Talk to any Democrat running and they are excited about their party’s electoral prospects this fall. They lead by seven points on the generic ballot and a number of polls have found a generic Democrat or preferred candidate leading/tying the generic Republican (in open seat contests) or incumbent Republican. The excitement among the party faithful is palpable as fundraising has picked up and a record number of candidates are running.
But, with party excitement come internal party divisions and divided primaries. Therein lies the risk. While primaries excite the party base they also allow an activist minority to have the chance to nominate a candidate out of step with the general electorate. Republicans have struggled with this since 2010. Between then and 2014 the party coughed up a handful of House seats and at least five Senate seats (Delaware, Nevada, Missouri, Colorado and Indiana) by making this mistake. Only in 2014 did the party learn from its mistakes and back early their preferred candidate who then had time to cozy up to the grassroots.
When Democrats were in power they largely avoided these skirmishes. Conservative Democrats were recruited to run in rural areas while more progressive, urban candidates dominated the party’s traditional enclaves. This cycle, the party has not had the feared Clinton vs. Sanders camps battle it out in primaries. But, the Clinton vs. Sanders battles were ultimately never going to happen because they only served as proxies for the real battle between pragmatists who want to govern and progressive ideologues.
Due to the number of candidates running the party establishment has been hesitant to get involved in primaries. Plus, with limited cash the party elites wanted to see who actually was worth investing in. But, the problem with this wait and see approach is it makes it even worse when the party elites decide to get involved. The GOP made the same mistake in 2010 and 2012 and only course-corrected in 2014.
With the nation’s first primaries occurring in a week or so (Texas), there is little time for the party to institute a course correction. This is crucial because the Democratic path back to power, at least in the House, runs through moderate to conservative leaning suburbs taking in swathes of rural, white voters. Case in point might be a closely watched House race in suburban Texas. Texas Rep. John Culberson represents a suburban district that swung hard toward Clinton in 2016 and has an anemic campaign apparatus. But, journalist Laura Moser, easily called a Trump hater, is within striking distance of the party’s preferred candidates, attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis. In a significant move, the DCCC published a memo stating her campaign has pushed donations towards her husband’s consulting firm and fully disowned her as a candidate. Time will tell whether this move pays off or backfires but party leaders worry if Moser advances to a one-on-one matchup with another Democrat in the run-off she will have the edge. As Culberson has learned over the years, the general electorate is far different than the party faithful.
Reflecting the mistake the DCCC made is the early backlash they have received from progressive groups. NARAL President Ilyse Hogue wrote on Twitter, “Disappointed and dismayed to see anyone going after a genuine progressive and pro-choice committed leader like Laura.” Former Obama administration official and Pod Save Americacohost Tommy Vietor wrote, “The DCCC should apologize for this bullshit.” Moser arguably will benefit from having DCCC make such a transparent hit on her.
The other big and immediate worry for the party is California. Specifically, in Darrell Issa’s San Diego based CA-49. Issa is retiring and two known Republicans are running for the seat but due to California’s jungle primary the five Democrats running are risking splitting the vote and locking the party out of the general election. A recent survey found Republicans Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey) were the top two vote-getters while leading Democrat Doug Applegate was in a close third. This as voters preferred on the generic ballot a Democrat by 6 percent and Applegate led the field after positive information was disseminated. Worse, another candidate has the financial wealth to split the Democratic vote further.
In arguably an even better pick-up chance, David Valado sits in CA-21, a blue district that gave Clinton 55 percent of the vote. But, according to reports, Valado might skate through this election because his challenger, Emilio Huerta, who lost badly in 2016, might have the field to himself because his mother, Dolores Huerta, heads the powerful United Farmworkers Union and is actively discouraging other Democrats from running. Is the DCCC going to challenge a union powerhouse in the district?
Things are not looking much better elsewhere. In the open and swing NH-1 (the seat has switched hands four times in four elections), Bernie Sanders son, Levi Sanders, is talking about running. While Sanders did extremely well in the 2016 primary in the state he did well in the more liberal NH-2. Levi Sanders has described his positions as similar to his father and that would easily open him up to attacks as being far too liberal for the district. The perfect NH candidate who was carried by a wave to victory but later lost when he did not have that advantage was Paul Hodes (beaten by former Senator Kelly Ayotte in the 2010 Senate race).
These divisions have caught the attention of some in the party and Priorities USA, the powerhouse party super PAC, warned Democrats to stay focused on an economic message. The problem is the economy is humming along and the GOP tax bill is becoming more and more popular in the very suburbs the party is targeting.
Democrats are navigating a minefield becoming more common recently. The party faithful wants to win but they also want to be part of the resistance more. If enthusiasm is enough to generate a Democratic wave the party will be fine. Waves have pushed bad candidates over the top before (see Paul Hodes above). But, if the economy is the deciding factor and the GOP candidates run qualified and competent campaigns the Democrats might be giving up their chance to recapture the House in favor of ideological purity.