Democratic Establishment Split By Progressive Insurgents

As the primary season begins, the left wing of the party has the momentum.

NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 31 2016: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared before thousands of supporters at St Mary's Park, The Bronx
Photo Credit: a katz /

The ideological struggle taking place within the Democratic Party is not quite a "civil war," but it is an ideological and practical struggle that is coming to a head as the party begins to hold primaries for the 2018 congressional elections, starting this week. 

Democratic hopes for regaining power in Washington hang on the outcome.  With 435 House seats and 33 Senate seats, the Democrats need 24 seats to take back control of the House, and two seats to win back the Senate. Democratic voters now must answer the same question that divided the party during the 2016 Democratic primaries: What kinds of leaders do they want, Sanderistas or Clintonians? Progressives or neoliberals? True blues or yellow dogs?

While the establishment Democrats dominate among larger donors and the consultant class, they are clearly on the defensive among the most committed voters.

From California to Texas to Pennsylvania, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is opposing progressive challengers whom they believe cannot win. In response, the left wing of the party, from Credo to Our Revolution accuses the Washington-based DCCC of thwarting the passion and commitment of the grassroots, especially candidates of color.

So far, the progressives seem to have the momentum, if not the money.

In Texas, the DCCC’s opposition to Laura Moser, an advocate of impeaching Trump, energized fundraising for her bid for the 7th congressional district in suburban Houston. "Do the Democrats Need to Nominate a Centrist to Win the Seventh?" asks the New Yorker. In a district that voted 49-47 for Hillary Clinton in 2016, a lot of Democrats say no.

On the southwest side of Chicago, the appeal of progressive Marie Newman, who is running against conservative incumbent Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, has split the party's leaders. Longtime Illinois representatives Luis V. Gutiérrez and Jan Schakowsky have taken the unusual step of backing the challenger over their colleague.

In Massachusetts’ 7th congressional district, the conflict is perhaps as much generational and temperamental as ideological. Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, is challenging liberal Michael Capuano, a 20-year veteran of Capitol Hill.

“Capuano is beyond liberal on the issues,” says one veteran Boston political consultant who is not supporting either candidate. “Pressley cannot be any further to the left than he is. She can’t hang him on his voting record. What she can hang on him is supporting Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic establishment.”

Pressley argues that the district needs an activist, not just a "reliable vote." As a result. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Seth Moulton have vowed to stay neutral in the race rather than back Capuano. (Another prominent liberal Democrat, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, is supporting Capuano.)

The key for the Washington-based party functionaries is fundraising. In California’s 21st congressional district, the DCCC prevailed on Emilio Huerta, a lawyer and the son of labor rights icon Dolores Huerta, to bow out of the race, the Fresno Bee reported Sunday.

Elected officials and Democratic Party operatives in the Central Valley and in Washington told the Los Angeles Times they felt the candidate’s mother pressured them to keep other candidates from entering the race. Huerta had only raised $100,000, they said; not enough to compete against Republican incumbent Rep. David Valadao, who beat Huerta by 13 percentage points in 2016.

After Huerta withdrew, the DCCC issued a statement praising his commitment to “progressive values.”

The majority-Latino district is a prime target for Democrats because only 29% of voters in the district are registered as Republicans and the district supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a wide margin. But whether the Democratic candidate in 2018 will be progressive or establishment is still not settled.

At bottom, Democrats are divided over the best way to win back the congressional majority.

“I don't think the DCCC is actively trying to thwart a progressive agenda,” says Edward Erickson, a political consultant who worked with the Sanders campaign in 2016. “ I think they are working on the best data and the best indicators they have to support the best candidates.”

The problem, he says, is that the DCCC is “over-emphasizing fundraising as a key indicator for candidate success,” which “forces candidates to prioritize donors over voters” and may “ultimately cost them on Election Day."

With the party’s grassroots preferring to prioritize voters over donors, the party establishment, embodied by the DCCC, is losing ground as the voting season begins. 

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Jefferson Morley is a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the editor the JFK Facts blog and author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press). Follow him on Twitter @JeffersonMorley.