Progressives’ wins highlight divide in Democratic Party

Progressives’ wins highlight divide in Democratic Party
© Getty Images

An impressive primary showing from progressive candidates on Tuesday is fueling speculation about whether Democrats will — or should — be pulled further left as the party seeks to take back the House this fall.

The liberal wing of the caucus, which has been clamoring for generational change among the party’s leaders, is elated with the recent victories, calling it a clear sign of where the Democratic Party is headed.


“That’s been happening for a while,” Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoHouse panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - As virus concerns grow, can it get worse for Trump? Latino man's death in Tucson fuels debate over police brutality on Hispanics MORE (D-Ariz.), a vice chair of the House Progressive Caucus, told reporters Wednesday. “The party has been going through changes for quite a while, but I think now you’re seeing it effectively show up in elections.”

But other Democrats cautioned that it’s still too early to make predictions, arguing that each district is unique.

“I think the jury is out on whether this is a national trend,” Rep. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaHispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president The Hill's Coronavirus Report: CDC predicts US death toll could reach 145,000 by July 11; Premier President Michael Alkire says more resiliency needed in health supply chain House members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes MORE (D-Texas), a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, told The Hill.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats seek to use spending bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol West Virginia governor issues order for wearing face coverings indoors The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Supreme Court's unanimous decision on the Electoral College MORE (D-Calif.), asked about the shocking primary defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), was also quick to dismiss the idea that Tuesday’s results will have broader implications.

“It’s about that district. It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else,” Pelosi told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

Democrats think they have a real shot at winning the House, with only 23 seats needed to take back the majority and many election observers predicting a blue wave fueled by anti-Trump fervor this fall.

But there is a fierce internal debate raging in the Democratic Party about the best strategy to regain power. Some lawmakers believe that the path to the majority hinges on moving toward the center — not the left — especially in suburban swing districts where independent voters form a crucial voting bloc.

But they may have little control over the party’s direction after progressives had their biggest night of the year on Tuesday.

The defeat of Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in House leadership who had Speaker ambitions, sent shockwaves through Washington.

Crowley lost in a massive upset to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old organizer for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersMilitary madness in the age of COVID-19 Will Twitter make @RealDonaldTrump a one-term president? Judd Gregg: The coming Biden coup MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign who seized on voters’ desire to topple the political establishment.

But liberals had a good night across the board, particularly those who are closely aligned with Sanders and Our Revolution, the outgrowth of his 2016 presidential campaign.

Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who campaigned alongside Sanders, won the Democratic nomination in Maryland’s gubernatorial race.

In a key House primary in upstate New York, activist and professor Dana Balter defeated Navy veteran Juanita Perez Williams for the right to take on Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoDemocrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill Lawmakers introduce legislation to establish national cybersecurity director Progressives riding high as votes tabulated in NY, Kentucky MORE (R).

The primary garnered outsized attention thanks to the clash between local and national Democrats. The House Democrats’ campaign arm recruited Perez Williams into the race at the last minute, despite local leaders and activists overwhelmingly backing Balter.

And in another New York House race, attorney Antonio Delgado won a crowded Democratic primary in the race to face Rep. John FasoJohn James FasoThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority GOP House super PAC targets two freshman Dems with new ads MORE (R-N.Y.).

Progressives have had plenty of notable wins during the primary season, which include more liberal candidates prevailing in California, Pennsylvania and Nebraska.

But Sanders and his allies have also suffered a number of defeats this cycle, with national Democrats getting a number of their preferred candidates through the primaries. They focused their candidate recruitment — with the help of the Blue Dog Coalition — on finding more centrist candidates they believe fit the swing or GOP-leaning seats.

But liberal-leaning lawmakers are reading the tea leaves in Tuesday’s results and taking it as a sign that the party will move left in order to be more in step with their base. They also predicted that challenging the establishment will continue to be a dominating theme for Democrats this election cycle.

“It’s where voters are. It’s where the base is,” Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanSteyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary Why Veterans Affairs workers don't trust the Trump administration MORE (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told The Hill.

Progressive Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaHouse panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles Stronger patent rights would help promote US technological leadership MORE (D-Calif.), a Silicon Valley–area lawmaker whose name has been floated for a future leadership slot, described the internal battle in the party as less about left versus center and more about new versus old. In Crowley’s primary, he endorsed both the sitting congressman and Ocasio-Cortez after pressure from progressives online.

“To me, it’s about anti-establishment, it’s about ‘let’s have new voices in there,’ it’s about a sense of a failed generation of congressional leadership,” Khanna told reporters. “I think that’s really the sentiment.”

Some election observers have likened the progressive surge to the Tea Party wave that swept the GOP back to power in 2010.

“Republicans in Washington learned where the energy was and learned how to lasso it and leverage it for victories up and down the map,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and veteran of  New York politics.

But Reinish added that the Democratic Party’s changing identity is something “that Democrats are currently still grappling with, so again, the message to any leader, to any candidate: know where the energy is.”

The prospect of moving too far left, however, is sure to worry some establishment Democrats who think they have a better shot at taking back the House by winning over independents with more moderate candidates in GOP-leaning districts.

House Republicans seem to agree, with many thrilled that the primaries have produced several liberal-leaning candidates who they think will be easier to defeat in the midterms.

Rep. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversNational Retail Federation hosts virtual 'store tours' for lawmakers amid coronavirus Stronger patent rights would help promote US technological leadership Republicans to introduce House version of Scott police reform bill MORE (Ohio), head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, said that the primary candidates who won in Katko’s and Faso’s districts are “going to have a much tougher time” in the general election.

Republicans have already seized on some Democratic nominees’ support for “Medicare for all” legislation, an effort championed by Sanders.

And earlier in the week, Republicans were quick to slam liberal Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersOn The Money: Mnuchin, Powell differ over how soon economy will recover | Millions fear eviction without more aid from Congress | IRS chief pledges to work on tax code's role in racial wealth disparities Millions fear eviction without more aid from Congress House approves statehood for DC in 232-180 vote MORE (D-Calif.) for urging her supporters to confront Trump administration officials in public. They have painted Waters as the face of the Democratic Party — a clear effort to rile up their own base.

“I think what you’re seeing in the Democrat Party is that Maxine Waters and Bernie Sanders are becoming more and more the face of the Democrat Party,” Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, told Fox News.

“So that’s where you see the Democrat Party moving, and I think that certainly doesn’t bode well for them and their politics as they continue to move more and more to the socialist left.”

Pelosi, however, was quick to shoot down the notion that socialism is on the rise in the party.

“It’s ascendant in that district, perhaps,” Pelosi told reporters. “But I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans.”