Internal division, lack of leadership could dash hopes for Democratic wave in 2018

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks at the 2018 California Democrats State Convention Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Democrats continue to show signs of internal strife as primary elections for key midterm races approach and the party struggles to maintain the polling advantage it currently holds over Republicans all the way through November to flip control of Congress.

At the California Democratic Party convention Saturday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein received only 37 percent of delegates’ votes for the party’s endorsement. Though she has held her seat since 1992, state Senate leader Kevin de Leon scored 54 percent of the vote, not quite the 60 percent needed to win but enough to send a message.

A five-term senator with a 30-point lead in statewide polls failing to secure her own party’s endorsement may seem surprising, but an expert on California politics said it was fairly typical of Feinstein’s relationship with the kind of liberal Democrats who attend state party conventions.

“It is a huge mistake to presume that what went on in a state party convention in California has anything to do with what’s going to happen at the polls,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran Feinstein’s 1990 gubernatorial primary campaign. “There’s just no correlation.”

Feinstein was booed at the 1990 convention for asserting her support for the death penalty and liberal activists have long seen her as too centrist. Some are still angered by her suggestion last summer that Donald Trump has potential to become a “good president.”

None of this turmoil means Feinstein’s reelection bid is in jeopardy. Sragow stressed that the views of party delegates do not reflect the broader electorate in either party.

“The population of Californians who look forward to spending a weekend in a convention hall swimming in politics is not the same as the voters in California,” he said.

A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Feinstein leading de Leon 46 percent to 17 percent, and she still has the support of 67 percent of Democrats. In a race with no viable Republicans, 65 percent of likely GOP voters remain undecided.

At the end of 2017, Feinstein’s campaign had $9.8 million in hand, while de Leon had about $360,000 in cash. While she may not have the formal endorsement of the state party, Feinstein is backed by many of the state’s most prominent Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Ted Lieu, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“If you look at polling in the state and in particular if you look at the financial filings, there’s just a very steep mountain that de Leon is going to have to climb in order to stand any chance of, never mind beating Dianne Feinstein, just getting close to Dianne Feinstein,” Sragow said.

Primary races in California are complicated by the state’s system that advances the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of their party. For de Leon, that means he does not need to beat Feinstein. A second place showing in the primary gives him until November to make his case to California voters.

“He’s got a very specific mission,” Sragow said. “He has a long way to go. He certainly should be making everything he can of the victories that he gets.”

As another example of the complex dynamic this creates, Sragow pointed to the 49th District where five Democrats are angling to replace retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. They fought for the party’s endorsement at the convention, but none received the 60 percent necessary. Now, all are barreling toward a June primary in a heavily Republican district and the prospect that they split the Democratic vote and none make it into the top two slots.

“It just turns everything upside down,” Sragow said. “It’s sort of like taking the Scrabble board and upending the table and all the pieces fall on the floor.”

In total, there were more than a dozen races where California Democrats were unable to settle on a candidate to endorse at the convention.

California Republicans reveled in the chaos, tweeting, “To sum up the #CADem2018 convention in one word: dysfunctional.”

Sragow cautioned against extrapolating a larger message from Feinstein’s convention loss, but progressive talk radio host Arnie Arnesen said it reflects the rejection of the establishment, the embrace of new leaders, and surging enthusiasm from the base, trends that have scored Democratic victories in several special elections and governors races.

“It’s not about her,” said Arnesen, host of “The Attitude” on WNHN in New Hampshire. “It’s about the time. People want to bring new voices in, people are agitating for change. People respect her, but at what point do you think it’s appropriate to step aside?”

Similar tensions are injecting uncertainty into primaries beyond California’s borders.

In Illinois, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee remains unusually reticent to support seven-term Rep. Dan Lipinski in his reelection bid. The conservative Democrat’s more liberal primary opponent has already won the endorsement of two Democratic members of Congress from his own state.

“It’s not easy to endorse a challenger for a colleague in the House of Representatives. Especially when that colleague is a member of your own party,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez told reporters in January after backing Lipinski’s opponent. “This is a very special, and, I think, dangerous time in the United States of America.”

Some efforts to unseat Republicans have grown similarly fraught. In Texas, the DCCC dumped opposition research online last week aiming to sink a Democratic candidate they fear is too liberal. Laura Moser is one of seven Democrats vying for the nomination to face Rep. John Culberson in the general election.

“Democratic voters need to hear that Laura Moser is not going to change Washington,” the DCCC said in a memo bashing Moser on its website. “She is a Washington insider, who begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress.”

Democrats believe they have a shot to flip the district, which has been Republican for decades but backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, and leaders do not think Moser can win that race. The very public attack by the DCCC on a fellow Democrat has added to the discontent roiling the base.

“There are two good pro-choice women” in that race, Arnesen said. “Hallelujahbut this is about Emily’s List and the DCCC wanting to pick the anointed.”

The at times unexpectedly heated primaries illustrate a larger battle over the direction of the Democratic Party in the Trump era, as a highly motivated progressive base urges a scorched earth campaign to drive the president out of office and the more moderate wing of the party fears extremism will alienate centrist voters.

“It is an absolute tightrope,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. He cited Sen. Doug Jones as a candidate who succeeded in walking that line.

If Democrats turn on each other in the primaries, he warned they could repeat the mistakes of 2010, when brutal primaries left hobbled Democratic nominees unable to overcome tea party Republicans who swept into the House.

“If they start circling the firing squads now, it’s going to hurt them in the general,” he said.

Recent polls have shown the Democratic advantage in a generic 2018 matchup eroding, and Nordlinger stressed that the election will be decided by the mood of the country ten months from now, not today. Democrats counting on a blue wave may be getting ahead of themselves.

“The problem with the Democrats now is they’re celebrating their victory much too early at the expense of nominating potentially more viable candidates for the general election,” he said.

Arnesen is skeptical that nominating candidates who unabashedly embrace progressive priorities will scare away the middle.

“I think what you’re saying is the Democratic line,” she said, “that this will make moderates afraid. I don’t think so.”

Many in the middle support principles like clean air, reasonable taxes, fair wages, affordable health care and gun control, and Arnesen believes Democrats should not shy away from conversations about them out of fear of being labeled as radical.

“What you have to do is bring to the table your passion, your history, your integrity, your smarts,” she said, and then listen to voters and connect with them.

Another challenge for Democrats running in 2018 is that the party itself remains somewhat rudderless. With the Clintons and Obamas mostly off stage and popular Sen. Bernie Sanders still technically not a Democrat, a handful of lawmakers have emerged as strong and persuasive voices within the party, but nobody has yet seized the reins of leadership.

“I still haven’t seen the next generation of candidates emerging at the national level,” Nordlinger said.

The 16 other candidates in 2016 GOP primary were trounced by Trump, but many were perceived as the strongest governors and legislators the Republican Party had to offer. Democrats have so far not displayed nearly as deep of a bench for 2020.

“I don’t see a Democratic A-team,” Nordlinger said.

Not everybody is alarmed by that state of play.

“I don’t want leadership to emerge,” Arnesen said. “Wait until 2018 is done.”

She pointed to growing social movements involving racial justice, sexual misconduct, and gun control that have flourished without a traditional political figurehead at the wheel.

“Look at how these movements happen. Right now, a leader is actually a distraction because a movement is happening,” she said.

Whatever internal and external hurdles Democrats encounter between now and November, Democratic strategist Craig Varoga is confident they will come together when it counts.

“The things that unite us are greater than the differences of opinion that will be legitimately aired during primary season,” Varoga said. “Democrats are united now and will be united in November. End of story.”

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