Sometimes, you can get political insights in the strangest places—even mountain tops.
On a warm sunny day this past summer, I had just come down from climbing Mount Elinor, a pointy and alpine meadow-garlanded peak in the Olympic Mountains of Washington and was cooling off in the parking lot, when I met a married couple who gave me such an insight.
They were sitting in the back of their van, taking off their boots when I offered them a beer and asked where they were from. When they said, “Michigan” I immediately swung into campaign mode, and asked them if they knew my friend and gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. They paused a moment, and then answered with gusto and verve and in what seemed to be perfect synchronization, “fix the damn roads!”
This was, of course, the battle cry and slogan of Gretchen’s vigorous campaign for the governorship of Michigan. We were a long way from potholes in the Motor City, but I could tell that Gretchen’s message had sunk in.
In the spontaneous and energetic response to my question by this Michigan couple in a Washington mountain range, I heard an emerging electoral victory that presaged wins across the Midwest. This couple had not only internalized the campaign slogan of a candidate in Michigan, they had displayed the power of a Democratic message to capture the imaginations of the voters in “blue wall” states that many Democrats had come to question themselves about.
Democrats are winning again in the Midwest on a message of getting things done and bringing about progress for health care, schools, the economy, and yes, the roads. While Donald Trump postpones Infrastructure Week again and again, Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer is ready to take action in Michigan, and focus on real issues that make a difference in real people’s lives.
After this month’s election—I am increasingly confident that Democrats will win the White House and fix the “damn” mess in the nation’s capital by listening to candidates like Gretchen Whitmer who focus on fixing the “damn” roads and just plainly fixing the problems the people in their states face—on protecting their health care, on rebuilding their infrastructure, and providing good education for our kids.
This month, seven fresh Democratic faces flipped executive offices in seven states—East, West, and, importantly, in the Midwest—and have thus blazed a trail to the 270 electoral votes America needs to free itself from Donald Trump’s chaos. Democrats rebuilt the blue wall—winning governors’ races in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, just two years after they’d flipped to Trump in 2016. If we hold the states that now have Democratic governors, we would win the White House with 283 electoral votes.
Mountain climbing is not a bad metaphor for winning the White House. Having climbed a few mountains, I’ve learned that if you want to climb Mount Everest, you need to call a sherpa. Now, if you want to climb up to the White House, you will need to call a newly-elected Democratic governor.
November’s elections proved that Democrats can win at the state level and blaze a trail for the party’s future. And win we did, in Michigan. And Illinois. And Wisconsin. And Pennsylvania. And Minnesota. And in the takeoff point of Dorothy’s dreams, the great State of Kansas. No, there is nothing “the matter with Kansas” anymore, because our candidate presented to her fellow citizens a vision for economic growth and common-sense governance that relied more upon competent and non-divisive leadership than upon the divisive ideological fights that animate the Republican Party right now. The people of Kansas voted for Laura’s platform of fiscal stability and educational improvement, and they saw her as providing basic governmental services rather than more “real live experiments.” That’s how she got elected in a deep red state.
After the heartbreak of 2016, they said this couldn’t happen. The pundits said the Democratic Party had lost touch with the topsoil of the Midwest, that we were too committed to segmenting the country into identity blocks to be able to focus on what we all share. They said Trump had discovered the secrets of fear-mongering and we would have to find another path to 270 electoral votes.
Tell that to Laura, tell that to Gretchen, and tell that to Tony Evers, who toppled the once-mighty Scott Walker.
In Wisconsin, Evers, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been elected to repair the damage Walker inflicted on schools. Where improving roads worked in Michigan, and improving state management worked in Kansas, improving schools worked in Wisconsin. This soft-spoken science teacher inspired a majority of Wisconsin voters to trust him with their most precious asset, their children.
When I started in public service, I represented one of the more Republican districts in our state, in central Washington. I learned that a Democrat can win in red territory by showing up and listening—and then getting things done. The same is true in the Midwest. To win there, you need to appeal to Midwesterners broadly, their identity as parents, grandparents, workers, small business people, teachers who would rather pick up their kids from school than pick a fight. You need to offer a positive vision rather than a negative emotion. You need to fight fear rather than yesterday’s battles. You need to offer an exact opposite to Donald Trump, uniting rather than dividing, reasoned rather than frantic, decent where he is amoral, dignified where he is juvenile, at home walking on good farm ground when he has never been off the grounds of a country club, reflecting the people’s common image rather than just your own, and honest where he is anything but.
That is the Midwest Way. That is a path to victory.
That is what these seven new Democratic governors did and that is why the majority of Americans today are represented by Democratic governors. It is why the Democrats flipped more states than any time in the last 36 years. If you follow their path of leadership, you will follow a path to a win in the electoral college.
Follow these brave gubernatorial trailblazers, and we’ll restore a strong and caring American heart to the White House.
Just in time.
Jay Inslee is the 23rd governor of Washington, and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.