By Susan Cornwell and James Oliphant
OSAGE CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - Paul Davis has a simple formula for winning over President Donald Trump's supporters in his Kansas race for Congress: He talks about kitchen table issues, like prescription drug prices and farm tariffs. And he is in no hurry to announce he’s a Democrat.
Davis and other party moderates believe that neglected rural and working-class voters in Midwestern districts helped cost Democrats the 2016 election. Trump won, they note, with strong support from socially conservative voters in Midwestern states, including many who used to vote Democratic.
“Democrats, nationally, have not had a message or policies that have really connected with Midwestern voters, and that’s why we have lost elections here in recent years," said Davis, a candidate in the Democratic primary for the House of Representatives in Kansas’ second district.
Now Davis and other moderate Democrats are trying to woo those voters back, and the party’s hopes in the November election could rest on their success.
The battle for the House of Representatives is increasingly focused on places like Kansas’ second, which includes the state capital Topeka and the university town of Lawrence but also large wheat and soybean farms. Democrats will likely have to take some Republican-leaning districts like this one to recapture the house, and doing so will require winning over Trump voters
Interviews with about 20 Democratic lawmakers, candidates, strategists and campaign volunteers found that a growing number of Democrats are trying to do just that.
But calls to woo Trump supporters are not sitting well with some party loyalists.
Liberals say the party needs to stick to its core values on issues such as abortion, immigration, gun control and gay rights. They say outreach to Trump voters risks wasting precious campaign resources needed to keep core supporters fired up and determined to vote in November.
Avis Jones-DeWeever, an African-American activist, says that courting Trump supporters is like chasing “fool’s gold” and worries her party is “obsessed” with bringing them back into the fold.
"It's a completely boneheaded strategy,” she said. “It’s a waste of time, money and energy to try to convince the inconvincible.”
‘CULTURAL POPULARITY CONTEST’
Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos knows Trump country well.
The president won in her northwestern Illinois district in 2016, but Bustos also cruised to victory there, the best showing nationwide by a Democrat in a district that went for Trump.
Afterward, Bustos wrote a report detailing how Democrats can win in the U.S. heartland.
She sent the 50-page paper to every Midwestern Democratic candidate, but it attracted little notice by party leaders until moderate Democrat Conor Lamb’s upset victory in a Pennsylvania special election in March.
The day of Lamb’s election, Steny Hoyer, the House’s second-ranking Democrat, walked into a meeting of congressional candidates waving a copy of Bustos’ report.
“I urged them to read it,” Hoyer said.
The report suggests the party take a “big tent” approach and become more inclusive of candidates who personally oppose abortion or support gun rights, arguing that Democrats are losing the “cultural popularity contest” with rural voters.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group that advocates for abortion rights, warns that ambiguity on the subject could upset the Democratic base. “Equivocating on support for these issues will be felt among critical voters and sends a message that Democrats would allow fundamental human rights to be undermined just to win a race or two,” said Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s president.
Quentin James, co-founder of The Collective PAC, which aims to elect more African-Americans to Congress, worries that courting white moderates will come at the expense of more liberal black candidates and says Democrats should not alter their message to chase after a relatively small pool of rural voters.
But Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a conservative Democrat campaigning for re-election this year, said progressive candidates have little hope of winning in states like his.
“You're not going to find a liberal Democrat that usually wins in those areas,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon, co-chairman of the moderate House “Blue Dog” coalition's PAC, or political organization, agrees candidates should fit their districts. “One size doesn’t fit all for Democrats,” he said. The Blue Dogs have partnered with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to identify and recruit candidates for the first time since 2006.
WORKING WITH TRUMP
Davis knows he is fighting an uphill battle.
The Republican-leaning district in which he is running went for Trump by a margin of 19 percentage points in 2016. The district’s current representative, Republican Lynn Jenkins, took 61% of the vote in 2016, but she is retiring, leaving an open seat that some analysts see as flippable by the right candidate.
On a recent campaign outing, Davis generally did not tell voters in the district that he was a Democrat unless asked, and some of his campaign flyers did not mention his party.
Instead, he talked about education or jobs, downplayed hot-button cultural issues and avoided Trump-bashing. He does not believe in banning any classes of guns, and has said he won’t support Nancy Pelosi as the Democrat’s House leader if elected.
Roaming the floor at a barbecue competition earlier this month, Davis pressed the flesh and chatted about the unseasonably cold weather - and his support for better education funding. He also handed out his card.
“It doesn’t get you free fries or anything,” he joked.
“I’m sure the vast, vast majority of people in that room were Republicans,” Davis, a former state representative, said after the event. “I don’t think I am going to be able to succeed if people don’t see that I listen to their concerns.”
Davis supports abortion rights, but that is not at the heart of his message to voters. Instead, he talks about the suffering farm economy and how looming Chinese tariffs in response to Trump’s protectionist push on trade could make things worse.
He says, however, he could work with Trump “if the president is doing things that I believe are good for Kansas and good for America.”
Kansas state Senator Steve Fitzgerald, one of several Republicans vying to win that party’s primary in Kansas' second, doubts whether voters will be persuaded by Davis’ attempts to distinguish himself from the national Democratic Party.
“He’s running that way because that’s the only way he could possibly win,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s not running as a Democrat.”
‘I’M A DEMOCRAT’
In rural Kansas and other regions that backed Trump, the word “Democrat” is often a euphemism for out-of-touch, condescending coastal elites
To retake the House, the party will have to battle that stereotype in key House races not just in Kansas, but in Iowa, Minnesota and other states in which older, white voters are likely to be a deciding factor.
A Reuters analysis of nearly 40 competitive House races showed that more than two-thirds are at least 75 percent white, and about half voted for Trump.
Davis knows that his party affiliation can be toxic. While going door-to-door in Topeka recently, he approached Jim Robinson, 56, who was pulling into his driveway in his truck.
Davis handed Robinson a flyer, and Robinson immediately asked if Davis was a Republican.
“I’m a Democrat,” Davis said.
Robinson handed him back his flyer. “Okay, then, I’m sorry … Have a good day, sir.”
(This story corrects Schrader's title in 22nd paragraph.)
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and James Oliphant; Editing by Kieran Murray and Sue Horton)