There has been, as Jim notes, a fair amount of talk on the Democratic side — especially after Saturday’s rallies — about imitating the grassroots-driven protest energy that the Tea Party brought to the Republican party in 2009–10. Democrats should think long and hard about whether they are prepared for the implications of that.
To start with, it’s worth remembering what Democrats thought, or at any rate said, until this week. First, they spent the past eight years calling the Tea Party a bunch of racist, unpatriotic terrorists — and now they want in on that! Second, they also spent the past eight years chortling about how self-defeating the Tea Party was for Republicans — and even if the outcomes in the House, the Senate and all the other states had been exactly the same, they’d still be saying the same thing today (even louder) if Hillary Clinton had won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
But set aside the hypocrisy, which is not that much different from that of Trump supporters who spent eight years calling Obama the devil and simultaneously brag about Trump imitating his tactics. Are Democrats really ready for the level of disruption that a true Tea Party of the Left would bring? This is, after all, the same political party that gloried in using its superdelegates to cut off Bernie Sanders’ path to the nomination, and that takes great pride in its top-down organizing structure. (Indeed, a major reason House Republicans are wary of holding health-care town-halls this year is knowing that Democrats can easily bus in out-of-district rent-a-crowds from their professional activist cadre.) The Democrats’ 2006 comeback, after all, was a classic D.C.-run operation, as Rahm Emanuel carefully cultivated Democratic candidates who were more in tune with swing voters in their districts than with the DailyKos Left, which wanted more Ned Lamonts. When the progressives finally captured the party’s leadership, they did so behind a man — Barack Obama — who owed much of his career to the favor of the Chicago machine and who was equally at ease raising a billion dollars from the party’s established donor class.
The Tea Party’s vitriol in 2009–10 was directed just as much at the D.C. and professional leadership of its own party, and that exacted a heavy cost on veteran politicians like Charlie Crist, Robert Bennett, Dick Lugar, Mike Castle, Eric Cantor, and David Dewhurst in a series of bloody primary battles in 2010, 2012 and (to a lesser extent) 2014. Tea Party challengers forcibly retired GOP veterans in the safest of deep-red states and districts, and they cost the party winnable elections in swing races (the Castle–O’Donnell primary being the most obvious example). Even if you think the movement has been on balance a boon to Republicans, the costs have been undeniable, and they fell disproportionately on the party’s efforts to control its own strategy.
This is especially true in the Senate. The dynamics of off-year elections hurting the party in power should be expected to favor Democrats by 2018, but the 2018 Senate map is absurdly loaded against them: Republicans are defending just eight seats (nine if a special election is held in Alabama to replace Jeff Sessions), and only four of those are in states where Trump got less than 57 percent of the vote and one of those is Texas, and another is Utah, where Mike Lee won his Senate race by 41 points. Democrats, by contrast, are defending ten Senate seats in states Trump won, some of them very-deep-red territory:
A good national environment can help alleviate a lot of those vulnerabilities, but only if Democrats are running candidates appropriate to their states. The Democrats who ran the best in 2016 in red states — Jason Kander and Evan Bayh, who ran far ahead of Hillary Clinton in Missouri and Indiana, and Roy Cooper and Jim Justice, who won the governor’s races in North Carolina and West Virginia — didn’t run as wild-eyed leftists (Kander’s campaign took off after an ad bragging about how he “supported Second Amendment rights” as a state legislator while assembling an AR-15 blindfolded). Primary challenges that replaced people like Manchin and Tester with urban-style progressives would likely be as suicidal as running Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and just as likely to elevate some amateurs who were not ready for prime time.
A true Tea Party of the Left would also target safe-district elected officials who are corrupt and out of touch with their constituents, as is true of — but look how ugly that got when Charlie Rangel’s district had an open primary in June.
Be careful what you wish for, Democrats. You just might get it.