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October 19, 2017

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Can Democrats learn to quit sabotaging themselves?

Halcottsville, N.Y.

On a recent weekend at the farmers market here, Fred Margulies sat under a “Vote Where It Counts” sign and beckoned second-home owners to re-register in this area upstate instead of wherever their main residences were — New York City, most likely.

To win the House in 2018 and buck President Donald Trump’s worst impulses, Democrats don’t need more votes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They need them around Halcottsville, in the 19th Congressional District, where the party should be able to prevail but keeps falling short.

Its optimism grows with Trump’s woes. But will Democrats put forward the right candidate for a largely working-class region whose barns need paint, whose town centers want for bustle and whose manufacturing plants are too few and far between?

Margulies told me that a man might fare best, especially someone who doesn’t feed residents’ fears that they’re “under the thumb of the city.” But in the Democratic primary last year, Margulies spurned a male contender with unquestioned local ties in favor of Zephyr Teachout, a Manhattan law professor who’d just moved to the district to run. She got the nomination, then lost by about 9 points in the general election.

“I liked her mind,” Margulies said. “I guess I’m not practical.”

Well, the time for romance is past. The 2018 midterms could hinge on how ruthlessly pragmatic Democrats are.

Democrats are beautifully positioned to trounce Republicans wherever Republicans are trounce-able. But the party has done an ace job of sabotaging itself before. The 19th District, also known as the Hudson Valley, tells that story well.

So could Georgia’s 6th District, the Atlanta suburbs where a fiercely contested special election — the most expensive in the history of House races — concludes June 20. If the Republican, Karen Handel, emerges victorious, it will in part reflect the shortcomings of her Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff. At 30, he has an underwhelming résumé and occasionally callow air.

Next year, Democrats should pick up many seats in Congress, given the usual midterm correction and the unusual melodrama in the Trump administration. Control of the Senate is probably beyond the party’s reach, because Democrats have to defend two states to every one that Republicans do, on turf that’s plenty red. Control of the House, though, is entirely possible, even with all the gerrymandering that has occurred. But that presumes that Democrats can get their act together.

They’re still not sure how much of Trump’s victory had to do with Hillary Clinton’s flaws versus the party’s poor grasp of America, and the more they focus on the former, the less they own up to the latter.

They’re still searching for a concise, coherent message. They’re still feuding: the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing versus the moderates. And they’re still indulging in elitist optics at odds with the lessons of 2016. Although new research commissioned by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, concluded that many Obama-to-Trump voters believed that Democrats are out of touch with the less affluent, a recent, high-profile Democratic brainstorming session in Washington was held at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel.

Then there are the candidates, who sometimes step forward, or are elevated, independent of any master plan. Democrats in the 19th haven’t been riding optimal ones.

Their horse in 2014 was a pampered foal, Sean Eldridge, then 28, who is married to Facebook multimillionaire Chris Hughes and qualified for the race by purchasing a $2 million country house just an hour from the $5 million country house the couple already owned.

His bid was cast as a tale “of nouveau riche liberal ambition, real-estate excess and carpetbaggery run amok,” Michael Barbaro wrote in The New York Times, and, shockingly, he never captured the hearts of the region’s dairy farmers. Although the district is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and Barack Obama won it by about 8 points in 2008 and 6 in 2012, Eldridge suffered a 30-point defeat.

He ran against a popular, deft incumbent who then decided to retire from the House after 2016, so Democrats nursed renewed hopes in last year’s congressional election. Party chieftains in Washington put the Hudson Valley high on their wish list of House seats to turn blue.

Teachout was the favorite of local progressives who held sway in the primary. She had been anointed by Sanders. She had attained some celebrity by challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 re-election bid. So they passed over Will Yandik, a relative moderate whose family farm went back generations and who had graduated from a local high school before getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the Ivy League.

Many of the local Democrats I interviewed over recent weeks worried, in retrospect, that they had screwed up: Teachout was inevitably caricatured as an elite interloper. Many others said that it probably didn’t matter in the end. Trump notched a roughly 7-point victory in the Hudson Valley, which bears striking similarities to the beleaguered Rust Belt counties where he did so well, and Teachout’s opponent, John Faso, undoubtedly benefited from the billionaire’s coattails. Republican super PACS also gave Faso a big assist.

“I don’t know that I would have won,” Yandik told me. “I would have come closer than Zephyr Teachout.” Looking ahead, he said that “in a swing district where every single percentage point matters, the inability to demonstrate a cultural connection to the district is a liability.”

He’s taking a pass on 2018 but is watching to see whether Democratic primary voters “are going to be strategic and pick a centrist and someone with deep roots — someone who can beat John Faso — or whether they are going to adhere to their progressive principles and put a firebrand like Zephyr Teachout up again.”

The Hudson Valley is shaping up to be a laboratory for how Democrats do — or don’t — stage a comeback. Several political analysts pointed out to me that before new congressional boundaries took effect for the race of 2012, much of it fell in the 20th District, which Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, won in 2006 and 2008. (She later graduated to the Senate.) Of course she was less liberal back then, when she bragged about the guns under her bed and opposed driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants.

For now, party leaders are optimistic. Just five months into his first term, Faso is being hammered for his support of the Republican health care bill and his broken promise to protect people with pre-existing conditions. He’s being hounded by Democratic activists whenever he makes public appearances in the district, so he makes almost none. It’s hard to imagine how he will run a re-election campaign as the invisible man, and his perceived vulnerability has already attracted eight challengers.

And among Trump voters, there’s frustration, even anger. I ran into one of them, Renee Gardner, a hotel maid, at a Memorial Day weekend street fair in the center of Fleischmanns, a once-prosperous village along a stretch of the Catskill Mountains that has been called the Jewish Alps. She sat alone in a gazebo as a band played Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

“Everything Trump was talking about sounded fantastic,” she said. “And I believe most politicians are crooks, so let’s get a real person in there — even if he’s a crook, too. But I’ve learned a lot by watching that gay woman and Anderson Cooper.” She was referring to Rachel Maddow. And she has reached a conclusion about Trump, bolstered by his incessant tweeting: “He’s a moron.”

She was fairly certain that she voted for Faso in 2016 — “I’m not very political,” she explained — but hadn’t yet contemplated 2018. When she does, will she find a candidate to her liking?

There’s Antonio Delgado, a Democrat who has reported $300,000 in campaign donations. He has a dazzling academic background, including a Rhodes scholarship and a Harvard law degree. But that may be less persuasive to the district’s voters than the fact that he works for the Manhattan-headquartered firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, which is synonymous with high-priced influence and high-stakes lobbying. Until a move to Rhinebeck, N.Y., just months ago, he lived in Montclair, N.J.

Brian Flynn has the second-biggest war chest among Democrats, with $180,000. It’s a measure of several other candidates’ ultra-fancy alma maters that when I met him, he drew my attention to his as less exclusive. It’s Georgetown. He eloquently emphasizes his upstate Irish ancestry; his anti-terrorism activism after his brother’s death in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; and his record of job creation as an entrepreneur. But his website’s claim that he has lived in the 19th for more than a decade is misleading. He maintained a second home here, in addition to a Manhattan apartment, and wasn’t even registered to vote in the Hudson Valley for the last election.

Two aspirants whose roots in the region are beyond dispute have their own shortcomings. Sue Sullivan, a former hospital executive with a history of community involvement, isn’t a forceful presence on the stump, several local Democrats complained. And Gareth Rhodes, who noted in an email to me that he “grew up rural and religious, working on a farm,” has traveled far from those fields. He’s in law school at Harvard. And he’s only 28.

A perfect candidate is hard to find. But Dustin Reidy, who recently started a voter outreach group called NY 19 Votes, said the district could succeed with someone “who can really connect with voters by talking about the bottom line — wages, pocketbook issues.” I agree.

I heard complaints that Teachout’s approach was “too intellectual,” “too global.” So far, the candidates for 2018 do seem more narrowly attuned to economic issues.

Democrats in the Hudson Valley are especially focused on health care, as I could tell from a demonstration against Faso in Kinderhook, just outside his office there. Many of the signs carried by about two dozen protesters referred to Obamacare, though my favorite ridiculed Trump’s exemption from military service with the words “Show Us Your Bone Spurs.” On the reverse side it said, “We Shall Overcomb.”

But health care wasn’t a bridge to victory in the recent special election in Montana. Maybe that’s because of the state’s conservative bent, or maybe Democrats need to recalibrate. I also worry, based on my travels through the Hudson Valley, that anti-Trump political activism is scattered across too many issues and subgroups.

I saw panic about the country’s direction. I’m not sure I sensed a commensurate cunning. I saw passion. But passion doesn’t equal unity, and unity is the surer way to overcomb.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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