It was a secret meeting about an existential crisis.
Gathered behind closed doors in a Denver hotel, 30 conservative Democrats plotted a potential path forward for their party – an effort to devise a strategy that might help them avoid total annihilation in red states across America.
These political moderates had been called together by former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, and they showed up out of fear that their party is growing more liberal by the day, and less interested in their centrist positions.
Over a packed three-day schedule with a battery of presentations, the U.S. senators, former federal prosecutors, mayors and top Cabinet officials from the Obama administration in attendance talked about faith and religious voters, heard from a radio host about a medium typically reserved for conservatives and considered research suggesting that liberal priorities – like student loan debt – are just not a big deal.
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It was hardly a typical Democratic event. But that, Begich said, was the point.
“You can’t get the majorities back without independent and centrist Democrats. You just can’t,” Begich told McClatchy. “It’s important that we come together and figure that out without conflicting with other groups.”
The former senator said the participants “saw an opportunity to come lay down their ideas and not worry about . . . is one group going to like it? Or is one group not going to like it?”
“That’s a strong statement to the Democratic Party because that means there are wings of the party that want to do the right thing, knowing we have some challenges,” the Alaska politician said.
Begich and other Democrats at the forum said they didn’t want to provoke the party’s progressive wing, which has argued vehemently since last year’s election that Democrats need to adopt the type of muscular liberal agenda advocated by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent Vermont senator. In interview after interview, the party centrists who attended said they could find enough common ground with the party’s left wing to avoid conflict.
The forum’s guest list was nonetheless a who’s-who of current officeholders and former candidates from red states, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Stacey Abrams, the minority leader for the Georgia General Assembly, and Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville.
Begich would not name all the participants, saying some of them preferred to keep their involvement private. But Conner Eldridge, a former U.S. attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in Arkansas, said in an interview that he’d brought six former U.S. attorneys. (He declined to name them.)
Ken Salazar, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of the interior, was also there, his office confirmed. Salazar is considering a run for governor of Colorado next year.
Presentations included a discussion about faith, and what millennials and Generation Z – America’s youngest generation – are experiencing in the economy and politically.
Joel Heitkamp, the senator’s brother and a talk radio host in North Dakota, addressed the group to discuss how the participants could engage with radio, usually the sole province of conservatives.
The presentations helped the group arrive at four core values that would unite Democrats of all kinds, according to Begich: security, opportunity, compassion and results.
“If you’re an independent Democrat in Alaska, you care about those four issues,” Begich said.
“If you’re a liberal in California, do you care about those four issues? The answer is yes.”
But the group’s red-state makeup guaranteed a different tone and tenor to the discussion than many Democrats are having elsewhere.
Those who attended said it was necessary because it was easy for Democrats to ignore their compatriots in Republican-leaning states, if for no other reason than that there were simply more blue-state Democrats.
And even when red-state Democrats are heard, they might be ignored.
“They tend to dominate the conversation,” said Abrams, the legislative leader in Georgia, whom many Democrats consider one of the party’s foremost rising stars. “By virtue of being in a red state, we are often fighting for attention, but we also have a credibility challenge because we don’t win as often.”
Still, even if Begich and others say they don’t want a fight with progressives, there are substantive differences in how the two sides see the world.
Abrams, for example, said Georgia had a law forbidding cities from mandating a higher minimum wage for private-sector workers – making progressive calls for the $15 minimum all but moot in her state.
And Begich said research he’d seen showed that younger voters didn’t care nearly as much about student debt as some liberals believed. It’s led the party to advocate solutions for problems that people simply don’t care as much about, he said.
“It was shocking to me, honestly shocking,” Begich said. “Because I’m thinking OK, the liberal wing talks about these things, which on the surface are fantastic. But we as Democrats are talking about things where we think people should be, and where the population is is actually a little different.”
He added, “I wouldn’t call it a conflict but that’s where the rub occurs.”
Begich and the rest of the group plan to try to meet again, as Democrats move closer to the 2018 midterm elections, in which the party hopes to gain seats in the House of Representatives while keeping down its losses in the Senate, where many red-state Democrats face re-election.
Participants said they planned to keep spreading the message.
“We all share some commonalities with the states we come from, and where we come from on the political spectrum,” said Eldridge, the former U.S. attorney from Arkansas. “There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure we continue to have strong advocacy for these values that we find in the heartland, in red and rural states.
“That’s something I’m dedicated to working to further. I think everyone in this group is dedicated to that.”