The Democratic Divide Threatens 2018 Successes

Jon Ossoff is a slight favorite to succeed former Congressman Tom Price in GA-6.  The district, ancestrally red but now a deep shade of purple (turning bluer everyday) is ripe for a partisan change in Congress.  But, despite what I have written in the past, Ossoff is anything but a typical liberal.

On social justice and the environment Ossoff is as progressive as they come.  But, on taxes and healthcare, he certainly sounds quite moderate.  For example, he opposes a single payer healthcare system (at a time when the base demands it) and has signaled his opposition to any increase in income taxes.  Despite the cash Ossoff has raised (it’s a lot) it seems progressives are less interested in his positions and what he will do in Congress and more interested in giving Trump a black eye.

Party leadership is fine with this of course.  They have stoked the base’s anger and fear of Trump and after several spectacular special election failures need some a success.  OIt helps Ossoff leans more in their direction than the other way around.

But, the only thing holding the opposing factions of the party together is opposition to Trump.  Literally!  On strategy and politics the Democratic Party of 2017 looks like the GOP of 2009; rudderless and desperately searching for a path forward.  Centrists and moderate progressives decry Sander’s supporters while Sander’s supporters state these “neoliberal” lovers back a spine.

Internal ideological battles within political parties are nothing new.  But, they have real consequences.  In 2010, the GOP’s inability to corral hardliner conservative candidates led to several high profile defeats in winnable primaries and general elections.  In 2012, the same thing happened.  By 2014, the party had gotten its act together and more electable nominees made it to general election contests in droves.

But, last year, even with Trump seemingly driving the party, down-ballot Republicans did amazingly well in primaries and general elections.  Trump’s seizure and splitting of the party certainly did not hurt Republicans.  Further, Republicans actually did quite well in 2010 in the House and they did gain six seats in the Senate.

Democrats don’t face quite the same dynamic as the Republicans of yesteryear.  Rather, they are forced to defend centrist Senators in Trump states and they have many, many shots in swing state Governors contests.

Differently, in the House, they have a plethora of targets and good recruiting but the kinds of candidates that make it to next November are not a certainty.  So did Republicans in 2010 but the majority of their Congressional candidates were more mainline conservatives.  They also benefited somewhat from Democratic waves in 2006 and 2008 that pushed a bunch of liberal representatives into non-liberal districts.

The internal Democratic divide on strategy, tactics and ideology has been on full display.  In KS-4, a centrist candidate James Thompson ran and lost, closely, in a district Trump won by 27 points.  The same thing happened in Montana.  But the real divide was shown to be a chasm in the Omaha Mayoral race.

Then candidate Heath Mello was a Sanderista in the sense he focused more on class politics than race or gender.  He, dare I say it, once voted for abortion restrictions.  The identity politics wing of the party went nuts and the Daily Kos actually unendorsed him.  Worse, Sander’s endorsement of the candidate probably hurt more than helped him and he lost in a relatively blue city by nine percent.  And even though Democrats are favored in November in Virginia after their brutal primary but relatively noncompetitive primary between Sanderista Tom Perrellio and Clinton backer Ralph Northam the battle lines were clearly drawn in the contest for months.

You might be going so what?  Recent electoral history suggests blanket opposition to a President leads to success (see 2010 and 2014).  Well, yes and no?  It can to some degree, and sometimes, but never always.

The example of 2010 is relevant because Republicans lost winnable seats in the Senate.  In 2012, GOP opposition to Obama did not get Romney to the White House.  Certainly, while Republicans had the better night last November, they did lose House and Senate seats.

Going even further back, rampant opposition to a President does not guarantee success.  Republican opposition to Clinton in 93 and 94 led to big gains.  But two years later Clinton won reelection by 10 percent.  Two years after that the GOP’s pursuit of impeachment proceedings against Clinton cost them House seats and the Speakership of Newt Gingrich.

Fast forward to 2002 and Democrats opposition to Bush actually cost them the Senate!  Republicans gained seats and held the White House in 2004.  While it is certainly true Democrats hammered Bush in 2006 and 2008 they also made notable compromises with the President than endeared them to centrist and rural voters leading to their massive Congressional majorities.

Recent and past electoral history is important here because Democrats seem intent on pursuing a strategy reminiscent of the GOP of 1998 and yet try to find moderate candidates like Ossoff to run in swing seats.

This likely won’t sit well with the party’s base of identity politics driven women and single payer, the rich should pay more Sander’s backers.  Each demands fealty to their causes.  This could cause divides within the party on candidates during primaries and even general elections.

It could also alienate swing voters from Centrist Senators feeling they must appeal to the base more than swing voters.  Congressional candidates running on a message of higher taxes and single payer healthcare would be likely be targeted by their GOP opponents for wanting to tax the middle class to death.  None of these options are appealing for a party desperate to show voters it can govern.  Certainly Republicans are not the perfect picture of a unified party, but by all appearances on healthcare and perhaps taxes the party is unifying around key concepts.

The worst scenario for Democrats is that the base’s desire for Impeaching Trump makes them look tone-deaf and too aggressive for swing and middle of the road voters across the country.  Blind opposition to the President and governing party might win you a midterm but it makes your lack of a broader message obvious two years later.  Democrats seem intent on repeating the mistakes of the GOP in 1998, so maybe Democrats will blow even a winnable midterm.  All because their divide was to wide for the party to bridge and too aggressive for the swing voters the party has lost over the years.

 

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