Yesterday, I read an article from The Intercept about how a Colorado Democratic House candidate, Levi Tellemann, met with Minority House Whip, Steny Hoyer, who was trying to persuade him to quit the race because the party establishment in Colorado and DC had chosen his opponent. Tellemann had suspected for a while that the party was supporting his opponent, but this meeting confirmed it. The reason this was even news, was that Tellemann actually taped the conversation and made it public. While I haven’t listened to it, and I have my misgivings about someone releasing a recording of a private conversation, it reveals a gritty, unpleasant reality of party machinations that disquiets me.
I am a progressive, in every sense of the word. I believe the government has a vital role to play in increasing opportunity and economic security for Americans, and that includes a vigorous social safety net and regulatory regime that reigns in corporate excess and malfeasance. Because I am a progressive, I am also a Democrat. Not all Democrats are progressives, though many more are today than in the past. But in order for the values and policies I support to have a chance of passing, governments at all levels must be controlled by Democrats.
The Democratic Party also understands this but seems to believe, with insufficient evidence that progressives should only run in safely Democratic districts, ceding more competitive districts to pro-business moderates who might attract more moderate Republicans and independents. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has taken to intervening in such races, where in at least one instance, it may have backfired, elevating progressive activist Laura Moser into a runoff election in her TX-07 primary. Given the rifts that formed between liberal activists and the DNC over its treatment of Bernie Sanders, it is utterly perplexing to me that the DCCC would attack or try to subtly take out candidates they perceive as too liberal, but are otherwise qualified.
I understand that many of the seats that need to be won are in historically Republican leaning territory, though Clinton won 23 Republican-held seats. But Dems have the wind at their back right now, flipping 40 seats in special elections since Trump was elected, a governor’s seat in my home state, as well as electing Ralph Northam in Virginia, who campaigned hard for a Medicaid expansion, a massive progressive priority in the state. Even the places where Democrats lost, they massively over-performed based on historical voting patterns. Democratic wins have been fueled by moderates, some cross-over Republicans, but especially by base voters, particularly women and African-Americans.
Democrats shouldn’t risk kneecapping their momentum by intervening in primaries in which there are many electable, enthusiastic, and qualified candidates, including a record smashing number of women. The party ought to trust Democratic primary voters, who are nowhere near as rabid as Republican ones: very rarely do we nominate awful candidates like Roy Moore and Todd Akin, nor do we force them to pledge fealty to the party’s leader. Perhaps the only similarity they share is that neither Republican nor Democratic primary voters like being told who to vote for.
I fervently believe that the best candidates will be the ones who best connect with and inspire voters, as well as those with strong connections to their communities. Otherwise, who will donate to their campaigns, make calls, knock doors, and eventually vote for them? In some cases these will be moderates, and in others it will be progressives. I have more faith in Democratic primary voters in swing districts, who are likely conscious of the moderate or Republican leaning-bent of their districts, than of the DCCC, who has a vital role to play in making sure the eventual nominee has the support they need to win. (The only caveat I have to this is in California, where the large number of Democratic candidates, running in the state’s top-two jungle primary system, creates a risk that Democrats could split the vote between their numerous candidates and accidentally nominate two Republicans. In this case, party involvement could be beneficial).
In contrast, I appreciate the work that groups like Swing Left are doing, whose sole goal is to build an infrastructure to elect whoever is nominated to run in competitive house seats. The party should focus on building its grassroots, rather than trying to keep a lid on it, and that means letting the chips fall where they may in primaries.