When the top Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Houston last week, they debated a radical health care overhaul and mandatory gun confiscation while striking an uncompromising tone toward President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
About 15 miles away, the message from a lesser-known but still-important Democrat was decidedly different.
“I see that over and over again, where people treat folks on the other side of the aisle not like Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, where they could sit down and talk about things, but as you’re an enemy of my country and an enemy of me,” Sri Preston Kulkarni, a Democratic candidate for a House seat in eastern Texas, said in an interview.
Referencing the bipartisan deal-making of a former Democratic House speaker and Republican president is part of a broader strategy from Kulkarni, who is pushing for the need for compromise while running in Texas’ 22nd district, which is expected to be among the top House battlegrounds in 2020.
But like many Democratic candidates in competitive down-ballot races, Kulkarni’s relatively moderate message and agenda are at times wildly at odds from some of his party’s leading contenders for the White House — particularly progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
It’s a disconnect some Democratic operatives worry will harm the party’s chances as they seek to maintain their House majority and take control of the Senate.
“Depending on the nominee, there’s going to have to be a crash course in how these candidates frame their message alongside what’s happening at the presidential ticket,” said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly, adding that reconciling the two approaches would be “daunting.”
Kulkarni is running in the 22nd district again after losing an unexpectedly close race to an incumbent Republican in 2018 who has since announced he is leaving office. He describes outright banning semi-automatic assault rifles as “tough” because of Texas’s “strong gun-owning culture,” while presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke are proposing a mandatory gun buyback program.
On health care, Kulkarni emphasizes preserving protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions and bringing down the cost of prescription drug prices, while accusing White House hopefuls who insist only their own plan will work of being overly dogmatic.
It’s the kind of moderate approach he and other Democrats think is necessary to win over middle-of-the-road voters, especially in the fast-changing suburbs where many of next year’s most competitive races will play out.
“If any of those candidates tells you they know the final health care bill right now, they’re just lying,” Kulkarni said, speaking from his campaign headquarters in a suburb just outside of Houston. “I’d rather just be honest and say it’s going to take a lot of time sitting at the table to come up with something that’s better than we have right now.”
That’s a different approach than the one taken by Sanders and Warren, both of whom have called for a single-payer health care plan that eventually phases out private health insurance.
Other Democratic presidential candidates have also called for decriminalizing illegal border crossings or examining whether reparations should be made to the African-American descendants of slaves — positions not shared by the bulk of the party’s battleground Senate and House candidates.
Republicans think they can exploit this dynamic, both to tag Democrats as dangerously liberal and potentially expose rifts within the party’s base.
“When the caricature of a far-left Democrat is no longer a caricature, but rather their actual presidential nominee, Republicans will have a field day defining their down-ballot candidates across the country,” said Andy Sere, a veteran GOP strategist. “When voters watch these debates, they’ll put more stock into what they see between — not during — commercial breaks, and down-ballot Democrat ads pledging ‘moderation’ will ring hollow when their presidential candidates are talking up ‘confiscation,’ ‘decriminalization’ and ‘reparations.’”
In 2018, Democrats took control of the House with candidates that balanced a focus on pocketbook issues like protections for those with pre-existing conditions with criticism of Trump’s polarizing presence in the White House.
Most of the party’s swing-district candidates are hoping to replicate the approach in 2020, as are major Senate candidates like John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Sara Gideon in Maine, and Mark Kelly in Arizona. None of those three Senate candidates, for instance, supports a single-payer health care system.
Democrats are aiming to hold on to, if not expand, their 18-seat majority in the House, while Republicans are protecting a three-seat advantage in the Senate.
Democratic strategists are mindful of the gap that could split open between their down-ballot candidates and eventual presidential nominee. For now, at least, party leaders say that the differences between the candidates are manageable, especially compared to those with Republicans.
“There’s a fundamental alignment among all of our candidates,” said Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Perez held an event last week in Texas’s 7th congressional district, next door to the 22nd district, to focus on the suburban gains Democrats made in 2018 and plan to capitalize on in 2020.
All of the Democratic candidates, Perez said, think all Americans should have access to affordable health care, even if there are disagreements about how best to do it.
“There’s no disagreement about climate science,” Perez said. “There’s no disagreement about the fact shouldn’t be put in cages and separated from their adult parents. And there’s no disagreement on these core issues of investing in public education.”
Other Democrats point out that for all the concern about the primary, the party has had a largely consistent lead on the generic congressional ballot. Democrats could also nominate a candidate like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar, whose differences with battleground congressional candidates are less glaring. And even more liberal candidates like Warren might make their message more general-election friendly after winning the nomination.
Democrats also argue that Republicans, despite having an incumbent in office, will still have a top-of-the-ticket problem of their own.
“The Democratic nominee will matter,” said one House Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The Republican nominee will matter a hell of a lot more.”
In Texas, Kulkarni’s agenda would still have plenty of overlap with any eventual Democratic presidential nominee. He has expressed passionate disagreement with Trump’s agenda and tone, supports repealing the GOP-backed 2017 tax law and wants to improve the Affordable Care Act.
For now, though, his message is distinctly different.
“Our country was not designed for everybody to agree on everything,” he said. “That would be North Korea. Our country was designed for people who disagree to say, ‘There’s more that unites us than divides us. I care about your interests, you care about my interest because we live in a society together.’”