At first, Jean Stothert had what seemed to be an insurmountable lead over Heath Mello in the race for mayor of Omaha, Neb.
Stothert was popular, Omaha was doing well, and the state is deeply red. Not to mention, it was an off-year municipal election.
So, when Mello came within striking distance of Stothert in the primary, it surprised everyone. The state may be red, but Hillary Clinton took Omaha by 2.3 points. Mello's pitch to be a consensus candidate who would work across the aisle for working families resonated.
That was until Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, stepped in.
Mello didn’t hide his pro-life record, and he wasn’t new to public life, having served in the Nebraska Legislature for eight years. But when national groups discovered his anti-abortion voting record after the primary, there was an eruption of misinformation, confusion, and anger. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the DNC came under fire for embracing Mello when NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Daily Kos sounded the alarm over the candidate’s support of legislation that “would require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound.” The bill didn’t actually do that. The legislation Mello backed instead required women to be informed by their doctor that they could see an ultrasound before having an abortion.
Daily Kos, which had funneled money into Mello’s campaign, revoked its endorsement. It eventually corrected its inaccurate statement about the ultrasound bill, but stuck with its decision to denounce him. What came next left many Democrats frustrated with the party and with outside groups for attacking a Democrat who was blue through and through on most issues.
The rift in the party on abortion rights was exposed on the national stage. Perez drew a red line, declaring it “non-negotiable” that “every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health.” This prompted a backlash from party leaders including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who, although she is herself fervently pro-abortion rights, has also repeatedly rejected it as a litmus test. Democrats cannot win majorities if they exclude pro-life candidates, she said.
But the damage was done. By the time of the election in May, Mello lost, but only by 5 points. By all accounts, he should have beaten the incumbent.
Looking back at the final month of the campaign, Nebraska Democrats see interference from Perez, the new DNC chairman, as the reason Mello lost the race.
“The DNC hasn’t said anything like that for any other candidate since Perez has been chair, and Heath is the only one they made an example out of,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “As Democrats, we elect Democrats, and that includes pro-choice and anti-choice, and that includes pro-pipeline and anti-pipeline Democrats.”
Kleeb supported Mello, and her exasperation over Omaha is still palpable months later. “If those outside groups want to continue to go down that path of attacking Democrats, and the other choice is a right-wing Republican, obviously that’s their decision and choice,” she said.
There is a bitter fight now raging for the soul and future direction of the Democratic Party, and, not surprisingly, it is a serious impediment to winning elections. A senior adviser on Mello’s campaign said having “a candidate that was seen as part of the civil war in the Democratic Party was not helpful to engage new people and turn out voters.” What does Omaha say to the party's more conservative politicians, the Joe Manchins, Bob Caseys, and Heidi Heitkamps, the adviser said, pointing to vulnerable pro-life Democrats facing re-election in 2018 in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. “It’s a scary thing.”
Kleeb lamented that everything that happened in Omaha may have had little to do with Mello himself. She speculated that outrage on the Left is linked to establishment distaste for Sanders, who endorsed Mello.
“At the national level, there are some more establishment folks that can’t get over the fact that Bernie is still beloved at the grassroots level, and they continually attack him,” Kleeb said.
The absence of coordination and loyalty to the party in Omaha is a clear example of what can go wrong for Democrats in 2018. It encapsulates the near impossibility of a consistent and unifying message from Democrats. These competing ideological forces could prevent the party from securing one of their greatest congressional victories since 2006, when they seized control of both houses of Congress.
Democrats want to compete everywhere. They don’t want to scoot into a majority by a tiny margin. They want to barrel their way back with a vengeance, signaling to President Trump that his time in Washington will be brief, and that Republicans made a grave mistake by accepting him as one of their own.
But to have any chance of doing that, Democrats need to look at their own problems first. Despite denials by party leaders, Democrats haven’t healed from their contentious primary between Clinton and Sanders. There is infighting. In fact, Democrats are at an inflection point. They have to decide whether to accept that they massively miscalculated in 2016, took core constituencies for granted, and have a rising progressive wing that won’t be ignored. This raises the further question of whether they are prepared to be a big tent party, to win majorities, or go instead for the more difficult election politics of ideological purity. Do they allow diversity of opinion, or do they eat their own?
A December meeting of some DNC members will be important in deciding what comes next for the party and how it'll pick a nominee for the ultimate battle against Trump in 2020.
“I’m not a litmus test guy; it’s about the economy,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. “We want to defend the women’s right to choose; that doesn’t mean it’s a litmus test. The litmus test is whether you want to be for working people."
In today’s political environment, said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, anyone who considers themselves aligned with Democrats needs to be aware that if one of their own doesn’t win in a race, the alternative may be a right-wing Republican or one molded in the image of Trump. Ryan ran against Pelosi for the position of House Democratic leader after watching Trump clean up in his district and win his state in 2016.
“I don’t know how we get to the majority ... if we start peeling off who is for trade agreements, or [debate] on this social issue or that social issue or are [candidates] slightly more moderate or liberal on one vote or the other, then nobody gets anything that they want because they don’t have a coalition of people to support them,” Ryan told the Washington Examiner.
Powerhouse left-wing groups completely disagree. NARAL Pro-Choice America, Democracy for Action, MoveOn.org, UltraViolet, and many others issued a “statement of principles” on abortion and contraception, throwing down a marker on the kind of candidates they’re prepared to support.
“If they vote to restrict abortion access or contraception access, they then undercut the party platform and they undercut the welfare of women,” the principles said about pro-life Democratic lawmakers. “The burden of proof is upon them through subsequent votes and/or public statements — not in the heat of a campaign — but prior to running for office or reelection.”
On other issues that could wound Democrats running in red districts, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said, candidates simply need to remain focused. “There’s a difference between being on the record and making something the centerpiece of your campaign,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC. “There’s voters who are going to disagree with Democrats on social issues but will still be willing to vote Democratic if the economic issues are front and center.”
Still, Democratic candidates such as New Jersey state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who voted against legalizing same-sex marriage, are sure to attract criticism from the Left as primaries draw near. Van Drew is running to replace retiring Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo. The Cook Political Report recently moved the seat to “toss-up,” improving Democrats' chances of flipping it. The party has tried for years to convince Van Drew to run, and he may be the best candidate for the district, but his candidacy will likely enrage many on the Left, setting up a clash with the Democratic establishment.
A record number of candidates
Twenty-four Democrats are running in Orange County, Calif., across four districts. The contests are in one of the largest media markets in the country and attract national attention nearly every cycle, creating the perfect environment for brutal primary fights that could reopen wounds from 2016.
In California's 39th District, there’s a millionaire lottery winner endorsed by the Latino BoldPac and an Obama alum challenging incumbent Republican Ed Royce in a crowded field with four other Democrats. In California's 49th District, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, who lost to incumbent Darrell Issa by just 0.6 percentage points, is now facing challengers from the Left, including an environmental lawyer and an Obama State Department alum who appears poised to gain the support of Emily’s List. In the 45th District, a former technology adviser to Obama is battling a UC Irvine law professor, dubbed an Elizabeth Warren mini-me, who studied under Warren, in a field with five other Democrats vying to challenge Republican Mimi Walters. And California's 48th District features a self-described “Reagan Democrat” who has worked with the FBI and CIA, an airline pilot, and a real estate businessman running to replace devout Trump supporter Republican Dana Rohrabacher.
Every one of those seats is an important target for Democrats. In 2016, Clinton turned Orange County blue for the first time since the Great Depression. But the crowded contests will pose big challenges for the Democratic leadership, who have to be wary of appearing as though they’re putting their thumb on the scales. California’s top-two primary system increases the potential for races to turn ugly. Under it, the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, advance to the general election. If two Democrats somehow make it through in any of the races, the party will unavoidably see two of its candidates ripping each other apart, and probably pointing up ideological differences over which many in the party would rather draw a veil.
“It is the favorite bed-wetting narrative that divisions within Democrats spell disaster for Democrats,” said former Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson. “There are going to be a lot of primaries, it’s indicative of an energized base.” He added that primaries provide the best testing grounds to determine who will do well in the general election. “The most electable one is one who wins the primary.”
But Democrats have difficulty making cold-blooded calculations when it comes to primaries, favoring incumbents when they have no chance of winning a general election. When Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he bucked tradition slightly, backing a fresh candidate running against veteran lawmaker Joe Garcia in a Florida primary. It set off Hispanic lawmakers, upset that the DCCC hung a former House member out to dry. But internal numbers showed that the new Democrat had a far better chance of beating the Republican in the general election. Ultimately, Garcia advanced and suffered a crushing loss to the Republican candidate. This time around, if Democrats are going to methodically choose the candidates most likely to win, the price may be that there are loud complaints from various segments of the party.
“You need to have people win the primaries who can win the generals," Hoyer recently told reporters at a roundtable discussion on Democrats’ 2018 prospects. "We want to try to get the strongest general election candidate. That is not necessarily always the strongest primary candidate."
Democratic candidates have to find a way to differentiate themselves. Are they a candidate who believes in a single-payer health system financed by government spending like most healthcare, or brand themselves a Medicare-for-all candidate? Do they embrace the national Democratic brand or steer clear of the old guard? Consultants are working overtime to figure out how much support of a single-payer healthcare system could hurt or help a candidate. Progressive groups say all signs point to a growing agreement in the party that in 2018, Democrats should make it a central issue of the campaign to call for Medicare available to everyone, because it’s not synonymous with the potentially more toxic sounding "single-payer."
The single-payer question splits Democrats. For every party leader who decries litmus tests, another is pushing for it. In a September interview with The Arena podcast, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who is firmly on the left of the party, expressed irritation with the single-payer division among Democrats.
“It's only in healthcare where, if you are not for a single player, you are immediately a sell-out,” Schatz said. “It is only in healthcare where everything becomes a litmus test about your progressive purity. I think that’s nuts.
“In any other space where we have a progressive priority ... we are willing to, in the context of Republican rule, take what we can get legislatively and pocket some wins. In healthcare, I think partly because of the presidential campaign last year, it became so polarized that you weren't even allowed to have a good idea on healthcare,” the Hawaii Democrat said, perhaps best capturing the widening chasm between Democrats on the issue.
To impeach or not to impeach
When it comes to impeaching Trump, Democratic leaders want candidates to be quiet. Yet Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are working behind the scenes to prepare concrete impeachment actions in case their party wins in 2018. Calls for impeachment had been scattered and unorganized, but before the Thanksgiving recess, six House Democrats, led by Rep. Steve Cohen, joined together to introduce new articles of impeachment.
“The Democrats’ base needs to be activated,” said Cohen, D-Tenn. “The Democratic base needs to know there are members of Congress who are willing to stand up against this president.”
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, plans to force a vote on impeachment through a privileged resolution, which prioritizes it above others. It's expected to hit the House floor before year’s end and will put Democrats on the record. Republicans are eager for Democrats to pursue a symbolic vote on the floor, hoping it will help energize Trump’s base. That’s a fear even among some lawmakers who signed on to the newly introduced impeachment articles.
“It can’t be a priority agenda item as we go into the campaign because it distracts from the other issues that we care a lot about and it might energize the Republican base,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who signed onto the impeachment articles, told the Washington Examiner. “So, you’re not going to see leadership talking about impeachment, and I don’t think you’re going to see most Democrats talking about impeachment, and I’m not going to talk about impeachment — other than signing on.”
Despite possible distractions for Democrats, Yarmuth believes all the factions of the party, including outside groups, progressives, establishment Democrats, everyone, have learned their lesson after 2016.
"The Democratic coalition has figured out that even though they have competing priorities — LGBT rights, abortion rights, single-payer — they’re not going to see action on those priorities if Democrats don’t win," he said.
Still, distractions abound. Liberal billionaire and Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer is upping the ante with his push for impeachment. He launched TV ads calling on politicians to rally behind impeachment in October, and provided a venue for the base to sign petitions. This month, he took his campaign to the streets of New York City, paying for digital billboard ads in the middle of Times Square. They'll run for 10 minutes every hour through New Year's Eve.
Big December decisions
The epicenter of the earthquake shaking the party is the Democratic National Committee. Many Democrats regard it as the scene of the crime. It’s where scars are still fresh and the brawl between the Clinton and Sanders wings hasn't ended. Distrust, resentment, and an inability to let go of the past threatens the party’s foundation. The DNC will either be dragged kicking and screaming by the Left into a new era of Democratic politics, or the factions will tear each other to bits in the process. The fuse has been lit, and the potential for fireworks in early December is high.
“I want to build a party that’s not dependent upon whether or not the other side completely fucks up,” said Jim Zogby, a longtime DNC member who sits on the commission tasked with reforming the party.
The Unity Reform Commission, formed at the 2016 DNC convention in an attempt to bridge the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters, meets for the final time Dec. 8-9. It’s there that they will propose their recommendations for changing the party. Reforms being considered include reducing the number of superdelegates, opening up primaries and caucuses to voters who currently can't participate, and budget transparency.
Unlike most in the party, Zogby didn’t feel at ease after seeing major Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey on Nov. 7. “That’s not enough,” he quipped. “I don’t want to go from wave to wave.”
“There are some folks that aren’t going to accept that we just do more of what we do and that will be enough to win. In order to win we have to make some changes; the trajectory here is not a good one,” he said, pointing to the more than 1,000 legislative seats Democrats lost during Barack Obama’s presidency. “Winning because the other guy is a disaster is not in itself enough to sustain political momentum.”
Zogby said the recent revelations in former interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile’s book “gives a boost” to the case he and other Sanders-appointed folks are making.
“The prerequisite of unity is reform,” he said. “If we don’t, then I think there’ll be trouble. There were lessons learned in the last election about the party, and that is there is a progressive wing of the party, and that progressive wing has some concerns.”
That’s why he and others on the commission, including Kleeb, are putting so much weight on the outcome of the December meeting. If the DNC ends up adopting only half the changes, that’s not enough for Kleeb. For the suite of reforms that Bernie-appointed people are calling for to be implemented, Kleeb said, DNC chairman Perez needs to “put muscle behind” the commission. “There’s no sign that Perez is welcoming progressives into the party.”
Strategists focused on the midterm elections, however, brush off the drama within the DNC, saying it won’t have a substantial impact on Democrats winning back the House or Senate. “If the solution is, 'Let’s bring the DNC in,' you’ve got a much larger problem,” said one strategist working on 2018 campaigns.
"DNC has to do two big things: They have to figure out how to raise money. They're the only center-left group that cannot figure out how to raise money off of Donald Trump,” the strategist said. “[And] make sure the state parties are on a war-footing, ready for elections in their states.”
Some outside groups on the Left are close to writing off the DNC altogether. It’s something Nomiki Konst, a DNC member and Sanders delegate during the convention, would like to avoid. The DNC is already limping, and if reforms aren’t made, Konst says, the party is pretty much dead. The DNC is the organization, if operating successfully and effectively fundraising, that is meant to strengthen Democrats at the state-level.
“If you don’t have a state party that’s funded, how are you going to recruit the local consultants who understand the communities more than the ones who parachute in from D.C.,” Konst said.
“There’s a trust issue at the Democratic Party, but if the DNC reforms itself, I think it will help other candidates around the country.”
A Democratic civil war doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the party. Democrats are 15 points ahead on a generic ballot. For a takeover of the House, they need be at roughly plus eight, according to the Cook Political Report. They have endless material to use against Republicans, including allegations that Team Trump colluded with Russia to win the presidency. But even that prospect is not without peril. For all the potential for clashes of their own making, Democrats have to be wary that their divisions will be exploited, by the Russians again, in 2018.
“State-sponsored attacks came from the Kremlin, and they aren’t going anywhere,” said Adam Parkhomentko, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “We can’t be naive and have to be careful in terms of where we’re getting our information. It’s going to happen, and they will actively sow doubt and confusion. They’re going to do that on the Democratic side. Russia is working overtime.”