GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Richard E. Frey, of neighboring New Oxford, sits alone on a sunny Saturday afternoon, behind a desk in the cheery office of the Adams County Democratic Party, located along Chambersburg Street.
No big election is coming up, but Frey is studiously making phone calls to area voters.
Outside, the headquarters’ front window is plastered with campaign signs of Democrats running for local and national offices, which makes the former storefront stand out from neighboring businesses whose merchandise either focuses on the historical aspects of the town’s heritage or offers food and lodging for tourists.
Frey is one of the many volunteers who staff the office in two hour-shifts in an effort to rebuild the local Democratic Party, which has been decimated in the past eight years.
It’s not an easy job, says Marcia Wilson, who chairs the local party. Sometimes her biggest challenge in the process of winning over voters is not Republican elected officials or their supporters, but members of her own party.
The volume that the progressive activist wing commands within the party, one that pushes being the party of “no,” the party of protests, determined to demand the impeachment of President Trump and fundamentally opposed to the admittance into the party of anyone who is pro-life or pro-gun; it spends much of its oxygen consistently mocking anyone who supported Trump.
That might go over well in Manhattan or the Washington Beltway, where there would be no societal consequences for holding those positions.
Yet, that kind of rhetoric has large societal consequences here, where the majority of registered Republicans, some Democrats, and a healthy number of Independents not only voted for Trump, but also heavily-favored Sen. Pat Toomey, Rep. Scott Perry, and every other GOP candidate down-ballot.
Wilson would prefer a message that encourages voters to see why Democrats deserve a renewed chance to govern again, one seat at time.
“I would like to see candidates who support pay equity and healthcare for all, but I would be fine if, in addition to those core values, they were also pro-gun and pro-life. This is Adams County, Pennsylvania. We are a little more pragmatic and a little less strident about who runs for office out here,” she said.
It is the best way, she says, that Democrats can rebuild their party.
“If the Democrats want to be the majority party again, if we want to be the true stewards of the working-class voter, then we have to build from the ground up, in school board elections and state legislative seats,” she said. “And you know what? We also have to start volunteering in communities, be more civic-minded.”
And they have to stop running on division and “no,” start running on a message of jobs, of keeping the land and air clean, and investing in infrastructure, she said.
“We have lost votes because of an overall feeling in the country that we were not going in the right direction,” she said. “That requires us being out there on the front lines and showing who we are and what we do. That’s why we are encouraging Democrats to run for all local offices — the school board, the municipal board, the township board of directors.”
Wilson said that is where Democrats need to get started: “That’s where people learn about you and work with you and realize, just because you have a ‘D’ behind your name, that doesn’t mean you have two heads or that you’re a bad person. You show them you are a good worker on the local level.”
Wilson is emblematic of interviews with other heartland Democrats in Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Kentucky who feel their biggest challenge to winning back voters is the sidestepping of the message coming from national Democrats and developing one they believe will help them win again.
So, when Wilson hears Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., dropping the “F-bomb” to make political points, she is less than pleased: “That isn’t helpful.”
And when Wilson sees how Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in this week’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, nimbly avoids carrying the progressive flag and instead runs a campaign that suits the conservative House district, she is hopeful.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, the national media will spend the bulk of its time giving “smart takes” on what the results of that Georgia special election signal about where our politics is heading for the 2018 mid-term elections.
The analysis will be breathless, agitated, filled with speculation and vitriol — and, at the end of the day, most of it will be wrong.
Yes, no matter who gets the outcome right, either by accident or by good guesswork, the hard truth is that the national focus will be wrong.
Why? Because nationalizing House races is a fool’s errand; if the Democrats win, the focus should not be analyzed as a shot at Donald Trump’s popularity. Instead, the focus should be on how did a Democrat win a predominantly-Republican district and how can Democrats learn from that when trying to win down-ballot races.
What was Ossoff’s message? What was his demeanor? How did he discuss Trump? (For the most part, he hasn’t.) How did he treat Republican voters? Did he understand the region? Was he genuine?
These are the bread-and-butter questions that Democrats and analysts should look at, not whether he was progressive enough or liberal enough or poked the bear enough.
It is how Democrats won in 2006 and how they could win again — that is, if the militant wing of the party, which has the microphone right now on social media and in the news, doesn’t get in their way.
That is what Wilson is hoping for, as are scores of other county Democratic chairs across the country.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.