This weekend we got a glimpse into two different Democratic congressional races across the country, and we witnessed two very different ideas of where the Democratic Party thinks it should go in the era of Trump.
In California, one of the longest-serving Senate Democrats isn’t anti-Trump enough for some party leaders.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) did not receive the endorsement of the state Democratic Party this weekend in her bid for reelection, a snub that boosts her main primary challenger, State Senate leader Kevin de León, who has literally accused President Trump of not having a soul. (No candidate got enough votes at the state party convention to win an endorsement, but that can probably be interpreted as de León pulling away would-be supporters from Feinstein.)
What's happening in California is an extension of the Bernie Sanders wing of the 2016 campaign, which has argued that Democrats should have focused on a more populist message if they wanted to reach the white working-class voters who broke for Trump in higher-than-expected numbers. And with Trump one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history, that populist message is taking shape as an anti-Trump purity test.
“We won't defeat Trump and his Republican Party with corporate Democrats pushing Republican-lite policies and weak leadership,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, when de León first announced his candidacy.
But on the other side of the country, in a district in rural Pennsylvania filled with those same blue-collar voters who grew up in Democratic households but now vote Republican, a Democratic candidate is employing a very different strategy to try to win.
Running in the March 13 special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, Democratic nominee Conor Lamb launched an ad over the weekend that makes him sound more like a Republican than a Democrat. He is campaigning on the fact that he won't support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for House speaker if Democrats win back the House in November.
“My opponent wants you to believe the biggest issue in this campaign is Nancy Pelosi,” Lamb said in the ad. “It's all a big lie. I've already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don't support Nancy Pelosi.”
Even though Lamb has said he won't support Pelosi, so powerful are Republicans' Pelosi attacks that he felt he needed to shout about it in this ad.
Pelosi has been an effective bogeyman for Republicans for the past several election cycles, a name Republicans often mentioned more than their actual opponent in the race to get their voters and some right-leaning independents out to vote against Democrats. Republicans spent millions in a competitive special election in Georgia hammering the Democratic candidate by talking about Pelosi. Democrats lost that election, a heartbreaker for them.
Polls from 2017 consistently show that about 25 to 28 percent of Americans view Pelosi favorably, while about half of America (48 percent) has an unfavorable opinion of her.
She's also one of the last major national Democratic figures from the Obama era still in Washington. And as the likelihood increases that Democrats will take back the House for the first time since 2010, so does the likelihood she would be the next House speaker.
Ditching Pelosi, as 63 House Democrats did after the election, isn't the only way Lamb has tried to establish his independence from the national party.
“I’m not running against the president,” he said at a snowy campaign rally in January. He frequently laments the closing of coal-fired power plants and steel mills.
This isn't to say that the Democratic Party has to or even should be running the same race across the country. California voters haven't sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate in almost 30 years. This rural Pennsylvania House district has never elected a Democrat since being drawn by Republicans for Republicans in 2000. Naturally, Democrats are going to message differently for different sets of voters.
But the messages they've adopted aren't even in the same book, let alone on the same page. In California, Feinstein has been haunted on the left by suggesting that Trump could be a “good president.”
In Pennsylvania, Lamb goes out of his way to say he'll work with the president and doesn't support one of the leaders of the Democratic Party.
The two very different directions the Democratic Party is taking have already tripped up some Democratic candidates. House Democrats' campaign arm has refused to support an antiabortion congressman running for reelection in Chicago, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), as he faces a primary challenger from the left.
And so 15 months after the presidential election, Democrats haven't answered the central question facing their party in the era of Trump: Is Sanders-style liberal populism the way to win, or should the party adopt a much more moderate approach?
“The progressive/establishment split is real,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution last week. “Democrats need to overcome this, and they have not figured out how yet.”
Of course, Democrats have had remarkable success flipping 37 state legislative districts almost despite that. Democratic operatives credit grass-roots energy motivated by the party's losses in 2016.
But if the question is Have Democrats learned a unified lesson after Trump's win? then the answer seems to be no. More and more, the party appears to be going in totally opposite directions.