The Democratic Party is in a bad way. It's trying to figure out how to climb out of its historically bad position, and given the split results of the 2016 primaries (and Hillary Clinton's eventual loss), there's plenty of debate about whether the future should be about purity or pragmatism.
To oversimplify things: You've got the Sen. Bernie Sanders/Sen. Elizabeth Warren wing urging a fearless focus on progressive issues (especially on the economy) even in conservative-leaning areas, and you've got the old establishment types who think appealing to the political middle with moderation is the way to go.
There haven't been many major elections this year, but this uneasy balance has been spotlighted in just about all of them.
In Kansas, you had liberals crying foul over the party's lack of support for a Democrat running in a very tough district who espoused some Sanders-ian beliefs. The party is confronted with a similar choice in Montana, where an anti-Wall Street Democrat is the underdog on May 25. Last week, Sanders (I-Vt.) momentarily questioned the progressivism of Georgia special-election candidate Jon Ossoff. Then a related controversy over Sanders's embrace of an antiabortion rights candidate for Omaha mayor led the Democratic National Committee's chairman to suggest Democrats must support abortion rights.
The common thread in all four is that nagging pull to the left — to combat President Trump with fearless progressivism even in tough districts. But all four have also shown the limits of that approach.
In Kansas and Montana, special election candidates James Thompson and Rob Quist, respectively, have both used some of the language of the progressive left — most notably on social media. Both have gotten support from Sanders backers, and Sanders will visit Montana to campaign with Quist.
But here's the prevailing images of the candidates that voters have seen in their TV ads:
These ads are carefully planned for mass consumption as the pictures these campaigns want voters to remember as they head to the polls. None of them really screams “progressive Democrat.”
In Kansas, nearly every Thompson ad featured him either wielding a gun or wearing a hat with a gun on it. In contrast, there was very little red meat for progressives, beyond general statements about prioritizing education and women's rights.
In Montana, one Quist ad recycles a tired campaign-ad conceit: The candidate literally shooting something with a gun. Philip Bump recapped the many, many examples of this past year, and almost all who have done it are either Republicans or Democrats running in very red areas. It is one of two Quist ads featuring a heavy gun presence.
It is, of course, possible to marry this pro-gun message with a progressive economic one. But the prevailing public images of both candidates are not about a $15 minimum wage; they're guns.
In that other special election this month, Sanders momentarily questioned Ossoff's progressivism despite Democrats making Ossoff a cause celebre — the first possible sign of a progressive, Democratic backlash against Trump. It was a curious decision in the first place, and one Sanders ultimately backed off of, endorsing Ossoff.
But while he was wavering on Ossoff, Sanders was on his way to campaigning in Omaha with mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who has a progressive message but also has a history of supporting abortion restrictions involving ultrasounds. And Sanders even told NPR this (again, while questioning Ossoff's progressivism): “And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”
The predictable outcry there led DNC Chairman Thomas Perez to apparently declare an abortion litmus test for Democrats. “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said. House and Senate Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) quickly differed with Perez, saying it's okay to be an antiabortion Democrat — as about 1 in 4 Democratic voters are.
In all four cases, Democrats have flirted with a purity focus in four tough areas of the country. Each shows how difficult that is to pull off.
And that's got to be frustrating for progressives. After all, Republicans have fought over purity for years, with the tea party giving the GOP establishment repeated fits. And the GOP only continued its ascent in Congress and now to the presidency. Why can't Democrats do the same with progressivism? Why can't they run like Sanders in Montana and Wichita and Omaha and suburban Atlanta?
The reason is pretty simple: reality. Because of the way our population is distributed, Democrats can't afford to enforce the kind of doctrinaire purity that the tea party was so successful in policing.
Here's how I put it back in February:
There are simply more red states and more red congressional districts. Republicans took over the House and Senate in recent years largely because they knocked off some of the final hangers-on among Democrats in conservative-leaning places. It first happened in the South; then it spread to Appalachia and the Midwest. ...
The 2016 election is a good example of this. Trump, as everyone knows, lost the popular vote by two full points, 48 percent to 46 percent. But despite that loss, he actually won 230 out of 435 congressional districts, compared with 205 for Hillary Clinton, according to numbers compiled by Daily Kos Elections. And in the Senate, he won 30 out of 50 states.
So basically, 53 percent of House districts are Republican and 60 out of 100 senators hail from red states, according to the 2016 election results (in which the GOP, again, lost the popular vote).
Democrats won the House because socially and culturally conservative candidates carried conservative states districts in the South and along the Rust Belt in 2006 and 2008. Schumer led the recruiting effort in the Senate, and Pelosi became speaker as a result of then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel's political pragmatism. They know the deal.
The Democrats' tendency these days will be to demand their party be as un-Trump and un-Republican as possible in trying to win back control of Congress. These examples show how bumpy that path is already proving.