Politics & Policy

Democrats Threaten to Eat Their Own

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman with supporters in Hartford during the 2006 campaign. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
The coming wave of progressive primary challengers is good news for Republicans.

‘Democratic politicians in red states who fail to fight strongly against Trump and seize the mantle of economic populism won’t inspire people to vote — and they will lose the general election in 2018,” warned Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in a recent press release.



If Green and his ilk have their way, Democrats who fail to heed the populism of the moment will be in for a rude surprise next year. A new progressive group has already sprung up with the intent of forcing Democrats to hold the line, threateningly named “We Will Replace You.” The group seems set on calling out every perceived Democratic capitulation to President Trump, including the bipartisan confirmation of Mike Pompeo as CIA director and statements from Dick Durbin, Claire McCaskill, and Jon Tester proclaiming that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch deserves “a fair shake.” It has promised “primary challenges to Democratic collaborators and enablers of Trump.”

That’s some bold talk, but it is difficult to knock off incumbents given their many institutional advantages: name-ID, entrenched fundraising networks, statewide campaign experience, the power to do favors and punish foes. The Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will all spend resources to defend the party’s incumbents. And angry liberals have not had a lot of past success challenging Democratic incumbents whom they see as useless squishes.

Perhaps the highest-profile example came more than a decade go, when the liberal grassroots, spurred by a herd of outraged bloggers, backed Greenwich selectman Ned Lamont against incumbent Democratic senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman had become the most prominent Democratic supporter of President George W. Bush’s policies in the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, angering the progressive Left. Lamont pulled off an improbable come-from-way-behind victory in the primary, taking almost 52 percent of the vote. But Lieberman announced that he would stand by his prior threat to run as an independent and ended up comfortably retaining his seat.

Back in May 2010, MoveOn.org pledged to support primary challenges to any House Democrat who voted against passage of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. Thirty-four House Democrats voted against the bill. The good news for progressives is that most of those lawmakers were indeed replaced; the bad news is that they were almost all replaced by Republicans in that year’s tea-party wave. By 2014, only four of the 34 were still in Congress and running for reelection.

That same year, liberals aimed to replace Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln with lieutenant governor Bill Halter. Spurred in part by Research 2000 polls that were commissioned and later disavowed by Markos Moulitsas, progressives felt they were on the verge of a major upset: “The progressive push is on fire ahead of the primaries,” MSNBC’s Ed Schultz told his audience the night before the election. Lincoln won the primary with 52 percent . . . and then Republican John Boozman crushed her by 21 points in the general election.

In 2014, progressives rallied to the side of Zephyr Teachout in her challenge to incumbent New York governor Andrew Cuomo, whom Teachout called “a Reagan, trickle-down Republican.” Teachout turned in an unexpectedly strong performance against long odds, winning more than a third of the vote and 20 counties. But Cuomo still won the primary by nearly 30 points.

“We Will Exceed Expectations before Falling Short in Our Long-Shot Effort to Replace You” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

If a traditional liberal progressive challenger has a hard time knocking off a Democratic incumbent in Connecticut and New York, never mind Arkansas, it’s hard to imagine such efforts will have better luck in Montana, Missouri, West Virginia and Florida. Which means that, for the moment, “we will replace you” still sounds like a much more plausible threat to those incumbent Democrats when it comes out of the mouths of Republicans.

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