As a special House election loomed in an upstate New York swing district, conventional wisdom decreed that Democrat Pat Ryan would surely lose. Ryan’s Republican opponent led in every poll, voters in the district had favored Trump by seven points in 2016, and, as a general rule, the “out” party typically picks up lots of House seats in a midterm year – especially at a time when everyone is supposedly fixated on inflation.
But earlier this week, Ryan defied the odds and shocked his own advisers by notching an upset victory. Blue turnout was far higher than anticipated. In post-election remarks, he nailed the big reason why: “Choice was on the ballot. Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won. We voted like our democracy was on the line because it is...We centered the concept of freedom...Patriotism to me means, when your fellow Americans’ rights are being taken away, you stand up and fight, not just for yourself, but for them as well.”
As you probably know, Republicans have long monopolized the flag and branded themselves as the champs of “freedom.” But this year Democrats are endeavoring to reframe “freedom” to their own advantage – to wit, freedom from MAGA proto-fascism, freedom from the Supreme Court theocrats, freedom from Second Amendment gun fetishists, freedom from Republican vote-suppression, freedom from right-wing homophobes who want to end gay marriage, freedom from climate change deniers, and, arguably most timely of all, freedom for women to make their own most intimate health decisions despite the forced-birth diktat that killed Roe v. Wade.
In other words, as Pat Ryan just demonstrated in upstate New York, linking abortion rights to the broader theme of freedom can be a potent midterm message. This was also evident earlier this month when voters in Kansas, of all places, delivered a landslide referendum win for abortion, triggered in part by the belief that government shouldn’t meddle to restrict women’s freedom.
Nervous Republicans have now taken notice – scaling back their earlier expectations of a “red wave,” especially in the House. As GOP pollster Whit Ayres noted, “It appears that the U.S. Supreme Court did Democrats a significant political favor with the Dobbs (Roe-killing) decision. There has clearly been an increase in Democratic enthusiasm since that decision, and that has translated into higher Democratic turnout.” Indeed, nonpartisan election analyst David Wasserman said this week that continued Democratic control of the House chamber is “not out of the question.”
Well, let’s not get too giddy here. Republicans need only net a five-seat pickup to recapture the House, and they’re targeting 16 Democratic districts that Trump won in the 2020 presidential tally. On the other hand, love for Trump in many of those districts may well be on the wane, given the fact that he stole highly classified documents and risks criminal indictments for multiple reasons in multiple venues.
Plus, the Democrats’ freedom message, which includes freedom from MAGA coups, has the potential to further galvanize blue-leaning turnout now that gas prices have dropped by more than a buck a gallon – freeing up more voters to think more broadly about where America is heading. In New York state, Ryan’s opponent in the House race ignored abortion and focused on inflation – and it doomed him.
By talking up freedom, Ryan took his cues from a burgeoning Democratic consensus. A former Obama aide, Dan Pfeiffer, hit on the freedom message earlier this summer. He wasn’t the only one – various progressive groups spent the summer honing that theme – but his arguments may well prove prescient. He wrote in his Substack newsletter:
“I would humbly suggest something like the ‘American Freedom Agenda.’ There are two advantages to framing (it) around freedom. First, there is a lot of polling circulating in the party that shows that, in the wake of the Dobbs decision and 1/6 hearings, focusing on freedom is a powerfully persuasive message. Second, ‘freedom’ can serve as a bridge between various Democratic issues...The goal is to simplify the Democratic agenda into an easily understandable digital palm card of sorts.”
Pfeiffer wrote that before President Biden and the Democratic Congress scored their recent string of legislative victories. At this point, seizing the “freedom” brand doesn’t seem like a big risk at all. I also remember when the Republican concept featured freedom from Russian tyranny. The Putin-palling party has forfeited that one for the foreseeable future.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org