the Democratic Party heading into 2024. Party operatives and pols are fearful that Joe Biden will be too old or politically damaged to run successfully for reelection. His vice-president, Kamala Harris, is even more unpopular than he is, and the bench of Democrats prepared to step in isn’t inspiring a great deal of confidence.

A new generation of Democratic stars, however, can be minted — if only they somehow win this fall. Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania each have Democrats who have the potential to reverse a crippling loss of working-class support in the industrial Midwest, where Barack Obama once was popular. After Donald Trump flipped all three states in 2016, Biden only managed to win Pennsylvania and Michigan back by minuscule margins, while Trump dominated Ohio again.

The path to the presidency runs through at least Michigan and Pennsylvania, and the ability of the Democrats to retain and build on their Senate majority absolutely depends on winning Senate races in all three states. Competing for and winning large numbers of white and Black working-class voters is essential for a party that is already hindered in the Senate and the Electoral College.

The midterm environment will be rough on all Democrats, as it always is on whatever party holds the White House. Compounding the headwind for Democrats is inflation, especially gas prices. While other sectors of the economy should offer relief for consumers in the coming months — used-car prices are falling and the real-estate market might cool — there is little evidence Americans won’t be paying at least $4 a gallon for gas come November. The war in Ukraine, along with declining production in the fracking industry, is fueling a price surge that will take time to ease off. Inflation will be a millstone around the neck of every Democratic candidate.

Gretchen Whitmer

It can be argued Biden should have tapped Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and not Harris to run on his ticket. Whitmer, who is up for reelection in November, proved in 2018 she could win statewide in a competitive swing state. Republicans are relatively strong in Michigan because so many white working-class voters, once the backbone of the Democratic coalition, have fled to the GOP. Unions no longer hold great sway in the state, and rural areas hate Whitmer as much as Biden. In the early days of the pandemic, it wasn’t hard to find “My Governor Is an Idiot” signs plastered on lawns in small towns.

A moderate, Whitmer won in 2018 on a bread-and-butter promise to “fix the damn roads” and bolster the state’s ailing infrastructure. It was a good lesson for Democrats — lean into popular issues that cross party lines and you’re more likely to win. Since then, Whitmer has had the steep challenge of governing with a Republican-controlled legislature increasingly in the thrall of Trump. One campaign pitch that was a nonstarter in the legislature would have crushed her today: a significant hike on the gas tax to fund road improvements. She has bypassed lawmakers to issue a $3.5 billion bonding plan and will be able to direct federal funds from the Biden infrastructure bill throughout the state. The huge new influx in funding won’t be enough to meet Michigan’s long-term challenges, but it’s a crucial start and a talking point for Whitmer on the campaign trail. The looming repeal of Roe v. Wade could also boost Whitmer’s prospects: Michigan has a draconian 1931 law on the books banning abortion. Whitmer’s reelection might be a referendum on a conservative Supreme Court decision that polls poorly.

More crucial, perhaps, is that Whitmer could luck out like Senator Gary Peters did in 2014, when he breezed to victory in his first Senate campaign while Democrats were routed across the country. He benefited, in part, from scandal-scarred and feckless Republican opposition. In her case, five Republican candidates for governor were recently purged from the ballot for allegedly submitting fraudulent signatures. Among them was James Craig, the former Detroit police chief who was regarded as formidable opposition. A Black Republican, Craig could have recreated the coalition that nearly elected John James to the Senate in 2020. Instead, she may be up against someone like Ryan Kelley, a current polling leader who is most known for appearing at the Capitol riot. Kelley, a real-estate agent new to politics, gained a minor amount of fame for organizing against Whitmer’s early COVID restrictions.

If Whitmer survives this fall, she will probably move to the upper tier of future presidential candidates. And her star potential is real. Locally, she has managed to separate herself from a damaged national Democratic brand. A recent poll found she held a 49 percent approval rating in the state, compared to Biden’s dismal 36 percent rating. (The bizarre kidnapping trial did not affect her standing.)

John Fetterman

The caveat for Whitmer is the same for John Fetterman in Pennsylvania: A weaker Republican could still ride a red wave to victory. If polls turn badly enough against Biden and other national Democrats, replacement-level Republicans can coast. Fetterman, like Whitmer, has already won statewide — he’s the lieutenant governor — and appears as well-positioned as any nonincumbent Democrat to win in November. The former mayor of the town of Braddock won a commanding primary victory over Representative Conor Lamb (even after suffering a stroke) and has managed, for the moment at least, to appeal both to progressives and moderates in the Democratic coalition.

Though most known for his imposing frame, copious tattoos, and affinity for wearing shorts wherever he goes, Fetterman is a much savvier politician than he appears at first glance. An endorser of Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, Fetterman has retained grassroots progressive support by backing a $15 minimum wage and ending the filibuster while subtly pivoting to reach voters beyond the young left. He is a supporter of hydrofracking, a huge industry in Pennsylvania, and has said he would not be the Squad’s first senator. He is opposed to lifting pandemic-era border restrictions and has espoused more conventional, if hawkish, foreign-policy views. His style, whether affected or not, is blatantly blue-collar, and it helps him couch left-of-center views for voters who may not otherwise choose a Democrat. Unlike most Democrats, he can probably comfortably pivot to the center in the general election and not bleed much support from the base of the party.

Fetterman is also a white man who has been dogged by a 2013 incident in which he brandished a shotgun to stop and detain an unarmed Black jogger, telling police he had heard gunshots. An officer who patted the man down found no weapons and later released him. Fetterman defended his actions in a campaign video and the incident was not an apparent drag on him in the primary. In a general election against a Republican — either hedge-fund CEO David McCormick or celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz — GOP operatives could seek to depress Black turnout by emphasizing the incident on TV and in digital ads.

The looming question for Fetterman is whether he can win back working-class voters — or get them to vote at all — in a very tough cycle. Fetterman posted his best primary numbers in areas where Democrats have struggled in recent years, including the Mahoning Valley and other rural stretches of the state. If Fetterman can beat Oz or McCormick, he will probably vault to the short list of future presidential contenders, having defied Democratic branding challenges to win in places where support for the party was otherwise vanishing.

Tim Ryan

The Democratic candidate for Senate in Ohio, Tim Ryan, is less compelling than Whitmer or Fetterman and is probably best remembered for launching a long-shot bid for president and attempting, with little success, to take the speakership away from Nancy Pelosi. A congressman going on two decades, Ryan is still only 48, and he is tailoring his message as well as could in a place that isn’t electing many Democrats statewide any longer. A product of the working class himself and a fierce critic of globalization, Ryan is, like Senator Sherrod Brown, as ideal a candidate as could be fielded for the Buckeye State at the moment.

J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee, has his own working-class pedigree but has grown wealthy as Peter Thiel’s protégé in the world of finance. It is not hard to imagine Ryan running Obama’s Mitt Romney playbook on Vance, mocking him for his 5,000-square-foot home with a carriage house. Ryan is fundraising well and is virtually tied with Vance, according to a recent poll.

But Ohio remains forbidding terrain for any Democrat. Brown is the last statewide Democrat there and could very well lose in two years. General-election state polls can also underestimate Republican support, as they did in 2020. Just ask Sara Gideon, who looked like she would upset Susan Collins in Maine only to lose. For Ryan to win, Vance will have to falter dramatically. If he does, Ryan will instantly become one of the bright stars of his party. He’ll have come a long way from meekly dropping out of a presidential race.

The 3 Democrats Who Could Save the Party