Is anti-Trump furor papering over Democrats' working-class woes?

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Detroit (CNN)Gobsmacked by their base's ferocious rejection of Donald Trump's presidency, the candidates to chair the Democratic Party scrambled Saturday to show how devoted they are to the cause.

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez bragged to the Democratic National Committee's "future forum" about racing to airport protests in Houston and then San Francisco. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, made sure everyone knew he was the only one to skip David Brock's donor summit to participate in the Women's March in Washington.
Put him in charge, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison pledged, and "We will be asking Democrats all over the country, 'Bring coffee to the marches. Be in the marches yourself. Carry a sign.' "
As for those white rural and exurban voters who so brutally rejected Democrats in November -- well, bringing them back into the fold is also a priority for those vying to lead the party.
If the base allows it.
After three weeks of anti-Trump protests, Democrats are still stunned by the sudden burst of energy. The party's organs are all racing to keep up as dozens of events pop up -- often on Facebook, without any party chapter or progressive organization's involvement at all -- each weekend.
"The activism of people who are concerned about the Trump administration's threat to the country is very energizing to us," said US Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee and one of the swing-state senators up for re-election in 2018. "We don't view that as threatening -- we love the energy."
The energy, though, is all rooted in ferocious opposition to Trump -- the same strategy that failed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That reality has some Democrats on Capitol Hill fretting that the rising anti-Trump fervor is putting the party at risk of papering over the same problems with voters in rural and exurban America they woke up with on November 9.
"If you can't get them back to where they're looking and thinking, 'The Democratic Party still represents me,' then you'll always be in the minority," said US Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.
"The anger that people feel is righteous and justified, but it can't just be a party against Mr. Trump," said US Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia.
"I understand the righteous anger against some of the President's policies, but we also need to lay out a narrative that's more than just a series of position papers -- that gives us an overarching theme," Warner said. "And that's what I'm looking for."

The 2018 map vs. the base's demands

Manchin and nine other Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won.
Four of those Democrats -- Indiana's Joe Donnelly, Missouri's Claire McCaskill, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp and Montana's Jon Tester -- are in states where Trump crushed Clinton.
Just how much latitude those senators need -- and should be given by the base on votes like Cabinet and Supreme Court confirmations -- is the challenge confronting Democrats now, as the party frantically searches for ways to protect those red-state Democrats without jeopardizing the base's energy and enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, much of the base is demanding total opposition to Trump -- no matter the political costs for Democrats in red states.
And there are no sacred cows, as US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, learned when she voted in committee to confirm Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development secretary. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, was the target of protective protesters who recently marched to his home, chanting an expletive that rhymed with his first name.
These progressives see the party's future in energizing women, minorities and young people in cities and suburbs -- particularly in Sun Belt states, including Georgia and Arizona.
"Those working-class white voters aren't the future of the party," said Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal blog DailyKos.com, which has already raised $400,000 for a Democratic candidate in the expected runoff for the US House seat in Georgia soon to be vacated by Tom Price, Trump's nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.
"Most of them are stuck in fake-news land anyway, and no amount of reality will penetrate that bubble. They think 1.5 million people attended Trump's inauguration. They think Obama only needed 50 votes to pass his Supreme Court nominees," Moulitsas said. "They're lost. It's a waste of time to try and win them back when there are so many core-Democratic-base who didn't register or vote last cycle. Almost half the country didn't vote, and the bulk of the non-voters were liberal-leaning people many of them now marching in the streets.
"So instead of trying to chase people trapped by Breitbart and its cohorts in conservative media, give them a reason to get excited about rallying around Democrats," he said.

Alternate political universes

Democrats' short-term fate, though, rests in part on whether the party can hold onto Senate seats in Trump states.
In those areas, senators are struggling to wrap their minds around the alternate universes of the Trump presidency so far.
In one -- where the women's marches, airport protests and pro-Obamacare town hall turnout are the dominant storylines and former alt-right Breitbart news executive Steve Bannon is seen as a shadow president -- Trump has walked himself into repeated controversies and revealed himself to be just what the Clinton campaign warned he was.
In another -- where rural and exurban voters with little economic opportunity sought to send someone to shake up a political world they thought had lost touch with their needs -- Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, jumpstarted the Keystone pipeline, taken steps toward renegotiating other trade deals, hosted top labor union leaders at the White House and is fulfilling some of his top campaign promises.
"You folks have been terrific to me," Trump told union representatives as they joined Harley-Davidson executives in a recent meeting at the White House. "Sometimes your top people didn't support me but the steelworkers supported me."
Many left-leaning organizations are still trying to feel their ways around the new White House.
"It's like 'Game of Thrones' right now in the Trump administration -- it's kind of hard to tell who's going to come out on top," said Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO's deputy chief of staff.
US Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who represents many of those "downriver" voters, said she is focused on how to use language that makes clear that "I am inclusive of everybody, but I'm also fighting for those UAW workers who think we've forgotten them, or those Teamsters whose pensions are being threatened to be cut."
Dingell added: "Those are our constituents who we have to be a voice for, too. We've got to find a way to talk about it so they know we are the fighters for them and that we will stand strong, and that we care about those issues."

The populist solution

Increasingly, Democrats are moving toward a message styled after populist stalwarts such as Warren, Bernie Sanders and US Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Their case: The problem wasn't Trump's promises, or what his campaign represented -- it's that in office, he's promoting his billionaire friends and failing to take care of those who carried him to the presidency.
US Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, another Democrat up for re-election in 2018, said 9,000 people turned out in January at a pro-Obamacare rally in Macomb County -- a key swing region that helped tip Michigan for Trump.
"There were people that I know that attended that supported President Trump that didn't really believe he was going to take away their health care or cut their Medicare," she said. "People thought they were voting for change, and now are saying, 'Wait a minute, I didn't mean that.'
"I'm still fighting for the same people in Michigan that want a shot to stay in the middle class," Stabenow said. "I think this is really more about (communicating) that."
Other Democrats made a similar argument -- saying the activist energy is increasingly pushing them toward populist policies.
US Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who easily won in a district Trump carried, said the party's problems can be addressed partially through simple moves such as "supermarket Saturdays," job-shadowing blue-collar workers and sitting through lengthy appearances on rural radio stations.
"We've also got to make sure that we're disciplined about what our values are. We know that our policies resonate with people -- with these folks who want to try Trump," she said.
"Our theory right now is that they're going to have buyer's remorse -- that they tried him because they wanted something different; they were tired of the status quo; they felt left behind by this wage stagnation," Bustos said. "We have the right policies to address that. But we haven't always gone deep into the kind of districts where people have felt left behind."

The Supreme Court problem

A particular cause of heartburn for red-state Democratic senators is the upcoming confirmation battle over Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
It was, after all, the expectation that Trump would appoint conservative justices -- whose tenures would long outlast his presidency -- that kept many moderate Republicans behind his candidacy.
It's a conundrum: Do Democrats risk undercutting their own cause by waging war over Trump's most conventional decision yet?
So Senate Democrats are slow-walking their way around Gorsuch, promising to give him due consideration -- buying themselves more time to figure out whether they have 41 out of 48 Democratic votes necessary to block him, and whether it's even the fight they want.
"Explaining anything having to do with courts or law is a challenge -- not because it's inconsequential but because it can't be dramatized with a picture and a face and a voice," said US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.
"So we need to make sure the American people understand what's at stake," Blumenthal said. "The gobbledygook and the legal jargon are very confusing. And just now as I'm talking to you, I'm realizing that I'm sort of going off into the ether."
Moulitsas said red-state Democrats should forget using those votes to try to prove themselves as moderates.
The likes of Donnelly and Heitkamp "aren't going to win re-election on the strength of Trump voters impressed by their confirmation votes," he said.
"The best chance they have to win in their tough states will be by riding this incredible wave of energy. It may not be enough, but pissing off the base certainly isn't the better bet. You either ride in with the people who brought you, or go down fighting honorably," Moulitsas said. "Pretending to be a 'Republican, but a little less bad' has never inspired a dramatic re-election victory."