The Trump presidency has galvanized millions of Americans into engaging in politics for the first time. This newfound energy is crucial and powerful, but political newbies can make miscalculations. Several groups have materialized since the election dedicated to primarying Democrats who aren’t progressive enough or don’t resist Trump enough.
Justice Democrats focus on primarying Democrats unless they “fully support” the Justice Democrats’ platform, which includes cutting the defense budget, blocking the TPP, universal healthcare, and free college. Brand New Congress, a partner with the Justice Democrats, aims to elect all-new representatives in 2018. While these efforts seem reasonable – most Democrats support a living wage, the end of Citizens United, and universal healthcare – these groups’ tactics may actually make those goals harder to achieve.
The plan to primary Democrats is in part inspired by the Tea Party. After Obama’s election, the Tea Party demanded a rightward swing from Republicans. They ran primary candidates against “establishment” Republicans who weren’t far right enough and managed to shift their entire party rightward. But Democrats hoping for a similar effect on their party are missing a key element of the Tea Party strategy – they focused on safe red districts in states like Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Utah, and Alaska.
The Tea Party’s goal above all was a Republican majority. They ran primary candidates against Republicans when it was safe to do so because there was little danger of a Democrat winning the general election. The Tea Party didn’t always get it right, and Democrats should learn from their failures, not emulate them. There were a few occasions where a Tea Partier defeated an establishment Republican in a primary in a blue state and went on to lose the general. Christine O’Donnell defeated Michael Castle in Delaware and went on to lose the general by 17 points. Carl Paladino beat “establishment” Republican Rick Lazio in New York’s gubernatorial primary and went on to lose to Andrew Cuomo by 27 points.
Another key part of the Tea Party strategy currently missing from Democratic plans is “coming home.” Tea Partiers enthusiastically supported establishment candidates in the general – something the left flank of the Democratic Party has not shown much willingness to do. The Tea Party could spend months fighting an establishment Republican in a primary, then come together and support, donate, and volunteer for them in the general election.
Joe Manchin, Democratic Senator from West Virginia, is a prime example of a Democrat many progressives want to primary but shouldn’t. West Virginia is an incredibly conservative state. Donald Trump won 69.7% of the vote here in November. Every single county went red. West Virginia does have a Democratic governor – but he was a registered Republican until 2015 and is a coal industry billionaire. Not exactly a progressive.
Manchin is without a doubt a disappointing politician for many liberals and progressives. He voted to confirm Jeff Sessions, a vote that elicited horror from Democrats. But Manchin often votes the Democratic party line. This year Manchin has voted against repealing Obamacare, against Betsy DeVos’ nomination, and in favor of environmental protections. Those are valuable votes, and we can’t afford a Republican taking his seat. According to FiveThirtyEight, Manchin has voted in line with Trump’s positions 58.5% of the time.
Most Democrats vote with the President sometimes – for example, it’s common practice to support a President’s cabinet nominees unless they are grossly unqualified. Senators Patty Murray, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin have all voted with Trump 20-22% of the time. On the left wing of the party, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s Trump score is 9.8%. In light of these comparisons, it appears that Joe Manchin is voting against Democratic Party interests about 30-40% of the time. That means he’s voting with Democrats 60-70% of the time.
If Manchin’s voting record seems unacceptable, compare him to West Virginia’s other Senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, who has voted with Trump 100% of the time. West Virginia has three representatives in the House. Evan H. Jenkins and David B. McKinley have voted with Trump 100% of the time. Alexander Mooney voted with Trump 96.7% of the time – the only time he broke with Trump was on one vote where his position was more conservative than the President’s (Mooney voted against extending federal funding for one week, effectively seeking to shut down the government).
When compared to the other people elected to represent this state, Manchin suddenly appears much more liberal. Joe Manchin is, unfortunately for Democrats, probably the most progressive politician West Virginia is going to elect at this point in time. If he is felled in a primary by someone further left, that person would almost certainly lose a general election in this conservative state. Then Democrats would have one Senator fewer in the House, and a Virginia Senator who, instead of voting with them 70% of the time, would vote with them closer to 0% of the time. It’s better to get half of what you want than none of it.
If progressives want to follow the Tea Party model to push the Democratic Party further to the left, they should focus on primarying Democrats in safe blue districts, where it’s unlikely that a Republican would defeat a further-left candidate in the general. Progressives also need to leave primary battles behind once they are finished and “come home” to support their party’s nominee in the general election. Fight hard in primaries to elect the most progressive candidate that has a chance in your area, and in the general, donate, volunteer, and vote for your party’s nominee, even if they weren’t your first choice. If Democrats fail to do so, we could lose our only footholds in red states.
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