In an uphill year, Democrats of all stripes worry about electability
By Katie Glueck
On Monday night, several left-leaning congressional candidates joined an emergency organizing call with activists reeling from a draft Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. A somber Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, opening the discussion, acknowledged that Democrats held control in Washington but were nonetheless “in an uphill battle for change.”
The moment, she said, demanded leaders “who know how to get in the fight and who know how to win.”
Tensions over how to execute on both of those ambitions — pushing effectively for change, while winning elections — are now animating Democratic primaries from Pennsylvania to Texas to Oregon, as Democrats barrel into an intense new season of intraparty battles.
For the first months of 2022, Republican primaries have dominated the political landscape, emerging as key measures of former President Donald Trump’s sway over his party’s base. But the coming weeks will also offer a window into the mood of Democratic voters who are alarmed by threats to abortion rights, frustrated by gridlock in Washington and deeply worried about a challenging midterm campaign environment.
Some contests are shaped by policy debates over issues like climate and crime. House primaries have been deluged with money from a constellation of groups, including those with ties to cryptocurrency, pro-Israel advocacy and an intervening national party, sometimes resulting in backlash. And in races that could be consequential in the general election, national party leaders have openly taken sides, turning some House primaries into proxy battles over the direction of the party.
Tuesday night’s Democratic House primary in the Omaha, Nebraska, area attracted less of that national fervor, but it may lay the groundwork for a competitive general election. Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican representing a district President Joe Biden won, defeated a vocally left-leaning Democratic contender in 2018 and 2020.
Democrats hope to make inroads there this year despite a brutal national climate, and on Tuesday nominated state Sen. Tony Vargas, who has emphasized his governing experience and background as the son of immigrants.
Jane Kleeb, chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party, said recent primary contests had been shaped above all by moderate-vs.-progressive divisions. This time around, she said, voters appeared focused much less on ideological labels and much more on policy proposals and electoral viability. It is a reflection of the urgent concerns held by many Democratic voters around the country who, above all else, worry that their party will lose its congressional majorities in Washington.
“There is a less ideological mood — I think that Democrats, especially in our state, feel like we’re fighting for every office we can get,” she said. “People want to win, but I also think the word ‘progressive’ is not enough. Voters are really wanting to know what the candidate stands for and what they’re going to do when they get into office.”
Beginning next Tuesday, the Democratic primary season accelerates, headlined by the marquee Senate Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has consistently led sparse public polling against Rep. Conor Lamb of suburban Pittsburgh and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia.
The race, in one of the few states where Democrats have a solid chance of picking up a Senate seat, has focused heavily on what it will take to win the general election. Fetterman promises to improve Democratic standing in rural Trump territory, while Lamb, a polished Marine veteran, often cites his record of winning in a challenging House district.
That theme has echoed in a handful of upcoming House primaries, highlighting fierce Democratic disagreements over what the party’s candidates need to do or show to win this November.
Electability is playing out in a different way in South Texas, where Jessica Cisneros is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, the most staunchly anti-abortion Democrat in the House, in a district where conservative Democrats have often thrived.
Cisneros has strong support from national left-leaning leaders, and abortion rights advocates believe Democratic outrage around that issue will help her in the May 24 runoff and beyond.
“When we defeat the anti-choice Democrat, that’s going to set the tone for the rest of the midterms,” Cisneros said.
But other national Democrats plainly see Cuellar as a stronger fit in a more culturally conservative district that may become a heated general-election battleground.
“We ought not have a litmus test of who and what makes one a Democrat,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, who campaigned with Cuellar last week.
Still, there are sharp divisions over what it means to be an effective Democrat — a dynamic at the heart of high-profile primary battles in recent years, as left-wing contenders defeated several senior incumbents but also faced setbacks, as in Ohio, where Rep. Shontel Brown won a rematch against former state Sen. Nina Turner.
Next Tuesday kicks off a fresh series of tests concerning what kinds of candidates can excite — or reassure — Democratic voters at a perilous moment for their party.
“In 2018 and 2020 they were rebelling against an establishment that lost to Trump,” said Sean McElwee, the founding executive director of Data for Progress, a liberal policy and polling organization. “Now they want people who will pass Biden’s agenda and hold swing seats, and progressives need to make the case that they are the best chance to do that.”