Being forced to spend time in the political wilderness does some strange things to parties. Republicans, for instance, spent the early years of the Obama Administration figuring out how to harness the grassroots energy of the Tea Party while also taming their predilection for unelectable candidates.
As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said recently:
Look, you know, the goal here is to win elections in November. Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates—Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They’re not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election. My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority. The way you do that is not complicated. You have to have nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home.
It was a simple point. The key to political success is to win, not lose elections. Each of these candidates ran during wave elections in races they should have won. And yet for one reason or another they lost, often times badly. Sometimes it was an unfixable gaffe (the words “legitimate rape” should never be uttered), other times it was an utter lack of political instinct (“I am not a witch” is not a selling feature), and other times they were just deemed to conservative for their district.
But Republicans quickly recovered. They did so by identifying the parcel of common ground between the Tea Party and the establishment, recruiting top-notch talent, and unifying around common themes. The result was regaining a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, winning a majority in the Senate in 2014, and securing the presidency in 2016. This is called “failing fast,” i.e. trying new things, doing them quickly, identifying what’s not working and pivoting to a new strategy.
Today’s Democrats are making the same mistakes as Republicans in 2010, but they are showing no indication that they are “failing fast.” Indeed, they are leaning into their mistakes. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar reports:
“When they held power, Democrats mostly avoided these messy skirmishes despite very real disagreements between the party’s pragmatists and progressives. And this year, the once-alarming prospect of primary showdowns between candidates who backed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hasn’t fully materialized. But pay close attention and there’s an unmistakable tension brewing between strategists and activists—one that threatens their chances of winning back the House.”
That tension is taking many forms.
In Texas, for instance, the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is taking heat for kneecapping a progressive candidate who had previously said she’d “sooner have [her] teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than move to rural Texas. In California, five Democrat candidates are battling for a share of the vote in a district that should be a prime pick-up opportunity. And one of those candidates, a former Clinton campaign staffer (who once insulted Marines in a Cosmopolitan interview) has enough money to further splinter the Democrat field, leaving a wide open path for a Republican to run away with the race. And in New Jersey, a recruit considered to be one of the party’s strongest is falling out of party with the progressive base because be accepted money from the National Rifle Association.
Democratic primary voters aren’t looking for electability; most want to be part of the #Resistance. If enthusiasm alone is enough to generate a sizable Democratic wave, it may not matter how qualified their congressional candidates are. But if there are enough suburban, independent voters up for grabs, Democrats could squander winnable seats by nominating some not-ready-for-prime-time players.
That leaves the Democratic Party in a difficult position. Do they intervene, and thus risk further energizing grassroots activists in favor of the less mainstream candidates, or do they sit on their hands and hopes that it all works out in their favor. It’s a no-win situation so long as the base and the establishment share no common ground. And without substantial and rapid change, it doesn’t appear that can happen before the crucial midterm elections.