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Will Democrats Fumble the 2018 Midterm Elections?

The party leadership appears determined to alienate the very people who could lift it to victory

Will Democrats Fumble the 2018 Midterms?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Last Thursday, The Atlantic ran a story that was pretty darn embarrassing for the national Democratic leadership – or should have been. Five black women who’d won House primaries around the country told assistant editor Elaine Godfrey the party had completely blown them off: no support, no contact, not even a congratulatory call or email when they won. “I have yet to receive one red cent from the local, the state, or the national party,” said Jeannine Lee Lake, who beat five other Democrats in a House primary in Indiana on May 8th. Lake said she totally understands that the party can’t realistically throw money into every House race, especially in heavily Republican districts like hers. Even so, why the cold shoulder, especially at a time when Democratic officials are constantly yammering about black women being “the backbone” of the party? “It’s the height of hypocrisy,” Lake said. “We bring millions of votes into these campaigns, and we’re gettin’ no love.” At the very least, Lake said, “the optics look bad.”

The next morning, the optics looked worse. On Friday the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, rolled out 10 new additions to its “red-to-blue” program, aimed at flipping Republican seats in November. Ten new all-white candidates, that is. The DCCC had already come under fire earlier this year, when its program – which gives selected candidates funding, organizational, and field support that are essential to winning – had anointed a couple dozen contenders early on, with not a single black candidate among them. Now, with 53 candidates included, just three are black. (Check out the roster on the DCCC site.) But if Democrats are embarassed by this shameful lack of representation, you wouldn’t know it: The DCCC could not even wait out out the weekend, while a viral story about its exclusion of black women was making the rounds, before announcing they were getting behind a bunch more white people.

This sort of clumsy tone-deafness has been the defining characteristic of the Democratic Party’s midterm efforts thus far. The Democratic leadership appears determined to alienate, as often and thoroughly as possible, the very people who could lift it to victory in 2018 and beyond: not just black women (who famously put Senator Doug Jones over the top in Alabama last December), but pretty much everybody to the left of Chuck Schumer.

If that sounds hyperbolic, just look at the week the party had before its “red-to-blue” blunder. The previous Friday, June 8th, the DNC’s rules committee had infuriated progressives with a gratuitous slap at Bernie Sanders – a resolution that requires future presidential candidates to swear allegiance to the Democratic Party or be left off primary ballots. In practical terms, this was a nothingburger: Sanders can still run for the party’s nomination in 2020 if he takes the new blood oath. But the relative meaningless of the resolution made it even more mystifying: The only thing it would accomplish – besides giving a shot of schadenfreude to Democratic elites who blame Sanders and the left for the party’s wipeout in 2016 – was a raft of ugly headlines that would inflame the Bernie people (otherwise known as 43 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016.)

The headlines screamed, of course, of a “Bid to Block Bernie Sanders.” (That was Fox, and Fox was gleeful—as was the conservative TownHall, whose headline exulted, “DNC Just Took Another Swipe At Bernie Sanders and His Supporters.”) The Twitterverse went predictably bonkers at this latest evidence of the party’s hostility to the left – including a well-documented pattern of strong-arming grassroots progressives out of this year’s congressional primaries in favor of well-heeled, center-left whites.

“I scratch my head and ask why they would want to make the party more narrow and more exclusive,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior Sanders adviser in 2016. Sanders campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, asked, “Do they really want Bernie and his millions outside the party?”

If the Democratic Party has learned anything from 2016, it’s certainly not effective public relations. After passing a resolution that was bound to piss off a large chunk of the party, not to mention progressive-minded independents, the Democrats had no public explanation, much less convincing spin, for what they’d just done. Committee member Maria Cardona, a former Clinton staffer, told Yahoo News: “The entire committee backed this. It was unanimous.” Which, naturally, only made it sound worse to the Bernie crowd – see, the whole party leadership hates us! “It was done,” Cardona went on to non-explain, “to ensure that the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party is actually a Democrat.” (Actually, others admitted off-the-record, the slap at Sanders was designed to assuage the angry Clintonites who still want to punish the progressives for their sins of 2016.)

But wait—the elites weren’t done yet! While half of the party seethed over the Sanders ruling, a longtime DNC member (and Clinton superdelegate) from California named Bob Mulholland cc’d reporters on a memo he’d written to party chair Tom Perez and vice-chair Keith Ellison, claiming that a Sanders supporter who’d been attending DNC meetings since 2016, a West Virginia woman named Selina Vickers, was a Russian agent working to undermine the party from within. What tipped him off? Vickers, who’s been attending DNC meetings (on her own dime) to keep track of party reform efforts, had told Mulholland that she’d voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the 2016 general election. And since Stein attended a 2015 Moscow dinner with Vladimir Putin — well, what more proof do you need? Mulholland had none. But Vickers, as a Stein voter, had to be a Russian plant, even if she did run as a Democrat for state House this spring. (She lost by less than 500 votes – but clearly this was just a ruse for her nefarious foreign operations.) “Someone is picking up her expenses,” Muholland wrote – clear evidence that “the Putin operation is still alive.”

And thus, as The Washington Post‘s David Weigel noted, the Democrats made their way into the headlines again, this time for a “special kind of absurdity.” Vickers told Weigel she’d voted for Stein because her state, West Virginia, was going for Trump overwhelmingly and she wanted to give a vote to keep the progressive Mountain Party, the state’s Green party affiliate, on the ballot in 2018. Instead of a Russian provocateur, Vickers was one of the many progressives across the country who’d been moved to act by the results in 2016 – the kind of Democrat the party should be encouraging and nurturing, rather than, you know, publicly accusing of treason without a shred of proof. “It would be laughable if it weren’t so embarrassing,” said DNC member Michael Kapp. Which is a pretty fair summation of the Democratic Party’s whole mid-term effort thus far. This thing would be downright hilarious if it didn’t matter so goddamn much.

Let’s be clear: There is no shortage of squalling babies on either side of the divide that’s killing the party’s ability to be an effective vehicle for the Resistance. The fightin’ Sandernistas can be every bit as petty and short-sighted as the clingin’ Clintonites. But it’s the latter group that still holds the power in the national party to veto reforms the progressives want, to funnel resources into centrist House campaigns (and away from more progressive candidates), or to slap down Sanders and his supporters for no discernible reason but settling imaginary scores from 2016. All of which they – the self-proclaimed adults of the party, who claim to have a corner on electoral wisdom and strategery that all Democrats should heed – have been doing with reckless abandon practically since the moment Trump was declared the new president.

Democrats have everything going for them in 2018. Here is a party that gets to run against an historically unpopular and palpably dangerous Republican president – Donald F-ing Trump, everybody! – with an equally historic explosion of progressive energy and organizing behind it. At the very least, the Democrats should be able to secure a House majority in November that would give the party a small purchase on power – and a serious way to throw tacks in Trump’s road to tyranny. On an average mid-term year since the Civil War, the party out of power has won 32 new seats—and the Democrats, with every conceivable political wind at their back, need only 24. Still, no matter what new daily atrocities belch up from the White House, the party’s chances grow more remote all the time – since almost every day also seems to bring a fresh new insult to grassroots Democrats and left-leaning independents.

It started with electing Perez, the choice of the Clintonites, as party chair in the wake of 2016. The former labor secretary began with talk of unity, then immediately axed senior party officials who’d backed Sanders in what progressives called a “purge.” Then the DCCC began “shaping” its field of candidates for 2018, following a centrist “Blue Dog” model that Rahm Emanuel, then DNC chair, used to great controversy in 2006—the midterm election that sent a bunch of gun-toting, budget-slashing, Jesus-talking conservative Democrats to Washington. Twelve years later, and a political world removed, the party’s idea of a “winning” candidate would be the same: Someone who’s well-off enough to “self-fund” in the millions, or well-connected enough to raise big money from others, and who’s also willing to follow the Washington consultants’ advice about strategy and “messaging.”

Among other messaging “tips,” the DCCC advised candidates to steer clear of talking about gun control in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre. It’s also tried to banish the term “single payer” from the Democratic vocabulary, despite the fact that most Americans support it – and despite the fact that 78 percent of Democratic voters say they want to hear their party talk about universal healthcare “a lot” in 2018.

The party is sending a clear message, all right: We haven’t changed a bit. “Democrats are well known for their chronic inability to seem like they stand for anything,” wrote Rafi Schwartz at Splinter. “Instead, they come off as wishy-washy centrists who compromise on everything, and get nothing in return. Trying to shut down or rhetorically camouflage all talk of single payer is pretty excellent evidence of that.”

It’s all in the name of winning, of course! The kind of winning the Democrats have been doing, presumably, over the last four election cycles – when the party and its strategic wizards presided over a massive loss of power at local, state, and federal levels. Nevertheless, the strategy used over that catastrophic stretch is by and large the same one the party is following this year by, among other things, meddling in local elections (which the Republican Party, as a matter of policy, does not do). “I hope for a wave” in 2018, Nancy Pelosi told the Austin American-Statesman in February, “but I believe you make your wave.” Which is exactly what the grown-ups in the Democratic leadership were doing, she said, despite all those annoying catcalls and complaints from the left. “This is a cold-blooded, strategic, focused campaign to win the Congress for the American people,” Pelosi said. “We don’t waste time. We don’t waste energy. We don’t waste resources.”

They also don’t win elections – even with a fast-rising demographic advantage and an electorate that leans more and more leftward in its views. The one thing the Democratic leadership has done undoubtedly well in recent years is divide its own members into warring factions. Which is a kind of achievement, when you consider that the Democrats in 2018 are arguably more ideologically unified than ever before. For all the ballyhooed “divisions” between the progressive and centrist wings of the party, they have little to do with where the party actually stands on policy issues. In the ’00s, the Democrats had bitter disagreements over such consequential matters as the Iraq War and abortion rights. The left and center-left still differ on trade policy, and on whether to push for single payer or opt for an Obamacare revamp. But that’s about it, as the New America Foundation recently found in a survey of Democrats: The rest of the disagreements are largely matters of tone and strategy – and long-smoldering factional resentments that party leaders can’t seem to stop fanning.

If only it didn’t matter so much. But in a moment of rising authoritarianism, with democracy itself at stake, the Democrats are the only hope our political system offers for peacefully turning back the Trumpian tide. If the party blows its chance at a House majority, there will be even less of a check on Trump for the last two years of his first term. And so we can only hope against hope – the great “we,” that is, that constitutes 60 percent of anti-Trump Americans – that the favorable political currents this year are too strong for even the Democratic Party to drown itself. At this point, it’s a thin, wistful hope: Please, Democrats, don’t blow this one completely. And it’s all we’ve got. 

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