Democrats in Washington have sought to prevent a progressive insurgency and cluttered California primaries from imperiling their chances of retaking the U.S. House.
The effort will be tested over the next two weeks, including during a runoff election in Texas on Tuesday, a content that has exposed tensions between the party’s establishment and its emboldened left wing. Next follows primaries in California on June 5 where the crowd of Democratic candidates in some districts risks splintering votes and handing victory to Republicans in November.
The Democratic establishment faced a rare defeat last week at the hands of a progressive upstart, when political newcomer Kara Eastman bested a party favorite in a primary race for a swing district in Nebraska.
“We see Kara’s victory as the tip of the iceberg, with more primary and general election victories to come,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Eastman in the race to represent much of the Omaha metropolitan area.
“The Democratic establishment sometimes seems to have a warped view of what makes a candidate viable,” Green said. “Voters want to be inspired.”
Eastman’s win alarmed some Democrats. Although Green’s group and Our Revolution, a spin-off of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, are backing just a fraction of the hundreds of Democratic candidates running this year, some, like Eastman, are in districts that are prime targets for the party to flip from Republican control.
Given the narrow margin Democrats have to get a House majority — a net gain of 23 seats among the 435 in the chamber — every opportunity counts. After Eastman won the Democratic primary, the House campaign analyst at the nonpartisan Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed the race rating for the Omaha-based district to “lean Republican” from “toss-up.”
A similar struggle looms in Texas. The battle there is over an affluent Houston-area district represented by Republican John Culberson. Democrats targeted the seat after Hillary Clinton won it narrowly in 2016.
Progressive activist Laura Moser is battling lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. The contest grew bitter after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee intervened by shopping opposition research against Moser, apparently out of concern she can’t win the general election. The move backfired. Moser, who’s endorsed by Our Revolution, rallied support from liberal groups and forced Fletcher into a runoff as the other five candidates split the Democratic vote.
“As we saw in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, Democrats who fit their districts and have deep records of service win tough races,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said, referring to moderate Democrat Conor Lamb’s recent victory in what had been a GOP district. “The primaries have thus far yielded uniquely strong nominees who are taking the fight to Republicans.”
Another Our Revolution candidate, Rick Trevino, narrowly forced a runoff Tuesday against Gina Ortiz Jones in a Republican-leaning Texas district now represented by Republican Will Hurd.
Other Democratic primaries similarly pit establishment favorites running on safe, poll-tested issues like rising health care costs and opposition to the Republican tax cut against fresh faces with more progressive ideas.
California’s Dianne Feinstein, 84, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, faces a challenge a week from now from Kevin de Leon, the president pro tempore of the State Senate, who’s running on single-payer health insurance.
Another veteran lawmaker, Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney, 72, faces a challenge in New York’s June 6 primary from 34-year-old lawyer Suraj Patel, who’s running on legalizing marijuana, Medicare-for-all, and tuition-free college. And Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, is challenging Massachusetts Rep. Michael Capuano from the left in a heavily Democratic district in September.
“It’s a vast change from a world where Democrats either ran on nothing or ran on the same stale ideas of the last 20 years, to see current candidates running on big ideas like Medicare-for-all, a jobs guarantee, and other very pro-worker policies,” Green said. “The center of gravity is definitely moving in the Democratic Party.”
The primaries show the undercurrents of a changing party, from a leftward policy tug among incumbents and candidates alike, to ranks of fledgling candidates that include more women, young people, and ethnic minorities. The new faces reflect the changing demographics of the country, and especially a Democratic Party that’s become reliant on those voters, who propelled President Barack Obama to two decisive election victories.
“The pitch there is more about representation of under-represented people. That might be also a part of the emergence of women candidates on the Democratic side,” said Kyle Kondik, an election analyst with Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
“As the country is becoming more diverse, the Democrats are becoming more reliant on nonwhite voters and women and it shows up in who’s running,” Kondik said. He added that some of the more ideological candidates who excite the left may still win the general election in a potential Democratic wave year.
For the most part, though, Democrats are facing something well short of a full-blown liberal revolt.
Centrists including Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana won renomination, the latter two with ease. Democrats, who are defending 25 Senate seats this year, have stamped out serious primary challenges to the 10 senators facing re-election in states won by President Donald Trump.
In fact, the greatest danger may be a collection of Republican-held seats in Southern California that are top pickup targets and crucial to Democratic hopes of winning the House.
Seven of the 23 Republican-held House districts nationwide that were won by Clinton are in the state. But Democrats risk shutting themselves out of the general election ballot in the state’s primary system, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party.
In multiple districts, Democrats are fielding so many candidates they risk splitting the vote and sending two Republicans on to the November ballot. According to Kondik, the three likeliest places where that could happen are districts currently held by Republicans: the 39th, based in Fullerton, where Ed Royce is retiring; the 48th, in Orange County, now held by Dana Rohrabacher; and the 49th district in San Diego, where Darrell Issa is also retiring.
“California really stands out as the most important primary remaining,” Kondik said. “All this other stuff pales in comparison to that.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents a San Francisco district, said last week that because of that risk, members of California’s congressional delegation may take the unusual step of making endorsements in the primaries.
“They may be subjected to criticism for that,” she told reporters, “but I’d rather be criticized for winning, than criticized for losing.”
In another move to settle things down in California, the DCCC hailed an agreement between two of the Democrats running for Royce’s seat, Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn, to refrain from attacking each other in the final days before the primary.
But in the race to unseat Rohrabacher, eight Democrats are on the ballot, and party leaders are split over the best candidate. At the same time, Rohrabacher has a credible Republican challenger and the two of them could emerge with the most votes if the Democratic vote is splintered.
“Control of the House could come down to a handful of seats,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, “so blowing otherwise winnable California races could make a big difference.”
— Read Democrats Unified Against Trump but Torn on Election Agenda on ThinkAdvisor.