We should have known the conventional wisdom was wrong on June 13, 2017. On that date, six months after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the mid-term primaries kicked off in Virginia pitting Tom Perriello, a young, energetic, left-wing populist against Ralph Northam, a moderate who was supposedly out of step with the new energy on the left. In this race to determine the nominee for governor, the smart money was on Perriello who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders. The polls closed at 7pm as election junkies grabbed slices of pizza, fired up their spreadsheets, and steeled themselves for a long night of precinct reports and punditry. But it was over before the pizza got cold when at 7:05 pm the race was called for Northam. He didn’t just win, he dominated by a margin of 56-44%.
Fifteen months later, the primary season drew to a close with the centrist Andrew Cuomo doubling up the liberal Cynthia Nixon. In between, 23 million people cast their ballots for Democratic candidates in primaries across fifty states. That was 4 million more than the number of people who voted for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. Forget the public opinion polls, these were people coming out in numbers never seen in a mid-term primary.
Like the Virginia race, the primaries were cast as a battle between a surging, populist, energetic, socialist left against a dying, outgunned, outhustled establishment middle. Centrism was dead, some pundits breathlessly wrote. But something happened along the way. These legions of voters from sea to shining sea confounded the pundits and mostly chose an impassioned and diverse group of centrist Democrats over the progressives to take on the GOP in the midterms.
Yes, on occasions a candidate from the far left triumphed, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who won an inspired race against incumbent Joe Crowley. But for every Ocasio-Cortez there was an Abigail Spanberger, a Lauren Underwood, an Elissa Slotkin, or a Colin Allred – moderate and mainstream Democrats winning races in swing districts that would decide whether or not Congress would be a check on Donald Trump or a rubber stamp.
By the time the dust had settled on the primaries, the moderate House New Democrats boasted a winning percentage of 86-percent on the races they played in compared to a desultory sub-40-percent win rate for Our Revolution, the Sanders-backed grassroots organization. Meanwhile, in the Blue Wall states that broke Democrats’ hearts in 2016, centrists easily won hotly contested gubernatorial primaries in Michigan and Wisconsin.
And as the general election rolled around moderates were leading the Blue Wave. Issues like Medicare for All that had become litmus tests in Democratic primaries disappeared. In fact, the entire Sanders agenda disappeared. Of the 967 ads run by Democrats in swing districts between Labor Day and Election Day, just two mentioned support for Medicare for All and both of those candidates lost. None mentioned a $15 minimum wage, a guaranteed government job, universal basic income, or free college.
As the final seconds ticked away on Election Day, sixty million voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates, a remarkable and unprecedented level of turnout and enthusiasm in a mid-term election. Of the forty House seats that Democrats flipped to regain the majority, thirty-three were endorsed by the House New Democrats. Zero. That’s right, zero, were endorsed by Sanders’ Our Revolution.
The moderates Gretchen Whitmer, Tony Evers, and Tom Wolfe swept the Blue Wall governors’ races in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Fiery centrist Kyrsten Sinema also flipped a Senate seat in the emerging swing state of Arizona. Together these four states gave centrist Democrats a 1.2 million vote margin, compared to the nearly 200,000 vote loss that Hillary took in losing all four.
In victory, a path emerged to beat Donald Trump in 2020. Four of the five states that went for Trump by the narrowest of margins in 2016 nominated and elected centrist Democrats in marquee statewide races. Sweeping the suburbs where Republicans were once strong were a new generation of young, passionate centrists spanning all races, genders, and sexual orientations. And even in some rural areas that many have urged Democrats to leave for dead, centrists nabbed some seats. True, the far left made some already blue places on the map even bluer. But the moderates were on the front lines and took purple and red places and changed their colors.
As the 2020 campaign for president begins, the conventional wisdom will likely return to the old trope that “all the energy is on the left.” Let’s not once again make the mistake of confusing volume in decibels with volume in numbers. There is a path to beating Donald Trump and it is through a younger, bolder, and next generation center. Sixty million general election voters and twenty-three million primary voters can’t be wrong.
(Jim Kessler is Senior Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. @thirdwaykessler)