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House Party

The Left Will Take Over the Democratic Party, Just Give It Time

Progressives lost some high-profile races this week, but that doesn't mean they aren't having an impact.

by Robert Wheel
10 May 2018, 8:15am

Photo from the 2018 Las Vegas Women's March by L.E. BASKOW/AFP/Getty

Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.

Republicans should’ve seen Donald Trump coming way back in 2012. During the presidential primaries that year, the frontrunner Mitt Romney had an odd amount of difficulty wiping out fourth-rate candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. They all stood for substantially the same policies, but Romney at least tried to make a pretense of making empiricism and humanism important, a stance which failed to excite the base. His inability to put away the nomination until late April was a portent: The era of Owning the Libs was upon them. Years later Republican Congressman Thomas Massie would lament, “They were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race.” Well Tom, you should’ve seen it coming.

If you’re looking for a similar portent for where the Democratic Party might end up years from now, turn to Indiana, where on Tuesday left-wing darling Dan Canon got pasted in his congressional primary. His opponent Liz Watson cruised to the nomination with more than 66 percent of the vote. This was bad news to Canon’s fans, including me: A high-profile, well-funded unabashed leftist running against a flawed Republican in a district that has trended away from Democrats for decades as the party has abandoned its blue-collar roots? At the very least it’d be the perfect test case to see if leftism could be the secret sauce that wins these voters back for Democrats, or persuades the people who don’t vote to join a movement. And if Canon had won, the Democratic Party would really need to start taking the left seriously.

Well, he lost, one of several leftists to lose on Tuesday. His loss is poignant, but it was hard to imagine an unabashed leftist who supports Black Lives Matter, abolishing ICE, single-payer healthcare, and legalizing marijuana getting more than 30 percent of the vote in a southern Indiana primary even two years ago. The Hoosier State isn’t Oakland; the past two Democrats to represent the area in Congress were moderates.

And the woman who beat Canon is hardly a moderate. Liz Watson was a competent liberal who had endorsements from national progressive groups and similar positions to Canon on most issues. Much as people want to constantly re-litigate the 2016 presidential contest by proxy, this wasn’t that: It was as if Bernie Sanders were running against Elizabeth Warren, not Hillary Clinton. Watson likely got liberals and centrists in the district to back her, while Canon was stuck with only the leftists. If he’d managed to unite liberals and leftists against a centrist, or against a less capable liberal candidate, I suspect he’d be the nominee.

But the Democratic Party needs to take the left seriously even if it’s only getting 30 percent in conservative heartland primaries. While Canon lost, leftism is winning, at least if you know where to look. In a suburban Philadelphia seat almost every Democrat in a crowded primary supports abolishing ICE. Democrats nationwide have begun to support marijuana legalization. Backing a public option instead of single-payer is now considered a moderate position on healthcare within the party, whereas as recently as 2010 the public option was the default liberal view (single-payer advocates were seen as loons). The establishment may be winning, but it’s also moving to the left.

Democrats’ hostility to actual leftism goes back decades—the massive electoral losses of 1972 and 1984, often blamed on presidential candidates too far to the left, have taught them lessons about tacking to the center, lessons that have to be unlearned if progressives want to win. It’s a process. And elections are a flagging indicator of that process: Politicians follow voters and not the other way around. If America becomes a social democracy it’ll be because the left’s ideas win out and the candidates will be forced to follow suit in spite of the Constitution’s structural regressiveness. It wasn’t going to happen because Dan Canon beat Liz Watson.

Anyway, in other House race news:

  • The next House special election will be in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District in August. It’s a conservative seat but it contains a lot of the college-educated Republicans who have been abandoning the party in droves. Republicans think they dodged a bullet here when State Senator Troy Balderson narrowly won over firefighter hater Melanie Leneghan, but Balderson has problems of his own. He’s from outside the district’s population center and is more conservative than the non-Leneghan Republicans from greater Columbus, where he ran poorly in the primary. Columbus Democrat Danny O’Connor, who easily won a fractured primary, will no doubt feature in many breathless DCCC fundraising emails between now and August.
  • The biggest upset last night occurred on the Republican side, as embattled Representative Robert Pittenger narrowly lost his primary, the first primary defeat of an incumbent this year. It’s seat that a Democrat could win if things break correctly. Pittenger was far from a perfect candidate (otherwise he would’ve won his primary,) but the guy who beat him was one of the architects of North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill that was so unpopular it likely cost former Governor Pat McCrory his job. The Democratic path to victory here is tricky—the seat contains Charlotte suburbs where the bathroom bill was particularly divisive and where Trump only won by 4 percent. But it also contains ancestrally Democratic rural areas (with a significant number of socially conservative but otherwise liberal Lumbees) that backed both Barack Obama and Trump. So Democratic nominee Dan McCready needs to figure out how to win over both populations, or at least not lose too many of one or the other.
  • Local legend Richard Ojeda cruised in the Democratic primary in West Virginia’s Third, and former Clinton aide Talley Sergent won in the Second to his north. Ojeda dodged a bullet when Rupie Phillips, seen as his toughest potential opponent, lost the nomination to Carol Miller, who to be fair has had some pretty trill ads.
  • In Indiana’s Second, well-funded centrist Mel Hall was able to leverage party backing into a plurality win the nomination. Similarly situated Theresa Gaspar won a more convincing majority in Ohio’s Tenth. Both seats are reaches for Democrats, but the party now has conventional candidates who could ride a blue wave if one breaks over the Midwest.
  • There was an under-the-radar upset in North Carolina’s Second District as well-funded tech executive Ken Romley got trampled by former State Representative and lieutenant governor candidate Linda Coleman, who was running a more grassroots campaign. The lesson? Don’t count out progressive women (especially progressive women of color) in Democratic primaries anywhere.

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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here , and his DMs are open.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.