This guest post is by Kenton Tilford. Follow him on Twitter @KentonTilford.
Brand New Congress, a left-wing organization founded by former Bernie Sanders staffers, has recruited an environmental activist (and coal miner’s daughter) to take on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin in the 2018 Democratic Primary.
— Paula Swearengin (@Paula25801) May 1, 2017
This comes as some commentators asking if Democrats will have their own Christine O’Donnell in 2018 — a wild-eyed, outside-the-ideological-mainstream figure who defeats a more electable alternative, only to sink the party’s chances in the general election. And they may! Here are some warning signs for Democrats worried about their own perennial candidate sneaking through to the general:
Grifters Are Stepping In To Capture Money From Energized Activists
One of the Tea Party’s biggest problems in 2010 was a glut of new organizations dedicated to taking on the “establishment” and installing leaders of sufficient ideological purity. Christine O’Donnell toppled the moderate, establishment pick Rep. Mike Castle in part because of generous support from groups like the Tea Party Express that popped up to capitalize on activist energy in the wake of President Obama’s honeymoon. Many of these groups didn’t concern themselves with party building (or even movement building), but rather with lining their pockets. The Tea Party Express itself has been criticized for sending a large portion of its money back to the firm that created it.
There are already signs groups with similar goals are popping up to support Democrats. Brand New Congress’ recruit to take on Joe Manchin in West Virginia is a political neophyte who will run in a primary electorate that will be largely hostile towards anyone to Manchin’s left (in fact, Manchin is probably about as vulnerable to a primary challenge *from the right* as he is from the left — which is not very). The operation reeks of an effort to harvest dollars from energized small money donors. Similarly, Justice Democrats, a new left-wing pressure group started by some former Sanders staffers and Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, has backed Cori Bush in Missouri’s 1st district against longtime incumbent Lacy Clay. Bush ran for Senate finishing a distant 2nd to Jason Kander in the 2016 primary, but scouring her online presence, I found no mention of her opponent (and no real rationale for running). A seat like Clay’s would never be vulnerable to a Republican, but Democrats could be throwing away money better spent on a competitive seat in hopes of throwing out an incumbent with a strong progressive voting record — all while lining the pockets of consulting groups.
Successful Wild-Eyed Perennial Candidates Still Need A Base
Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck were all blamed for losing “winnable” seats in 2010. But all had previous experience in Republican politics — O’Donnell worked for a number of conservative organizations and ran for Senate unsuccessfully twice before in Delaware, Angle served in the Nevada state legislature and narrowly lost the GOP primary in Nevada’s 2nd district to Dean Heller in 2006, and Buck was previously the Weld County, Colorado District Attorney where he built a reputation as a conservative firebrand. The lesson being: to win as a firebrand against an establishment backed candidate, you need something of an existing political base, combined with favorable turnout and some good luck to boot.
Early primary challengers to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) don’t exactly fit this mold — Paula Swearingen appears to have spent some time in environmental activism and plays up her father’s job as a coal miner, but certainly doesn’t have the profile of any Tea Party “spoiler” from 2010. Similarly, Heitkamp’s challenger Dustin Peyer is a firefighter and Bernie Sanders supporter, but seems to have a very low profile and clearly doesn’t have much political communications experience. That being said, there’s still plenty of time for challengers to step up.
Candidate Quality Matters (The Dick Lugar Effect)
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) first went to Washington in 1977 and cultivated an image as a bipartisan dealmaker. He coasted to reelection in the Democratic wave of 2006 without even facing a Democratic opponent. But Lugar was slow to react to his 2012 primary challenge from State Treasurer Richard Mourdock — defending his record and spending big only late in the race. Mourdock blasted the complacent Lugar with ads claiming Lugar hadn’t lived in the state since 1977 and was “Barack Obama’s favorite Republican”. Lugar lost 60–39 and Mourdock proceeded to blow an easy win against Rep. Joe Donnelly in the general election after an outlandish comment about rape.
Lugar is a great case study, but it’s hard to think of Democrats in 2018 that could be similarly vulnerable. Perhaps the only one that comes close is Senator Diane Feinstein, who has faced some pleas to retire rather than run for reelection at 85 years old. But California is far more friendly terrain for Democrats than Indiana was for Republicans in 2012. Democrats in Trump states tend to have strong local brands and likely won’t be caught off guard by a strong challenger (be it in the primary or the general).
Where It Could Happen: States With Open Primaries
Democratic primaries with large portions of young, independent voters who are less tied to the party could be more likely to produce a nightmare scenario for establishment Dems. Joe Manchin is simply not vulnerable based on how conservative West Virginia Democratic primary voters are. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, and Claire McCaskill are certainly three of the *more* vulnerable Democrats to a primary challenge — all represent states that voted heavily for Donald Trump, and have voted with him occasionally. Democratic primary voters in these states are also far more liberal than in West Virginia. Still, each has a strong local brand and has opposed Trump in key votes (perhaps more than critics would have expected). And if any lost in a primary, Democrats would be completely doomed in the general.
The most dangerous situation for Democrats could be in Maine, where Independent Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, has voted with Trump nearly 50% of the time according to data from FiveThirtyEight.com. If a well-funded progressive Democrat stepped up to run, it could throw King’s re-election bid into disarray. However, Maine passed a ballot initiative to install instant runoff voting, which could help King in a three-way contest (the initiative is still tied up in court and it’s unclear if it will be in effect in 2018).
Democrats Shouldn’t Worry Too Much
The Tea Party significantly hindered President Obama’s agenda and helped lead the GOP to a huge House majority in 2010, paving the Party’s eventual unified government control after the election of President Trump. While Democrats should be careful to not engage in the wild excesses of the Tea Party, even a bad nominee or two simply would not cancel out the positive effect of a massive groundswell of grassroots energy that could easily lead to a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in 2018.