If the key to winning back disaffected Obama voters is to address economic anxiety through Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren-style populism, then the test case is Ohio's Richard Cordray, the Democratic candidate for Governor. Whether or not he can win in a state Trump won by eight points is another thing entirely.
In early May, Richard Cordray was wrapping up a two-day campaign sprint during which he spoke to crowds of plumbers, pipefitters, ironworkers, teachers, firefighters, furniture workers, and now, as dusk settled over a low-slung Cleveland union hall, a hundred or so food and commercial workers. Cordray, who stepped down as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last December, was making a last-minute pitch to Ohio Democrats to choose him as their nominee for governor. Ostensibly, he was campaigning to defeat liberal gadfly Dennis Kucinich in the next day’s party primary (which he did, handily). But in a larger sense, Cordray was—is—trying to redeem a Democratic Party blindsided by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and searching for a path forward.
Trump’s unexpected strength in Midwest swing states such as Ohio, where he trounced Hillary Clinton by eight points, exposed a deep erosion of Democratic support in swaths of the country you have to carry if you want to win the White House. Ohio has voted for the winner in 14 straight presidential elections. That Clinton’s brand of Wall Street-friendly, establishment Democratic politics wasn’t even competitive in this presidential bellwether underscored the scope of the party’s problem.
“Ohio’s not a right-wing state,” Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor, insists. “Trump came along and captured the zeitgeist of the moment, but I don’t think that’s a permanent thing.”
What’s indisputable is that Ohio revealed a host of shortcomings Democrats must address. While Obama twice won the state with strong minority support, black voter turnout fell sharply in 2016. So did Democratic support in struggling manufacturing hubs such as the Mahoning Valley in Northeast Ohio, where many union members defected to Trump. Meanwhile, suburban voters didn’t turn out in nearly the numbers Democrats needed.
Clinton’s loss raised a host of thorny questions the party has been debating ever since: Was the problem Clinton, or is it broader than that? Should Democrats make more explicit appeals around race and gender to activate disaffected voters? Or should they embrace the full-throated economic populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
Cordray’s race will offer some interesting clues—he’s as pure an exponent of Warren-style populism as anyone on this year’s ballot. Because he lacks a Trump-like persona or a desire to litigate the president’s misdeeds, Cordray is embarking on what amounts to a laboratory experiment in the power of progressive economic populism to win back lost voters. Trump showed that hard-right populism can resonate in Ohio; what’s as yet unclear is whether that message can resonate from the left, when shorn of its anti-immigrant, anti-Clinton attacks and dialed back from Trumpian bombast to Cordray’s scout-leader calm.
Recruited by Warren herself to the CFPB after a stint as Ohio’s attorney general, Cordray has turned the agency’s mission of protecting consumers from Wall Street predations into a campaign message. “My job at the CFPB, as President Obama told me when he interviewed me, was to stand on the side of people in the financial marketplace and see that they were treated fairly,” Cordray told a group of Cincinnati firefighters. “We did that—and got back $12 billion for 30 million Americans who had been cheated or mistreated by large financial institutions.” Cordray also touted his role as Ohio’s financial avenger after the 2008 crisis. “We recognized that our pension system had been abused—a pension system that supports our police, firefighters, and public servants,” he continued. “We got back $2 billion from Wall Street that never should have been taken from them and put it back into Ohio taxpayers’ pockets.”
His Robin Hood record notwithstanding, Cordray, 59, is about the furthest thing from the tub-thumping populists of yore. Tall and sandy-haired, he has a hangdog visage and the soft-spoken demeanor of the late PBS kids’ show host Mr. Rogers. “It makes me mad to see people in government serving themselves at our expense,” Cordray, sounding not the least bit mad, told a union crowd in Lima earlier that day.
While he rarely puts a charge in his audience, Cordray drove Republicans in Washington to fits, quickly emerging as Public Enemy No. 2 (behind Warren) for his aggressiveness in clawing back those billions of dollars for consumers. Conservatives viewed him as the embodiment of rapacious government overreach and made him the target of furious criticism throughout his CFPB tenure. “For conducting unlawful activities, abusing his authority, denying market participants due process, Richard Cordray should be dismissed by our president,” Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, declared last year, as part of an unsuccessful campaign to pressure Trump to fire him.
Cordray’s challenge now is to get Ohio voters half as fired up as Republicans like Hensarling. His backers suggest, somewhat hopefully, that his low-wattage personal style will contrast favorably with Trump’s exhausting, nonstop fusillade. “His personality is not like Elizabeth’s or Bernie’s, but his economic policy chops sure are,” says Sandy Theis, former executive director of the liberal nonprofit ProgressOhio. “If you’re looking for a candidate who’ll give you clickbait and headlines, that’s not Rich,” echoes Matt Alter, president of the Cincinnati Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 48. “But he’ll run the state and get things done.” Cordray is fortunate that his Republican opponent, former U.S. Senator and current Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, is no more endowed with charisma than he is. As one labor official quipped, the race could turn out to be “the Battle of the Blands.”
If the heartland now wants safe, boring, stable white Democrats like Cordray (and Andy Beshear here in neighboring Kentucky) to bring sanity back, he should have no trouble. DeWine on the other hand has a long list of extremist positions and is second only to Kansas's Kris Kobach in the voter suppression department.
Personally I think Cordray is a pretty solid guy who can get the job done, but whether or not that's enough to get him elected in the era of Trump, I don't know. We'll see.
I do know that if Cordray loses, Democrats might want to, you know, pay attention to their actual base and who they are rather than who they want that base to be.