A few nights ago I was web surfing between check-ins on the San Francisco Giants game when I thought, “I wonder what Rachel Bitecofer is up to these days?”
No, Bitecofer is not an old college flame — shame on you! She’s the political scientist who argues that negative partisanship (an urgent need to beat the other party) has become the primary driver of American politics, and proved the point by predicting, well in advance of the election, the Democrats’ stunning 41-seat gain in the House of Representatives in 2018. She called the 2020 presidential election correctly, but like everyone else, she underestimated the Republicans’ strength down-ballot. With election season over I figured there wasn’t much demand for her insights.
Turns out that’s true, but it hasn’t stopped her. Bitecofer has formed a political action committee, Strike PAC, to help the Democrats in spite of themselves. Bitecofer contends (rightly, IMHO) that the Democrats stink at political messaging and motivating voters, letting the Republicans frame public discourse. Hence Strike PAC’s mission statement:
For more than 20 years, the Republican Party has had Democrats on defense. STRIKE PAC flips the script by running a brand offensive against the GOP, forcing the party to defend itself. STRIKE PAC helps Democrats win elections by: (1) Modernizing electioneering strategies and (2) Expanding the electorate via targeted, high-stakes, nationalized messaging and branding.
Here is an example:
Bitecofer understands — as Republican operatives do — that politics is less about policy than emotion, and fear is an elemental political emotion. Democrats are reluctant to invoke fear, preferring hope. That’s noble. But when democracy is in genuine danger, it’s imperative to remind voters of the threat. It focuses everyone on what’s at stake — and is an effective tool for spurring the base and persuading fence-sitters that even if they don’t much care for the Democrats, they need to vote Democratic until the Republicans renounce authoritarianism.
This isn’t an original idea. Shortly after the 2020 election, Irish writer Fintan O’Toole noted that “History suggests . . . [Democrats] win when every sentence they speak has an implicit ‘or else’ at the end.” He recommended the Democrats raid the Republicans’ traditional turf by portraying themselves as the party of security. Bitecofer agrees, telling Salon’s Paul Rosenberg that in addition to their embrace of Trumpismo and resistance to prudent public health measures, the Republicans are vulnerable on foreign policy (who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq?) and economic stability (who brought us the 2008 and 2020 mini-depressions?).
Despite bleak predictions like this one from The Atlantic’s David Graham, the Democrats have a chance to hold the Senate in 2022 and perhaps even keep the House (although FiveThirtyEight gives them a mere 2.6% lead in the generic vote, not enough to overcome gerrymandering). Bitecofer’s tactics were tested in the California gubernatorial recall. Late in the campaign Gavin Newsom went on the offensive, ran against Republicanism — and galvanized voters, winning handily. The next test comes in Virginia on November 2. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate is on board with Bitecofer’s strategy, and Strike PAC has gone to the airwaves:
If the Democrats win Virginia, I don’t know what else they’ll need to adopt Bitecofer’s strategy in 2022.
Oh wait, yes I do. They’ll need the courage to renounce a lifetime of stupid campaigning and try something different. I give that a maybe.