Despite all the Democrats' special election wins, high voter turnout in primaries and polls showing strong party enthusiasm heading into the midterms, the fact remains that Democrats are still stuck at their lowest level of power in nearly a century.
Even though President Trump's poll numbers have stabilized, party leaders see 2018 as a chance to seize back one key lever of government: the House of Representatives. But Democrats and their core voters can't seem to agree on the best direction to take.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to be minority leader in 2017, said the party is stuck in a feedback loop: "Democrats don't have the power," he said. "We've got to start learning how to win elections, and until you learn how to win elections, you can't get the power. And I think we're in the process of figuring that out."
Party leaders had settled on a moderate message of outreach and competent governing as the best way to net the 23 seats needed to win the House in November. But that pragmatic and cautious game plan was scrambled last week in a shocking upset.
A Democratic Socialist newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeated Rep. Joe Crowley in a primary in the New York Democratic stronghold of Queens and the Bronx. Crowley is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House and was widely viewed as a potential speaker of the House.
Ocasio-Cortez's victory is the latest example of the energy and enthusiasm of a growing activist arm of the party. However, in interviews with more than a dozen Democrats running in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, California, Nebraska and Washington state, as well as with party strategists, campaign managers and elected Democrats, NPR found that pragmatism is winning out over progressivism in the key races that will decide control of Congress.
Pelosi made that point clear last week when she was asked whether Democratic Socialists like Ocasio-Cortez were ascendant in the party in general. "It is ascendant in that district perhaps," Pelosi told reporters. "Our districts are very different, one from another."
Pelosi and her deputies say they want a "big tent" party that welcomes the far left and center-left, united by goals like universal health care and access to a free or affordable college education.
Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives disagree. They say the left is energized and turning out to vote.
"That movement is going to happen from the bottom up," Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview on CNN. "That movement is going to come from voters."
But winning power in Washington is the only way to achieve policy goals, and national Democrats insist that progressive activism alone won't get them there.
Party leaders like Pelosi have data to back them up.
Democrats need to win at least 23 seats to regain a majority in the House and moderate Democrats beat progressives in primaries in all but two of the most competitive GOP-held districts in the country. Progressives are primarily winning in districts that are already controlled by Democrats — or in GOP districts where national Democrats don't expect to compete.
Still, progressive pickups in the liberal bastions of the country like New York and California could have a significant impact if Democrats succeed in winning control of the House. Those candidates are promising to push for sweeping change — like Medicare for all, free public college tuition and the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — that would be hard to achieve with full control in Washington and nearly impossible with a Republican in the White House.
The primary war that wasn't
But for all the very real ways the Democratic Party is drifting left, the fact is that victories like Ocasio-Cortez's have been rare this year. Crowley was the first Democratic incumbent to lose.
In many cases, particularly in the Senate, primary challengers never emerged.
That outcome would have been hard to believe in January 2017, when Democratic senators were drawing heckles and protests for not doing enough to challenge the Trump administration.
When the entire Senate Democratic Caucus stood outside the Supreme Court to protest Trump's first travel ban, they weren't greeted with cheers, but rather heckles of "do your job" and "walk the walk," because they weren't voting en masse to oppose every single Trump Cabinet nominee.
At one point, protesters swarmed the Brooklyn home of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, chanting, "What the f***, Chuck?"
With several moderate — even conservative — Democrats up for re-election this year, the prospect of primary challenges from the left seemed high. And yet, no incumbent Senate Democrat faced a serious primary test this year.
Not Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp, who all voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; not Claire McCaskill, who has repeatedly criticized the Medicare-for-all approach so many Democrats are endorsing; and not Bob Casey, who sometimes opposes abortion rights.
Democrats credit a rare outbreak of grass-roots pragmatism for the lack of Senate-side infighting. "These are people with proven track records. They have been fighting for the people in their states," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I think it's very clear to Democratic primary voters that it did not make sense to have a challenge in those races."
"There's just a lot of work to do, and so I think you're seeing a progressive movement that is being extremely smart in where it chooses to put its resources and where it's choosing to direct its power," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "We have a chance to flip the House and do it with great progressive candidates who are on the field, who need our support and resources."
Progressives have notched key wins in several high-profile House primaries. In addition to last week's New York upset, Kara Eastman won a surprise victory in an Omaha-area Nebraska district.
But in most House primaries, pragmatism has ruled the day — including in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles, where a young moderate named Katie Hill beat progressive Bryan Caforio. Hill is the former head of California's largest anti-homelessness organization and the daughter of a local nurse and a local police officer. She is a lifelong gun owner who backs some gun control measures and has a plan to protect the Affordable Care Act as a transition to a single-payer health care system.
Party leaders rejoiced when she won, in part because the nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicted before the primary that a victory for Hill would give Democrats their best shot at beating incumbent Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif., in November.
That was good news for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which, for the most part, has viewed more moderate — or at a minimum, less confrontational — candidates as the best chance to flip the Republican-held districts needed to win back the House majority.
Looking back at the party's key electoral victories over the past year, many Democratic leaders see a theme: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb are all low-key centrists who campaigned on local issues and an overall message of competence and outreach.
Joe Trippi, a top strategist on the Jones campaign, sees that approach as the best way for Democrats to take back the House. "When you get that confrontational tone, what you do is drive people to their corners," he said.
"These districts are gerrymandered, or they're red states like Alabama. If you drive people to their [partisan] corners, then you're going to lose. People are looking at the chaos and division and bitterness in Washington and they're looking at these two candidates from either party and they're asking [are they] going to add to that chaos and division?"
A gracious insurgency
But while moderates are advancing in this year's most critical House districts and Senate races, there is no question that Democratic energy overall is shifting to the left.
"We have had real success in moving the ideology of the Democratic Party to be a pro-worker party to stand up to the billionaire class," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said. Surveying the political landscape, the independent senator, who caucuses with the Democrats, and his political advisers see a much different party than the one whose nomination Sanders ran for in 2016.
"The ideas that he was talking about — Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free tuition at public colleges and universities, radical criminal justice reform, immigration reform — many of these issues were considered fringe issues, and now they are mainstream issues that we take for granted that, of course, there are legions of Democratic candidates running on these platforms," said Sanders' 2016 campaign manager, Jeff Weaver.
When Sanders rolled out his latest Medicare-for-all legislation in 2017, the list of co-sponsors was a who's who of likely 2020 Democratic presidential contenders: California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, among others.
Weaver credited an "alphabet soup of progressive organizations" for boosting 2018 primary candidates campaigning on these policies. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has run candidate boot camps, conducted fundraising and run ads for progressive candidates.
"The way for Democrats to win is not to be tepid and conservative," said Taylor. "The best way to win is to be out there campaigning boldly on economic issues like Medicare for all."
But when progressives have lost primaries this cycle, they've by and large endorsed the establishment victors.
Take one of the higher-profile establishment-vs.-grass-roots proxy wars of the 2018 primary season: Texas's 7th Congressional District in the Houston suburbs. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made candidate Laura Moser the poster woman of squeezed-out activists when it publicly dropped a broadside of damaging opposition research about her background and writing career.
Moser ultimately lost to party-backed Lizzie Fletcher in the suburban Houston seat — an archetype of the high-income, high-education district that Democrats are targeting as their most direct path to a House majority. But unlike many insurgent candidates during the peak of the Tea Party era, Moser was quick to join ranks with Fletcher after the primary ended.
"Huge congratulations to [Fletcher]," she tweeted in the hours after the race was called. "You ran a great race and I look forward to helping you flip #TX07 in November."
Can Democrats come together after November?
Whether or not Democrats take control of the House, it may not be as easy to govern the country — or simply their own caucus — as it is to coalesce around a general election candidate.
The number of progressives in Congress is expected to grow over time as liberal enclaves shift further to the left. That could pose a serious problem for Democratic leaders who are already being criticized by candidates on both sides of the political spectrum for being out of touch with the direction of the party.
Candidates across the country have been hounded with questions about whether they will support Pelosi as leader. A growing number, including Ocasio-Cortez and Lamb, have been unwilling to commit. They say they'll wait to see who actually runs for those top leadership spots, but there is already a tension brewing over what kind of policies the party should pursue next year.
Progressives want leaders who are younger and more in touch with the activist class. Ocasio-Cortez started a nationwide push among activists to abolish ICE, while others are demanding a move to single-payer health care.
Rep. Tim Ryan and many of his supporters say future party leaders need to heed those demands carefully.
"It's a balance between saying what your values are and what your ambitions are, and the reality of governing," Ryan said. "You do that in a campaign, and then hopefully you get enough people help you to get [to Washington] so you can get as close to those goals as you possibly can."
But even some members of Pelosi's core leadership team say there could be benefits to holding votes on progressive policies that Trump and Senate Republicans would inevitably block. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., one of three top messaging gurus elected by House Democrats, said that strategy could motivate voters to elect a Democrat to replace Trump in 2020.
"They're going to see, if we're not successful, what stood in the way," Cicilline said in an interview. "They are going to have an opportunity to change that in the election."
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