Politics

How a Centrist Is Completely Rethinking How to Get Independents to Vote for Democrats

“The most important faction for saving our democracy is the big-tent left candidate.”

A Democratic donkey with its front legs standing on the bottom of one side of a party tent
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This is one part in a series of Q&A’s with Democrats discussing their worries, plans, and hopes for the 2022 election.

The moment that convinced Liam Kerr that he needed to get more involved in politics came in the lead-up to the 2020 election: Making sure Democrats beat Donald Trump seemed existentially important, but Kerr was worried that the party wouldn’t pull it off. To help, Kerr co-founded the Welcome Party, a nonprofit deliberately aimed at a big-tent vision for the Democratic Party. The group has no qualms about welcoming anyone in: “In the 2020 primaries, we welcomed the independent voters who stayed with us to beat Trump,” its website states. “To keep winning, we need to keep welcoming independents and ‘future former Republicans.’ ”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I spoke with Kerr about what he thought was missing from Democrats’ political strategy, why he thinks empathy is such a big deal, and what role the left ought to play in determining policy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: Can you start by telling me a little bit about when you guys got started?

Liam Kerr: In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, some people were highly concerned about how the conversation in the primary may have been repelling independent voters and swing voters, and that a lot of the natural dynamics that happened within a party could lead to a conversation that could make it harder to win in the general.

Advertisement

I come from outside politics—I did AmeriCorps, I did direct service at an adult literacy program, I worked in the nonprofit sector up through business school. I kind of randomly fell into politics through issue advocacy and nonprofit work. Coming from that outside perspective, [politics] is a very funny sector—oftentimes a very highly inefficient and confusing sector. There are all these things that you would assume would happen, but that don’t.

Like what?

The first thing we did was ask, “Who’s getting independents to vote in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire?” When you talk to a normal person, they would say, “Well, isn’t that what the Democrats do?” But they spend almost all their time targeting super voters. You end up with all these individual group campaigns that are highly incentivized to do things that in the aggregate are bad for the party.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There is no person working for the Democrats with a five-year plan, the way that a nonprofit or a business would run. It was shocking that it was no one’s job to go talk to independents in New Hampshire in January 2020. You would think that’s the most important job, to reach the people who voted for Kelly Ayotte and maybe regretted it, or the people that voted for John Kasich in the primary in 2016 and then said, “Trump is not my kind of conservative,” or “I can’t believe Trump’s president.” But that person wouldn’t get any outreach.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And so we did that in New Hampshire and in South Carolina, out of a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called the Welcome Party. We did that direct work of going out, talking to independent voters, and encouraging them to vote in a primary in both those states.

Advertisement
Advertisement

We also were advocating for a big-tent party through doing that, and we learned a ton along the way. One of the things we learned was a lot of people are actually really excited about going out and bringing more people into the party. But a lot of the infrastructure that’s been built up is made by a highly energized left who is building those on-ramps for just one end of the party. And it’s not the fault of those groups. I think the left gets a lot of blame for doing what the left should do.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Are you referring to the Indivisible-type groups and the Women’s March and that kind of stuff?

Yeah, these kinds of ecosystems were already built out, and 2016 was such a shock and people wanted to get involved … and all the groups that were ready to onboard them were groups that existed to push the party to the left. Which is totally fair—that’s their role.

Advertisement

But there is not an identifiable set of mainstream Democrats who are coherently differentiating from the far left and going out and winning the middle and building majority, which needs to be the job of the center left over the next decade.

The party did choose Joe Biden, who was one of the least progressive and most palatable to independent candidates who ran.

Democratic primary voters have been very loud and very consistent on this, from Joe Biden to Eric Adams to the Buffalo general election—the voters are very consistent.

Advertisement

We have three identifiable factions right now: You have the AOC-Bernie left, the Trump right, and the Glenn Youngkin safe-enough Republican. If you say, well, what’s that fourth archetype? The most important faction for saving our democracy is the big-tent left candidate. The Obama-esque candidate who reaches out in the middle and brings people in, and maybe gets attacked from the far left, but is differentiated. And that is where the focus needs to be, partially because of gerrymandering, partially just because of where the voters are: 40 percent of voters are conservative, almost 40 percent are moderate, and then you have around a quarter that are liberal.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I mean, it changes a little bit here and there. But the traditional left is half the Democratic Party. And today’s self-anointed progressive movement is about a quarter to a fifth of the Democratic electorate. But the brand has overwhelmed the entire party without a coherent organized lane in the middle. And that needs to change, because you need to win right-of-center districts to hold the House.

Would you identify any Democrats that you feel are doing that work?

There are very credible leaders that reach out and bring people in. But I think most of the time they’re focused on doing the work. One member of Congress had a line where they said, “Well, AOC has 10 million people on Twitter.” And I think the reverse of that is, well, those 10 million people have AOC as well. We do need more leaders stepping out. It will be at personal cost—RIP their Twitter mentions—but more leaders stepping out more and more forcefully.

Advertisement

Do you see their role as telling progressives they’re going too far, or making sort of the positive case for more centrist policies?

Advertisement
Advertisement

I think it’s making the more positive case, not even necessarily for centrist policy, but the more positive case for an open, empathetic, patriotic vision for our country, the way that President Obama did.

Advertisement
Advertisement

AOC has explicitly said the Democratic Party is too big of a tent. We just won a presidential election by 45,000 votes in three states. I don’t know who we’re trying to kick out of a tent.

I think a lot of leaders on the far left lie to their followers, and those lies are dangerous. They lie about what’s achievable. The weeks leading up to the election last year, they’re talking about packing the Supreme Court. They’re talking about $6 trillion bills after inauguration. They’ve created a frame in which we are now making cuts, so instead of the largest investment in a generation, that’s now framed as the cuts that have been made.

Advertisement

So, what is the purpose of Welcome PAC? Is this just what you feel like would be the best way to keep a Democratic majority? Or are these the policies that you think would be best?

I think we only have one path forward for our democracy: building a very big tent that there can be disagreements in, but we can mediate those disagreements and end up in a good place. I think it’s less about policy and more about bringing people in and being empathetic. And by the way, once we have that big tent, then the left can continue doing their job to push.

Advertisement

I’m intrigued by your use of the word empathy. What do you mean when you say that?

Advertisement

I think it’s meeting voters where they are, listening, and being less judgmental, and then having some grace. I think that we focus so much on how the 35 percent who are already hardcore left or right have gotten more antagonistic towards each other without placing enough emphasis on the segments that are moving back and forth between left and right.

Advertisement

We now have tens of millions of voters who didn’t used to vote and now vote and we’re not sure if they will again. We have the fastest-growing segment of voters moving rapidly to the right. We have demographics like married white men moving slightly back towards Democrats. And there’s volatility in the electorate, and a couple points matters a lot. If you move 7 percent of voters, you put dozens more seats in play. If every Democrat ran as far ahead of Hillary Clinton as Heidi Heitkamp did, Democrats would’ve had 70 Senate seats. There’s a lot of volatility, and we’re going to have to authentically project empathy for people who don’t agree with us on everything. I think that’s the big opportunity for the center left—making people feel welcome again in our party.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Do you really think something like 70 Senate seats could be possible?

I mean, Joe Manchin proves anything is possible. There is so much more volatility in the electorate than people think. There is so much potential to bring people back in, and there is so little investment in identifying and supporting the leader who can do that. Whose job was it today to find the next Jared Golden, or Joe Manchin, or Heidi Heitkamp?

I will point out that Heidi Heitkamp lost.

If we only look at Senate races and only care if it’s a narrow plurality or not, then we’re missing places where brand-differentiated Democrats were able to pick up double-digit swing voters. Look at where Trump got the highest votes, the highest margin: the Dakotas and West Virginia. Some Democrats were getting 12 percent to 30 percent of people to switch over [down the ticket]. That demonstrates what is possible. Yes, she lost, but I don’t think Republicans wanted her to get 19 percent of voters that voted for Trump.

Advertisement
Advertisement

We are in a historical time where control of the House is more narrow than ever before in American history. If you had 10 people who could insulate Democrats from a wave that would lead to authoritarianism, what is that worth? And who is helping find those people and place those early bets?

Advertisement

Is that what you’re doing? You’re going out and finding some of these potential candidates?

Yeah. We’re prioritizing a couple districts around the country where Republicans have not had challengers. We’re looking at candidates who can topple a Republican who’s not expecting a challenge.

Are there any districts in particular that you’re excited about?

I think one good example is Ken Calvert in California. He’s in a district where Trump got less than 53 percent of the vote. He has profited from shady land dealing after steering millions of dollars of federal earmarks to land he recently purchased and then immediately selling it. He was caught in his car with a prostitute and initially denied it and then said he’s lonely. And his challenger in 2020 raised less than $150,000 and supported “Medicare for All.”

Advertisement

There are places where people like that get a free pass. Authoritarian Republican incumbents in slightly right-of-center districts get a free pass. Doug Lamborn, in Colorado’s 5th District, is being sued by a former staffer who he infected with COVID after not revealing he had it. He allows his son to live in his U.S. Capitol office. And he has not faced a significant Democratic challenger—defined by someone who’s raised a quarter-million dollars—in many cycles.

Advertisement
Advertisement

At the same time, you have people who maybe in generations past would’ve run as a Republican, but they can’t now. And those are potentially talented candidates that we need to welcome into our party.

Is Joe Manchin an example of the kind of candidate you might want to support? Or is there a worry that if you do too much of that, Democrats will end up with a majority that still can’t do things like pass voting rights legislation?

The problem with Joe Manchin is that there’s only one of him. If you look at who took the biggest risk voting for impeachment of any party? Joe Manchin. You have one of Trump’s best states and you had a senator vote for impeachment. Who’s voting for the judges? Who’s confirming appointments? I think the problem with Joe Manchin is that there’s only one of him. If there were nine of him, then they could be voting in different ways on different things. And you wouldn’t have to count on all 50 people being 100 percent for 100 percent of things.

What do you want to see Democrats doing in the lead-up to 2022?

Aggressively bring people in, and I think ideally the top leaders would vocally align with that faction within the party. We need to fight tomorrow’s battles, and that’s winning the majority, and that’s building factions.

Advertisement