If there was one thing that hampered the Tea Party movement in 2010 it was their adherence to anything non-establishment. Their backing of ideological firebrands led to GOP losses in winnable seats (Delaware, Colorado and Nevada being the standouts).
As I reported previously the grassroots has little patience for lawmakers that do not put all their efforts into opposing Trump and have been actively recruiting candidates to run against these “traitors.” Well, they now have a candidate.
— Paula Swearengin (@Paula25801) May 1, 2017
For reference, Paula is a far outside the mainstream Democrat in the Bernie Sanders mold of economic populism but staunch social liberalism. This has led some commentators and analysts to ask whether Democrats are setting themselves up to repeat the GOP’s mistakes in 2010 and 2012; allowing a far outside the mainstream candidate/s to defeat a much more electable, mainstream candidate and sink the party’s chances in the general.
Already, there are clear signs beyond West Virginia the Democratic base is echoing the Tea Party. A slew of organizations have popped up to promote the grassroots challenges to sitting lawmakers (Daily Kos being a big cheer leader for many of them). Christine O’Donnell never would have been able to topple Mike Castle if not for outside support. That said, many of the major groups for ideological purity in 2010, such as the Tea Party Express, benefited themselves far more than the ideological puritans they supported.
Manchin is probably safe. In a Democratic primary in West Virginia even the most ardent liberals don’t agree with a lefty on every issue. But in other districts such as Dan Lipiniski’s in Illinois and Lacy Clay in Missouri, true moderate liberals could be endangered. Neither district is likely to flip to team red. But the financial resources wasted in a primary challenge could be better expended against the overexposed GOP in swing seats.
That said, so far there are a few key differences between today and 2010.
Ideological Candidates Still Need A Base
Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and Ken Buck all had experience in politics. Buck was a former Weld County, DA, Angle a former state legislator and O’Donnell had twice run for office unsuccessfully. They had something of a base to work with and ran in a favorable national climate boosting their efforts. Of course, they also were not running against political neophytes and their weaknesses as firebrands were fully exposed.
So far, left-wing Democratic primary challengers do not seem to have such advantages. Neither Swearengin in West Virginia nor the challenger to Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Dustin Peyer, have much experience in politics. They’ve never run for office, are largely unknown and lack deep financial support to date. Firebrands are great and all for a grassroots ready to stick it to the establishment but they still need to win. Speaking of winning you need……..
Quality Candidates (Yes, they still matter)
Examples abound of candidates of candidates that fit two narratives; the moderate who is able to win in tough political environments but falls in an ideologically charged primary and the firebrand that wins a general election in a favorable environment but gets crushed in any other cycle.
Take the case of Dick Lugar. Lugar was elected in 1977 and coasted to reelection several times. In 2006, he won in the Democratic wave easily. But, in 2012, he lost by over 20 points to a conservative challenger in the primary. Mourdock would go on to lose because of a foolish comment about rape,
Or look at Paul Hodes. Elected to Congress in New Hampshire in 2006 he coasted to reelection in 2008. But move onward to 2010 when he ran for Senate and he was crushed by Kelly Ayotte by over 20 points.
The point being quality candidates still matter. Many Democrats running in Trump states have strong, local brands which is why the GOP is trying to recruit strong challengers. They have not had much success thus far.
The Rules Matter
West Virginia is probably not the state for an upset to happen. For the reason already mentioned above but also because the state has a Democratic closed primary. As long as Manchin does not anger unions and culturally conservative Democrats he should win easily.
But the same cannot be said for Heitkamp, Donnelly or McCaskill. All three states have open primaries where a Democrat running to their left might have more success. The nightmare scenario for Democrats might actually come in Maine. It goes something like this; King draws a progressive challenger who consolidates the liberal vote and sucks the life out a big part of King’s base. A traditional Republican runs and consolidates the center-right vote and King loses to an opponent with a narrow plurality (this assumes the new ranked voting system is thrown out by the state’s high court).
Keep in mind this is hypothetical. But King has voted fairly often with Trump and the grassroots does not look kindly on these types of lawmakers. At a time when the party is basing its electoral strategy on opposing the President, King seems determined to carve a moderate path and hope his local brand is strong enough to win out over ideological purity.
Should Democrats Worry?
Democrats probably should not worry. Why? Because for all the Tea Party’s failures and the problems it continues to cause in the GOP it gave them the House in 2010, Senate in 2014 and arguably drew Trump a roadmap for winning in 2016.
However, it will be interesting to see how other factors play out. Democrats need 24 seats in the House to gain a majority and they also need everything to right in the Senate to just not lose seats. Diehards running in swing, moderate suburban districts will probably hurt the party more than help. Additionally, many of the Democrats eliminated in 2010 were recently elected (2006 or 2008) or sat in deeply red districts where their local brand could just no longer outrun partisan tendencies. Endangered Republicans have had more time to build their local brands and have already won in a tough environment (in some cases multiple times).
If anything, ideological purity will help Democrats electorally but divide them ideologically if the recent spat over Heath Mello in Omaha is any indication. That could have implications for the party in 2020 and beyond as it did for Republicans in 2012 and does to this day.