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Shifting focus to white voters divides Democrats

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Representative Linda Sanchez waved on stage in September.Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s White House victory, fueled in part by nativist rhetoric, has exposed schisms over race in the Democratic Party, as minority lawmakers worry that the party will abandon its diverse constituency in the hunt to win back working-class whites.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the former head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and activists who work with both groups cautioned in interviews against turning away from the coalition that helped President Obama win two terms.

“By focusing in on, primarily, the white middle and working class, and by taking for granted the black working class or the black underclass, the party will add an arm and lose a body,” said Representative Bobby Rush, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from Chicago. “The black vote is the foundation of the Democratic Party and we won’t be taken for granted.”


The Democrats’ internal debate over identity politics, and how much to prioritize issues of race, has been fueled by some prominent congressional Democrats who called on the party to develop a retooled, economics-first message specifically targeting white working-class voters — the group some analysts deemed responsible for Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

“[Clinton] should have won this election by 10 percentage points,” Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who challenged Clinton in the Democratic primary, said after the general election. “The question is: Why is it that millions of white working-class people who voted for Obama turned their backs on the Democratic Party?”

The data back up Sanders’ point. Compared to Obama in 2012, Clinton fared significantly worse among white voters in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan — and lost all four states.

In the latter two states, Clinton received only 42 percent and 36 percent of the white vote, respectively, compared to Obama’s 48 percent and 44 percent in 2012.


Vice President Joe Biden, whose working-class roots in Scranton, Pa., are a core part of his political identity, has said he believes the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party have not “shown enough respect” for disaffected whites.

Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, mounted an unsuccessful bid against Nancy Pelosi of California as House minority leader in part, he said, because the party had been overtaken by “coastal elites” who place an outsized priority on social and cultural issues. Another vocal congressional Democrat, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, went further, denouncing the party’s recent focus on issues of race and identity.

“We had a pure social, cultural agenda this election cycle,” Schrader said. “It’s time for us to get back to [economics].”

Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, walked back to vote in the House Democratic Caucus elections on Capitol Hill on Nov. 30.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Prominent Democrats said a balance needs to be struck. Clinton also underperformed Obama among young people, nonwhites, and college-educated voters, so Democrats must also maintain their efforts to pursue those groups.

Furthermore, analysts have said, the country’s demographics are changing in the Democrats’ favor — as it becomes more diverse, such states as Georgia, Arizona, and even Texas may come within reach.

“I don’t want to overcorrect here,” said Representative Linda Sanchez, a California congresswoman and the former head of the Hispanic caucus. “I don’t think we need to lose one part of our base to appease another. The Democratic message appeals across the ethnic and racial divides.”

Issues of identity like race, gender, and sexuality are ultimately intertwined with the economy, and not acknowledging that could threaten to make the party vulnerable to widespread voter apathy among nonwhites, according to Carol Anderson, a professor who specializes in African-American studies and history at Emory University.


“The problem with this argument is that those who want to get rid of identity politics seem to only be interested in getting them to stop talking about black people or immigrants,” Anderson said. “African-Americans had never had the luxury of looking for perfection among politicians. But what African-Americans are looking for is someone who ‘gets it’ . . . and to craft an economic solution that ignores the way race and racism has played is not a solution.”

Anderson also challenged the party to ask a more fundamental question.

“For those saying we need to eschew identity politics but also saying we need to speak to white working-class voters — do they not have identity?” she asked.

In a sense, the professor and some of the lawmakers are reacting to the open debate among Democrats about the direction of their party.

Sanders, for one, who did not return a request to comment, has repeatedly said he does not want the Democratic Party to abandon minority communities. Ryan, who led the charge against Pelosi, has said he favors a message that answers the call of struggling Americans and that would speak to all races or creeds.

But some lawmakers, such as the fiery Rush, are determined to pressure party leaders for a continued focus on people of color.


“If I see my party not considering, even more intensely than they’ve done in the past, the economic, social, and political climate of the people I represent, the people I’ve been fighting for all my life, then I’m going to raise hell,” Rush said.

One example of the direction Democrats could turn is Representative Keith Ellison, who is seeking to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison is a Midwestern liberal with strong support among unions and the middle class. He is also black and a Muslim.

If he is selected, it could signal that the party intends to merge its message of diversity with one of economic progress.

Ellison’s chief challenger, Tom Perez, the secretary of labor, is also a liberal with a diverse background.

“Going into the midterms and 2020, a compelling message would be one that brings the country together,” said Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “[It would] acknowledge the racial challenges that we face but charts a common future in which everyone is included. And everyone is included in terms of our economic stake in the future.”

In interviews, lawmakers rejected drastic changes to the party’s focus.

Sanchez, who was recently promoted to the House Democratic Leadership team, acknowledged that Democrats can sometimes overemphasize diversity, especially in explicit ways that can make others feel excluded.

It’s about threading a needle, she said, and recognizing the audience.

“If I go into a union hall in Pennsylvania, I may not talk about immigration. But if I go to a union hall in New Mexico or Texas, I may talk about immigration,” Sanchez said. “You have to focus on the most important message to the audience.”


Robin Kelly, a Democratic lawmaker from suburban Illinois, advocated for a similar subtlety.

“I think that we can talk about economics, and that we can do it under a big tent,” Kelly said.

When she was introduced as a new member of the House Democratic Leadership team, Sanchez chose not to speak about her roots as a child of Mexican immigrants and instead identified herself as a working mother, empathetic to the common person in difficult economic times.

Her choice was intentional.

“Diversity should speak for itself,” she said.

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@
. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.