As Democrats survey the upcoming fight to keep their narrow Senate majority, they face similar challenges in an array of states: The factions that set aside their differences to deliver the Democrats control of Washington are redividing along racial, gender and generational lines.
“We are going to see a lot of disruption in 2022,” predicted Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist and former party chair. “The party is growing, and it has growing pains.”
That could be a problem for President Biden. With Republicans making a strong play to retake the House, the Senate could hold the balance of power in Washington after 2022, making it critical to the rest of his term. But the White House, in deference to the sensitivity of the party divisions, is taking a hands-off approach to the primaries for now, even while watching them intently.
“Historically, President Biden has rarely endorsed in Democratic primaries,” said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s point person for the midterms. “That’s also the practice that most presidents have had, and it’s a safe bet that will continue.”
The brewing primary fights — playing out as Republicans fight their own battles over how closely to embrace former president Donald Trump — underline how little Biden’s election did to resolve the party’s debate over how best to win elections. Some Democrats argue for traditional, often White leaders like Biden himself who can attract centrists; others advocate for women and people of color who can electrify the party, like Raphael G. Warnock, the newly elected senator from Georgia.
Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, which promotes women of color in politics, said Democrats are paying overdue tribute to diversity but are often more comfortable with the type of candidate they have long known.
“The party mentality has evolved,” Allison said. “But the practice when it comes to what to do it about it — who gets the buzz, the behind-the-scenes nods and pats on the back — it’s still kind of old-school.”
The party that controls the White House often suffers major defeats in the midterms, and Democrats are bracing for a bad outcome next year, though some hope that with a surging economy and a defeated pandemic, Biden can buck the trend.
Top White House officials argue that the president’s policies, from covid relief to economic aid to jobs, give the party something to unify around. “The way we win in ’22 is a laser focus on the president’s agenda,” said O’Malley Dillon.
Incumbents, too, involve a different calculation, and O’Malley Dillon said Biden would support them in contested primaries.
Pennsylvania, however, suggests it won’t be simple. Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s retirement has opened the door for Democrats in a state Biden won, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is widely seen as an early front-runner, but others are making their moves.
Fetterman cuts a striking figure at 6-foot-8 with a shaved head and goatee. Tattoos on his arms feature the Zip code of the old steel town of Braddock, where he was mayor, and the dates that residents lost their lives to violence during his tenure. A man who acknowledges looking “scary,” he is an outspoken liberal who prides himself on his rapport with working-class voters.
“If I’m running on the backdrop of President Biden’s agenda, then I couldn’t imagine a better backdrop to run on, quite frankly,” said Fetterman, who is off to a strong fundraising start. He added that he has not asked Biden for an endorsement, saying, “I’m not going to put him in the middle of a primary. If that’s something he ultimately decides to do, that’s up to him.”
But some Democratic officials are not convinced that Fetterman is their best bet for winning the general election. He’s already taking heat from a rival candidate over a 2013 incident that has come under fresh scrutiny amid a national reckoning on race.
When he was mayor of Braddock, Fetterman, a shotgun in hand, at one point stopped an unarmed Black jogger, according to a police report on the incident. Fetterman says he heard gunshots coming from an area where many shootings had recently occurred and saw someone in a face mask running toward a school, so he stopped him.
“I don’t think John Fetterman’s a racist, but I also don’t think he’s Batman,” said Malcolm Kenyatta, a 30-year-old community organizer and the first openly gay person of color to join the Pennsylvania Capitol. “We can’t have folks out and about engaged in sort of vigilante justice.”
Kenyatta, an underdog candidate who was an early and active supporter of Biden, added, “I hope that the lieutenant governor would unequivocally apologize for this.”
Asked to respond, Fetterman pointed to a Medium post he published on the topic, in which he says he didn’t know in advance the race or gender of the person he was stopping. “This is an incident that occurred over eight years ago. I’ve addressed it and talked to it many times since,” he said in an interview.
As Fetterman emphasizes his roots in an old industrial town, Kenyatta stresses his struggles growing up in Philadelphia. “We need somebody who knows in their bones what’s broken because they’ve been there,” he said.
Like Fetterman, he said he had not asked for Biden’s endorsement despite their good relationship. “We’re going to have a sort of a family fight here, right, in Pennsylvania,” Kenyatta said. “And I think folks here in Pennsylvania are going to decide who the nominee is.”
To complicate matters, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a clean-cut former Marine and former prosecutor who represents a swing district outside Pittsburgh, is strongly considering entering the race, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Like others interviewed for this story, the person spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
Biden’s challenge is that all three — Fetterman, Kenyatta and Lamb — represent critical parts of his coalition. Lamb, an avowed centrist, campaigned aggressively for Biden in Pennsylvania. Mike Donilon, a longtime Biden adviser who now serves as a top White House aide, worked for Lamb in a 2018 special election victory that grabbed national attention.
Republicans face their own challenges in battleground states. Trump remains determined to exact revenge on Republicans who crossed him, and the party remains largely in his control. But some Republicans, especially in swing states, are trying to keep at least some distance, creating the potential for damaging GOP showdowns.
The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Harris empowered to cast tiebreaking votes. The value of even the narrowest Senate advantage was evident this year when Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan passed with no Republican votes. The Senate is also solely responsible for confirming federal judges and executive branch nominees.
Senate Republicans are defending 20 Senate seats in 2022, compared to 14 for the Democrats, giving them some hope of hanging onto control. Beyond Pennsylvania, the Democrats’ best shot at gaining ground is likely North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Richard Burr’s retirement puts in a play a purple state where Democrats have come up just short in recent federal elections.
Many Democrats there are still angry about the 2020 Senate race, when Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), then the Minority Leader, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which coordinates the party’s Senate campaigns, got behind Cal Cunningham in the primary.
Party leaders saw Cunningham, a centrist state senator with a military background, as an ideal candidate for the conservative state. But just weeks before the election, reports that Cunningham had sent sexually suggestive texts to a woman who was not his wife upended his campaign, and he lost to Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.
That sequence of events infuriated many African American leaders. “It is not helpful when we have outsiders coming in and putting their finger on the scale,” said former state Sen. Erica Smith, who ran against Cunningham in the Democratic primary and is running again now.
Cheri Beasley, the first African American woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, is also running and is seen as one of the top early candidates. Beasley has won the support of prominent groups and activists such as Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates and was critical of party leaders for rallying behind Cunningham; and Allison, who suggested that party leadership can take a step toward redemption by getting behind her.
Also in the race is Jeff Jackson — like Cunningham, a White state senator with a military background. Asked about the push in his party for more diverse candidates, Jackson said his legislative career means he knows how to help people facing discrimination.
“I think the litmus test for our nominee needs to be someone who we are certain will stand up for people who are mistreated on the basis of race, gender, orientation or disability,” Jackson said. “There is also a benefit of being the candidate with the most legislative experience in the race because it means I have the clearest track record on these issues.”
“At this stage we are carefully assessing the candidate fields, keeping open lines of communication with candidates and working to build the infrastructure we’ll need to win the general election,” said DSCC communications director David Bergstein.
A DSCC aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the committee is still assessing which candidates are most capable of winning in various states before deciding whether to throw its weight behind anyone. That reflects a more careful approach than in the past, the aide acknowledged.
Some Republicans admit that they used to grudgingly admire Democrats’ ability to deftly manage their primary process, while the GOP not infrequently ended up with controversial candidates who lost winnable races. But now, they say, it is Democrats who appear to be losing control over their primaries amid a surge in activism by liberal and Black voters.
“We’ve looked at how Senate Democrats have staged their primaries with considerable envy over the years,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that works for a Republican Senate majority. “Those strategic advantages could be well lost.”
Leaders of both parties have long faced the conundrum of when to intervene in primaries, whether to “clear the field” by steering money and support to the candidate they deem strongest. Step in, and you risk angering supporters of other candidates or betting on the wrong horse; stay out, and you might enable a weak nominee to prevail and risk losing the general election.
For Democrats, that dilemma is now being refracted through the prism of debates over identity and biography. Some Democratic officials and activists are urging party leaders to get involved, but this time on behalf of diverse candidates — effectively asking them to muscle into races as they have long done on behalf of White hopefuls.
“The Democratic Party nationally needs to do a better job in elevating this very thing,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin D. “Shev” Jones, a Democrat. “We have traditionally gotten behind candidates that play it safe, and taking a risk will get you much further.”
Jones said Biden’s ascent to the presidency owes much to the support of Black women, and now he should return the favor. “His voice is needed,” Jones said. “The Republicans do it all the time . . . because they want what they want.”
For example, Jones thinks the moment is ripe for Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a Black woman who has shown interest in running for Florida governor. Rep. Charlie Crist, who is White, is already in the race. “We do need to acknowledge women in leadership,” Jones said.
The history of traditional versus barrier-breaking candidates is complicated, however, with both sides claiming some victories. In 2020, Warnock won an electrifying race in Georgia; but in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat who energized the African American community, fell short of defeating Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
And while Cunningham was groomed by party leaders and lost, John Hickenlooper, a former Democratic governor of Colorado, ran for Senate with similar strong backing from the party and easily knocked off Republican incumbent Cory Gardner.
In part for such reasons, some Biden allies caution against any move on his part to step in and bolster diverse candidates.
“Biden’s committed to diversity. He’s provided the most diverse ticket in history,” said Steve Westly, a top Biden fundraiser. “However, when it comes for people to vote in midterm elections, I don’t think they’re necessarily thinking that color or ethnicity or age or gender preference is the guiding factor. They are looking for people who they think will represent their interests in Congress.”
As Biden and Schumer navigate this terrain, they could also pursue more subtle options than official public endorsements, such as steering donors toward certain candidates, introducing them to seasoned strategists or providing behind-the-scenes advice. Often, such help is provided by allies several layers removed from top party leaders.
“When you’re president of the United States, you don’t have to extend your right hand to a candidate,” Brazile said. “You’ve got more fingers now.”