WASHINGTON — The incoming chair of the Democratic Governors Association said Tuesday Democrats aren't going to win in 2016 by shifting positions and messaging to woo back the white men voters they've lost in recent cycles.
"The only middle-aged white men who voted for me were myself and my brothers," Dannel Malloy, the progressive-friendly, two-term governor of Connecticut told BuzzFeed News in a sitdown interview. "So if we're going to rely on middle-aged white men to win Democratic races again — you know, I mean I think we need to speak to a broader audience than middle-age white men."
Malloy takes over the DGA — the arm of the party charged with expanding Democratic gubernatorial ranks — at a time when Democrats are split over how best to recover from brutal electoral defeats in the last two elections when President Obama wasn't on the ballot. Some Democratic have suggested the party has spent too much time on its progressive base in the cities and it needs to shift focus away from issues like climate change and entitlement programs in order to win back white men voters who, in 2014, voted overwhelmingly for the Republicans. Malloy said that model isn't going to work, even though has to try and keep governor's mansions in red states like West Virginia and Missouri, where current Democratic governors are term-limited. And he has to help the DGA recover from deeply embarrassing 2014 losses in Massachusetts and Maryland, two Democratic strongholds where Democrats were expected to keep open seats.
Malloy said he hasn't closely studied the Maryland and Massachusetts losses for lessons that can be applied in 2016, but he said Democrats everywhere shouldn't shy away from "running as Democrats," as he put it. That means abandoning much of the party's strategy in 2014, including keeping their distance from the Affordable Care Act.
The Connecticut Democrat said he knows how to sell Obamacare in the reddest of red America.
"There are ways to talk about this issue in every single state. But if you're afraid of the issue, or if some consultant tells you you can't have a voice on that issue, then you don't. And I think senators made mistakes, Congress folks made mistakes, governors may have made mistakes [in 2014,]" he said. "I'm not trying to throw stones at anybody, I'm saying we're Democrats, we've got to stand for something. No person should work 35 or 40 hours a week and live in poverty. And certainly, no person should work 35 or 40 hours a week, live in poverty, and not have access to health care, particularly preventative health care."
"I could say that in Oklahoma," Malloy said. "People would understand that."
Women voters, who Democrats successfully rallied in 2012 to keep the Senate when most prognosticators predicted they would lose it, are key to Malloy's "Democrats running like Democrats" strategy. He said women were warm to Democratic economic issues. But he criticized the party for trying to run the same "War on Women" strategy it did in 2012 in 2014. In the last election, Republicans were ready for attacks over women's health and abortion, and in some high-profile cases, like Colorado, the effort failed to keep Democrats in office. (Supporters of the strategy say it pushed Republican candidates to soften their rhetoric on issues like personhood amendments and birth-control access.)
"There are very few issues that are presented in exactly the same way, two years apart, that sell. You can't run on a campaign that's two years old. So what I would say to folks is, 'You've got a president of the United States who says in his State of the [Union] address, you know what? We should lift people out of poverty. People who work 40 hours a week, they shouldn't live in poverty.' That was the women's issue. Women understood that better than anyone else. ACA, women understand that better than anybody else," Malloy said.
"The idea that you shouldn't go to work sick as an hourly employee, they understand that better than anyone else. … So the idea of only talking about abortion? That may be perceived as offensive, and apparently was, but is I think it's too singular and too obvious," he said.
Malloy argued that economic issues and the Affordable Care Act should be out front when Democrats are looking for votes from women.
"You put together that [the GOP] is the party that wants to control your body, wants you work 35 or 40 hours per week and live in poverty, and, by the way, doesn't want you to have access to health care," he said. "You put those three things together? That's a pretty powerful argument."
Strategically, Malloy criticized Democrats for keeping their eye off the ball after wins in 2008 and 2012.
"Accept the Republican Party model that you're constantly in an election," Malloy said. Democrats "thought they could take a vacation" when they needed constant, persistent campaign-style messaging.
Back in Connecticut, Malloy has racked up a progressive legacy that probably wouldn't be on any red state Democratic candidate recruiter's checklist. He embraced Obamacare, successfully pushed strict new gun-control measures after the shootings in Newtown, and signed a law ending the state's little-used death penalty. But he said he can help Democrats across the country win again, mostly by abandoning the idea they need to change to embrace a different electorate.
"We have to speak to majorities," he said. "And we're probably never going to have a majority made up of middle-aged white men."
White men "can be part of a majority," he said, but only one that is based on an economic message he said is universal. The short version: Embrace an increase in the minimum wage, "take pride" in Obamacare, and push paid sick leave.
"My parents dreamed that their children would all make more money than they did, and that's not necessarily going to be matched by my children and me?" he said. "That's pretty damning stuff. While the rich have gotten richer and the gap continues to grow and we continue to have a debate about whether we're going to expand Medicaid to save people's lives."