The secret to Democrats winning again

Some MT voters unfazed by body-slam charges
Some MT voters unfazed by body-slam charges

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Some MT voters unfazed by body-slam charges 02:22

Story highlights

  • Krystal Ball: After Democrats lost the special election in Montana, is it even clearer that the party has a branding problem
  • Democrats come off as elitist, and they need to start putting up candidates who can connect with working-class voters, writes Ball

Krystal Ball is the executive director and founder of the People's House Project, an initiative to elect more Democrats in Midwestern and Appalachian states, and author of "Reversing the Apocalypse: Hijacking the Democratic Party to Save the World." Ball is a former Virginia congressional candidate and a current resident of Kentucky. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)Another special-election loss, this time in Montana, has kicked off a round of soul searching and excuse making in the Democratic Party. Sure, this loss came in a state that Trump won by 20-plus points. Sure, we outperformed based on the partisan makeup of the state.

But the fact remains, we lost to a candidate who allegedly assaulted a reporter on the eve of the election. We lost to a candidate who embraced our deeply flawed President. We lost to a candidate who, quite simply, should have been unelectable.
Krystal Ball
Why? Because as terrible as Trump is, and as bad as assaulting a reporter may be, none of this compares to the Democratic Party's awful job at branding its message and its messengers.
    Right now, our party has about the same level of credibility as Donald Trump. We claim to be fighting for middle- and working-class people, but it is obvious to all that our priorities lie first and foremost with the wealthy donors we rely on to fund our campaigns. This reality has eroded our moral standing and impacts the way our party operates at every level.
    Just consider the ads that Republican Greg Gianforte ran against Democratic hopeful Rob Quist. In them, a narrator informs viewers that Quist may talk folksy, but he's really just "Nancy Pelosi in a cowboy hat." This ad sends the message that Quist is just as tied to the donor class, just as beholden to special interests, just as bereft of ideas and just as condescending to the struggles of ordinary Americans as a distant, dreaded, unaccountable elite.
    And while Pelosi may connote liberalism to many, in much of the country, her brand is quite the opposite -- reflecting an elitism that can hurt Democrats on Election Day.
    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) took a lot of heat for not investing more in Quist's race and then had an "I told you so moment" after his loss, saying it "refused to waste money on hype."
    And in a sense, perhaps, the DCCC is right. Even when running against a candidate as dreadful as Gianforte, given the current brand of the Democratic Party, a special election in Montana is a lost cause. What they miss, however, is that this type of fatalism will consign us to defeat in most of the country. So how do we repair and restore the Democratic Party brand?
    It's clear that if we want to change where we are able to win, we need to change who we are running, how we are running and what we are running on. Let's start with the candidates we get behind. Because of our loyalty to the donor class, we recruit and support candidates based not on their character or connections to their communities, but on their ability to raise money.
    It will not surprise you that this is a less than optimal selection process. We would be better served running teachers, firefighters, nurses and local labor leaders who can actually speak with authority to the working and middle-class experience. Because the working class is substantially more diverse than the country as a whole, this would also naturally lead to more diversity among our leadership ranks.
    Paul Ryan responds to Gianforte's altercation
    Paul Ryan responds to Gianforte's altercation

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      Paul Ryan responds to Gianforte's altercation

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    Paul Ryan responds to Gianforte's altercation 00:49
    One of the reasons we have become obsessed with candidate fundraising prowess is because we have accepted conventional wisdom that the most important element in a campaign is money. We have accepted the guidance of the consultant industrial complex, which tells candidates the only way they can run credibly is by spending tens of thousands of dollars on preprinted mail pieces to get thrown in the garbage and hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads that most people will fast forward through.
    It's time to reassess these assumptions. Did Hillary Clinton lose because she didn't have enough money? Will Jon Ossoff win if we just throw another million dollars at his race? No. And if Jon Ossoff wins in Georgia, it will be because people were enthusiastic about him as a candidate. It will be because they showed up to knock on their neighbors' doors and made the effort on Election Day to wake up early or get home late so they could cast ballots.
    The biggest single thing we have going for us right now is the enthusiasm of people who are horrified by what they see happening to our country. Rather than outsourcing campaigns to D.C. consultants, harness that enthusiasm. We need to ask ourselves how much more receptive we would be to reading a handwritten letter from a neighbor rather than a preprinted postcard? How much more attention would we pay to a person knocking on our door than yet another annoying political TV ad?
    We could be running more effective races on a lot less money and go a long way toward rebuilding our credibility as a party of the people.
    The last thing we need to do, though, is the most critical. Resistance to Donald Trump is not enough. Ultimately, people won't show up to fight or vote if they aren't inspired by our vision. But no individual congressional candidate can create a large national vision -- that has to come from the party. On this measure, we have utterly failed.
    As I write in my book, our nation has undergone a massive economic shift that has left more and more Americans balancing precariously on low-paying, unstable service work. Three of the most common jobs in the country are cashier, sales clerk and food service worker. Not only is it impossible to raise a family on the wages from these jobs, but all three are threatened in the near term by automation.
    We talk about lifting the minimum wage, but let's be clear, this is palliative care for the middle class at best. What solutions have we offered to restore an economy where American workers can prosper? What vision have we laid out to address the seismic changes that are as large as the Industrial Revolution, but happening at the speed of the Internet? You offer people those answers, and you'll have plenty of grassroots donations to run winning campaigns.
    None of this can be done overnight or with one congressional campaign. But over time, if we continue to back candidates who are dissonant with the current brand of the party, run creative and authentic campaigns and detox from Wall Street and Silicon Valley contributions, we can compete everywhere.
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    And we can make sure that the unelectable, like Gianforte, stay unelected. Because the truth is that we are the party of the people. The current White House occupant and the enabling Republican Party have demonstrated time and again that their allegiance lies only with the rich in this country.
    And we have no choice but to try. The alternative is accepting the creeping fatalism offered by the DCCC and crossing a few more states off the list of places where we can credibly compete.
    I, for one, refuse to go out without a fight.