Democrats set to clash in special House elections
Democrats are set to clash in at least three special House races next year that could break open long-simmering divides within the party.
Bubbling tensions are already coming into view in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, where Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) is leaving her deep-blue Cleveland-area district to join the Biden administration. Former state Sen. Nina Turner (D), a favorite of the progressive flank of the party who has thrown her hat in the race to replace Fudge, is already attracting criticism over past reproaches of President-elect Joe Biden.
Similar dynamics could play out in the races to fill two other blue districts in Louisiana and New Mexico that are being vacated by Reps. Cedric Richmond (D) and Deb Haaland (D), respectively, who are also expected to fill administration positions.
“Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that we try to divide among ourselves to see who’s the bluest of the blue, who’s the reddest of the red,” said Louisiana state Sen. Troy Carter (D), one contender for Richmond’s New Orleans-based seat. “You can shake it up, and you can make some noise, and you can have symbolic victories because you make a lot of noise, or you can get things done and you can be effective.”
Democrats were wracked with ideological fissures following the 2016 elections but largely put them on the back burner as members united around opposition to President Trump. With Trump gone, those divides could burst open again in what will likely be crowded fields of candidates.
The intraparty cracks are already beginning to widen in the race for Fudge’s seat, where Turner is trying to beat back criticism that she would be an opposing force to Biden’s administration in Washington. Critics have already begun seizing on Turner’s past rebukes of Biden, pointing to comments such as her comparison of voting for Biden to eating half “a bowl of shit.”
Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson (D), who is also running for Fudge’s seat, told The Hill in an interview that he is not looking to get into “trivial and silly” fights within the party but that Turner’s comments are “relevant to how you will be representing the interests of the 11th District.”
“I think it’s irresponsible for anyone to come and ask for votes from the 11th District and then go to Washington to constantly challenge and confront Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, as stated by Sen. Turner and her allies looking forward to her coming so that they can force issues like ‘Medicare for All,’” he said.
Turner batted away that criticism, telling The Hill she has enjoyed an “outpouring of support and energy” around her campaign and that the voters will have the final say as to who they want their next representative to be.
“I am not running against or fighting against President Elect Biden. I can work with anyone who is committed to working on behalf of the people. We should all work together for the common good for the greatest number of people. That is my only goal,” she said in an email.
“A primary is the exchange of ideas; it is a contest of ideas,” Turner added. “We will compete and the voters will get the final say.”
Beyond Fudge’s seat, progressives are anticipated to make strong plays for the other soon-to-be-open seats. They aren’t expected to be competitive given Democrats’ wide margins for each seat, and liberals have long focused on contesting safe districts across the country they say have moved to the left of some of their centrist lawmakers.
“The three open seats we’re talking about right now, those are not centrist seats. Those are deep-blue seats, and they should go to deep-blue candidates,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist.
Tensions between centrists and progressives are expected to grow in the coming year, with liberal groups indicating they plan to press Biden to adopt policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal that he’s already dismissed. And with the already narrow House majority anticipated to grow even slimmer given the House vacancies, strategists said an intraparty clash could jeopardize Democrats’ ability to pass legislative priorities.
“Here’s what I do know: At this point, we have to be one band, one sound, because I think any wind in our tent could cause our tent to fold in some way, shape or form. So this idea that we live in these different huts within the big tent of the Democratic Party is not something I think we need to focus on,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist.
“I think we need to continue to yell about the things we have in common and learn how to whisper in private about the places where we may have some disagreements,” he added.
Other Democrats said they’re not overly concerned about the special elections possibly fracturing the party.
Off-year contests — especially special elections — historically enjoy less voter attention and a smaller media spotlight, and some strategists said what happens in the three House races won’t have national repercussions for the party.
“I don’t think there will be as much national attention on these races,” said one Democratic strategist. “Unless there is a ton of national attention bearing down because there’s a real Republican or Democrat, I don’t think they’ll get the oxygen for that to really affect anything nationally.”
The potentially crowded fields in these special elections could also provide an opportunity for Democrats to address divides that were papered over during the whirlwind four years of the Trump administration.
With the party in control of the White House and House and the Senate majority still up for grabs with two Senate runoffs in Georgia taking place in early January, Carter, the Louisiana state senator, said the next Congress could present an opportunity for Democrats to unite behind legislative priorities for a country that will still be in the throes of a public health and economic crisis.
“We can only talk for so long about the failed policies of others. We’ve got to talk about our own policies. We’ve got to talk about how we’re going to fix things,” he said. “You know, it’s not enough to talk about the chef that’s in the kitchen. When you’re in the kitchen, it’s your turn to cook. And it’s our turn. We’ve got to cook.”
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