From the halls of Congress to the presidential campaign trail, Democratic moderates are beginning to push back against the wave of liberal energy and shoot-the-moon policy ideas that have captured the party’s imagination over the past two months.
An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of a Gallup poll. It was conducted in November.
The moderates’ concerns came to a head this week when one of the newest Democratic stars appeared to threaten colleagues who would not toe the liberal line, raising the specter of a fracture in the party between moderates and purists, similar to a long-standing divide in the Republican Party.
At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said some of her colleagues could find themselves “on a list” of primary election targets, after they voted for a Republican amendment requiring that undocumented immigrants who try to buy guns be reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to people in the room who were not authorized to comment publicly.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said he has confronted party leaders about such threats, which have also come from the Justice Democrats, a liberal group that backed Ocasio-Cortez’s primary campaign.
“Being unified means ensuring that Democrats aren’t primary-ing other sitting Democrats,” Gottheimer said. “Since when is it okay to put you on a Nixonian list? We need to have a big tent in our party or we won’t keep the House or win the White House.”
Some warned that imposing purity tests could lead to a Democratic version of the conservative tea party revolt that transformed the GOP in recent years. That surge has brought Republicans new energy and new voters, but it’s also cost the GOP some congressional races and legislative victories.
Several Democratic presidential candidates, including many of the early entrants, have quickly endorsed sweeping liberal policies, including a Medicare-for-all health plan, a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change, and reparations for African Americans. Recently, however, some prospective candidates have been offering an alternative vision.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who is contemplating a presidential run, said U.S. politics needs to return to a more civil place. He referred to the House Freedom Caucus, a group of purist Republicans that often opposes legislative compromises.
“We don’t have to settle for disgraceful politics. We don’t have to settle for being as terrible as Donald Trump,” Bennet said during a visit to Iowa on Feb. 21. “We don’t have to settle for Freedom Caucus tactics — those guys are tyrants. We don’t have to accept that.”
Liberal Democrats, including many new to Capitol Hill or national politics, argue that the party has been too timid, caving to Republican pressure and failing to inspire voters with calls for sweeping change. The surge of new voters in the midterm elections, they say, shows the excitement and support generated by such proposals.
The centrists counter that liberal ideas and candidates have more power online and among the grass roots than at the ballot box and that the passions will probably fade in coming months, both in Congress and the presidential campaign.
John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster, said the perception that the party’s primary voters are enthusiastically liberal is not based on data.
“There is, without a doubt, a myth that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez somehow represents the narrative of Democratic primary voters in the country,” Anzalone said. “Almost half of them identify themselves as moderates or conservative.”
That appears to be at least somewhat borne out by the midterms, when less-ideological candidates often won when facing purist opponents. Thirty-three of the 40 GOP seats that Democrats picked up were won by candidates who had been endorsed by the moderate NewDem PAC.
A November Gallup poll found a pragmatic streak in the party — 54 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents wanted the party to become “more moderate,” while only 41 percent wanted it to be more liberal. That contrasted with the Republicans and their allies, 57 percent of whom wanted a more conservative party.
The centrists do not necessarily argue that the ideologues are wrong but that purity comes at the price of progress. That lesson, said Matt Bennett, a spokesman for the moderate think tank Third Way, is now on display in the House — which just this week held a blockbuster hearing featuring Trump’s former personal lawyer and passed the first significant gun-control bill in a generation.
“Without the people who flipped seats, there is no Speaker Pelosi, there is no Michael Cohen hearing, there is no background-check bill — there is only misery and Republican rule,” he said. “No one in the Democratic Party should be doing anything to jeopardize those seats. No one.”
For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been treading carefully — sidelining the most sweeping liberal proposals, playing down prospects of a Trump impeachment and scheduling weekly meetings to bring together leaders of the moderate and liberal factions.
Thursday’s meeting threatened to open a new breach. After 26 Democratic moderates joined with Republicans to pass an amendment on a key gun-control bill, Pelosi said they should show more “courage” on politically sensitive votes, according to the people in the room. That struck some as tone deaf, as did Ocasio-Cortez’s comments about primary challenges.
Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet Friday said she was not making threats but warning that the Democratic defectors “were inadvertently making a list of targets for the GOP and for progressive advocates” by voting with Republicans.
The eruption followed weeks of growing tension between wings of the party. Freshmen who were elected on platforms of cleaning up big-money politics and fixing the heath-care system have found themselves voting on, and answering for, a different set of issues, and some are feeling the heat from their constituents.
“A lot of people are complaining and expressing concerns about the Democratic Party being portrayed as socialist, or certain voices being louder than others,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who unseated a GOP incumbent in a suburban Minneapolis district.
The new liberal energy in the House is coming from candidates, including Ocasio-Cortez, who captured districts that generally favor Democrats. Some party strategists say liberal activists must recognize that their message would not work in more conservative areas.
“People would be wise to remember that, by definition, we have the House majority because people flipped seats from red to blue,” said Tyler Law, a Democratic consultant who helped direct the party’s communications efforts in 2018. “Seats that went from blue to blue did not deliver the majority.”
The Democratic presidential primary contest, meanwhile, has so far been dominated by candidates pushing sweeping liberal policies. But several prospective candidates have begun warning against an overly aggressive liberal platform.
At a house party last month in Waterloo, Iowa, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is exploring a run for the White House, was confronted by an activist who demanded that he support Medicare-for-all, rather than his current proposal to lower the age of Medicare eligibility.
Brown said that’s not realistic. “My ideology says universal coverage today — just like yours does — but I want to make people’s lives better,” Brown responded, as he stood near the fireplace in a packed living room. “I know Congress won’t pass Medicare-for-all.”
Over the coming weeks, a second wave of candidates could adopt a line closer to Brown’s. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe have all been preparing campaigns that would promise an ability to win over Trump voters.
Each has been crafting campaign plans based on polling that shows an enormous appetite among Democratic-leaning voters for anyone who can defeat Trump, even if they do not hew to strict liberal policies.
“You can be very progressive, liberal and left and also want to elect people to get things done,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who is advising Hickenlooper. “Primary voters are very comfortable holding both of those things at the same time. They don’t see it as either-or.”
In the House, moderates like Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) have been speaking up more about the merits of their approach, which tends to attract smaller audiences on Instagram and Twitter.
“There are a lot of people that suck up a lot of oxygen,” Schrader said. “And then there’s the people that do the work. . . . We’re the ones who actually govern and make things happen. And I think we’re content with that.”