After strong showings in two special elections for congressional seats, Democrats are beginning to believe they have a real shot at winning control of the House of Representatives next year. But if they hope to succeed, they're going to have to stop fighting one another.
The first straw in the wind came in Kansas, where a virtually unknown Democrat came within a few percentage points of winning the House seat that Mike Pompeo, now President Trump's CIA director, won by 32 points only six months ago.
"That threw a scare into us," a top Republican strategist in Washington confessed. "Even in conservative districts, there's a backlash against Trump."
Even more tantalizing was last week's primary election in the suburban Atlanta district once held by Tom Price, Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services. A 30-year-old Democratic newbie named Jon Ossoff took 48% of the vote and almost won the seat outright. Now Ossoff faces a tough runoff in June against a well-funded Republican, Karen Handel, who wisely distanced herself from Trump.
In a district owned by the GOP for the last 37 years, Ossoff rode a wave of anti-Trump enthusiasm and raised an astounding $8 million from Democrats around the country. He had help from a long list of progressive groups, too, with one exception: Our Revolution, the political action committee founded by Bernie Sanders.
Why didn't Sanders pitch in for Ossoff? "He's not a progressive," the Vermont senator told the Washington Post.
By Sanders' yardstick, that's true. In a district Trump won narrowly in November, Ossoff ran as a generic moderate-to-liberal Democrat — a Hillary Clinton Democrat, in effect. A Bernie Sanders-style progressive, he wasn't.
But Sanders' brusque dismissal of the Democrats' hottest new face produced anguish even among some of his allies. "What was Bernie thinking?" a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus moaned to me. "That's going to make it harder for Ossoff to raise money for the runoff."
On Friday, Sanders relented. "It is imperative that Jon Ossoff be elected," he said in a written statement. "I applaud the energy and grassroots activism in Jon's campaign." But the episode revealed a problem for the Democrats: They seem trapped in an endless loop of their bitter 2016 primary campaign.
The unresolved conflicts were on painful display last week when Sanders and the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, former Clinton backer Tom Perez, attempted to stage a unity tour. The official theme was "Come Together/Fight Back," but togetherness was in short supply on the first few stops.
Perez was booed by Sanders supporters several times, even though he praised the Vermont senator lavishly and presented a policy message (drawn from Clinton's notably progressive platform) not too different from Our Revolution's. In return, Sanders delivered a reprise of his 2016 message, arguing that the party still doesn't get it. "The Democrats have not put forward an agenda that speaks to the needs of people in pain," he said.
Intraparty squabbles normally wouldn't matter much in a non-election year. But in addition to Georgia, House seats are up in Montana and South Carolina, conservative states where Democrats need to cast a broad net.
Their strength in the Kansas and Georgia contests have led many to believe that they have a better-than-expected chance to gain 24 House seats in 2018, the number they need to gain a majority. "Georgia showed that the House is in play," Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and strategist, argued. "That was a huge turnout for a special election. Democrats are energized and mobilized."
Still, the House remains an uphill battle, in part because redistricting has made few seats susceptible to change. And Democrats have a chronic problem turning out voters in a non-presidential year. "Democrats underperformed the last two midterms by about 20%," warned Doug Sosnik, a former aide to President Clinton. "Can they change that? Maybe, but just opposing Donald Trump won't be enough."
In Georgia's sixth district race, for example, even though Ossoff came in first, he drew only a slightly larger percentage of the vote than Hillary Clinton did last year. DNC Chair Perez noted that at least 30,000 Democrats failed to turn out in the special election. Ossoff would have won outright if 5,500 of them had shown up.
In other words, to win a majority in the House, Democrats will have to do everything right. Running Sanders progressives in every district is probably not one of those things. Democratic strategists have targeted 23 districts with Republican incumbents where Clinton won the presidential vote. Most of those seats are in the Sun Belt, seven in California alone.
Many of the up-for-grabs districts are not natural progressive territory, Mellman said. "The winning coalition in Georgia 6 is not a Bernie Sanders coalition," he said.
The Sanders-Perez not-ready-for-unity tour suggests that Democrats have a long way to go before the wounds of 2016 heal. Until then, Sanders and his supporters have decisions to make ahead of the 2018 congressional election: How progressive will they demand that Democratic candidates be? How tough a litmus test will they apply?
They hope to change the party and change control of Congress, too. The choice before them is: Which do they want to do first?
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