Analysis: Within party’s big tent, Democrats grapple with divisions

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones is challenging incumbent Democratic Rep. Ami Bera for California's 7th Congressional District seat.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

En route to Hillary Clinton’s expected coronation as the Democratic presidential nominee, her party has been caught in an ideological clash pitting the former secretary of State’s loyalists against the factions backing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The feud is blazing not only nationally but in blue California too, where it is one of several schisms among Democrats.

The upsides of being a state’s dominant party are pretty clear: It’s not by accident that both U.S. senators are Democrats, as are all of California’s statewide officeholders and a big majority of its legislators. You’d have to be 44 years old to have been alive during a truly contested presidential contest here.


But there is a downside to supremacy, too, one that is getting a workout as the state Democratic Party gets bigger and more diverse.

The party’s big tent gets that way only by including many people of different points of view, all of whom want their view to carry the day. That means fighting inside the tent, currently along ideological, generational and ethnic lines.

Democrats have amassed a huge congressional advantage because of liberal urban districts. But there remain a handful of toss-up districts where the right Democrat can eke out a narrow win. And that is where ideological tensions surface.

The disconnect between the positions a candidate must take to win in a close district — generally, moderate ones — and the demands of Democratic power groups like organized labor is playing out now in the 7th Congressional District, which incumbent Ami Bera first won in 2012.

Bera has been pilloried since last spring for thwarting labor’s will and voting to give President Obama the authority to craft a Pacific trade deal. He also crossed party lines more recently when he voted to basically call a halt to accepting Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

More payback came last week when two party groups refused to endorse Bera for reelection, a move that if it holds could cause Bera problems in getting the state party’s endorsement later this winter.


It’s possible this is more threat than reality, and Bera does have two things going for him. The vote on the treaty itself will probably take place after the November election, meaning that he would be spared that divisive decision. And right now his chief opponent is Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a sharply conservative Republican who blames Obama — alone — for the nation’s immigration woes.

Punishing Bera too much could give an advantage to Jones, which isn’t helpful to Democrats trying to hold the seat.

The generational split is occurring farther south, in the Silicon Valley district now represented by Democrat Mike Honda, who has been in Congress since 2001. Honda is 74; his challenger, fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, is 39.

The battle is a rematch of their 2014 feud, but Khanna has improved his hand this time around, winning the endorsements of individuals and groups that previously sided with Honda. Moreover, Khanna had $1.7 million on hand at the end of the year, three times what Honda had accumulated.

Part of Honda’s difficulty is an ongoing ethics problem: In September congressional investigators said there was “substantial reason to believe” that he and his congressional staff had used taxpayer resources to benefit his campaign.

Another part, however, is a broad frustration among many younger Democrats whose ambitions are being blocked by entrenched members of their own party.


The logjam has gotten worse since term limits began forcing out legislators after a few years, whereupon they crashed against a wall of House members who were under no such constraints. Khanna has, in both of his races, exemplified an Obama generation eager to take over for the Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter generation, if only they’d get out of the way.

Age — the age of voters — is also a factor in the presidential contest here; a Field Poll released Jan. 6 found that among prospective Democratic primary voters under 40, Sanders held a 57% to 32% lead over Clinton. Clinton won among those age 40 and above by a 32-point margin.

Ethnically-based schisms are the third division, now seen in the race for the Senate seat that Barbara Boxer will give up after the November election.

Two Democrats are running — Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County. You might expect that they’d divide the vote along geographic lines, but Harris led in all areas of the state in the January Field Poll — albeit narrowly in Southern California.

The only demographic edge Sanchez held was among Latinos, among whom she had a 12-point advantage. Among white voters, Harris led by 18; among non-Latino minority voters she led by 11 points.

The race exemplifies competing aspirations: Sanchez would be the state’s first Latino senator and Harris — the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father — would be the first woman of Asian heritage and the first African American to serve as a senator from California.


Given Democratic power here, the splits on ideology, age and ethnicity are not likely to prove broadly shattering in a perilous, Humpty-Dumpty way. But they will have to be massaged at some point, particularly given the high frustration factor already evident in politics this year.

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Eric Bauman, who is running to become state Democratic Party chairman in 2017, said hard work would ease any lingering problems.

“When you have the diversity the Democratic Party has nationally and especially in California, there are always various tensions that play out,” said Bauman, the head of the Los Angeles County party. “In this primary people are in their respective corners.... Once it’s time for everyone to come home and settle around a nominee, we tend to come together very nicely.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to and



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