Noah Harrison: Dems' game plan for 2018

Sunday, September 10, 2017 - 2:35pm

Despite President Donald Trump’s historically low approval ratings less than a year into his presidency, the Democratic Party failed to win a single seat in the Congressional special elections earlier this year, losing special House elections GeorgiaKansasMontana and South Carolina. And while these districts have a distinct conservative tilt — most were formerly represented by Republicans nominated to serve in the Trump administration — Democrats will need to win similar seats if they hope to win the House in the 2018 midterm elections. 

While relatively insignificant in the long run, the Democrats’ series of losses disappointed liberals hoping to translate Trump’s unpopularity into electoral success while setting off a new wave of party infighting over how to proceed strategically. At present, the Democratic Party is largely divided into two factions: the moderate wing that propelled Hillary Clinton to victory in the 2016 primaries and the more liberal branch that rallied around Bernie Sanders’s brand of populist progressivism. Lingering resentment from the primaries and a contentious Democratic National Committee chair election in February fueled perceptions that Democrats are locked in an ideological civil war for control over the party.

Indeed, many Democrats view the coming years as a continuation of the ideological battle personified by Clinton and Sanders. While this divide portends a potentially bitter primary battle in 2020, the notion that one side of this struggle must prevail over the other is misguided and, if accepted as true, threatens to weaken the party.

In recent decades, extreme political polarization has effectively eliminated much ideological overlap between Republicans and Democrats and conflated the ideological makeup within each party. Party homogeneity has its advantages: It is easier, at least in theory, to pass substantive reforms when in power or unify around a presidential nominee. However, it also narrows a party’s appeal and leaves a party vulnerable to unexpected defeats — as it did last November. Instead of defining itself as a party of moderates or liberals, Democrats would be best benefited by a coalition of centrists and progressives.

One of the more tangible benefits of such a coalition is the ability to run strong candidates that match the ideological makeup of their constituents. To retake Congress, Democrats must recruit viable candidates, which they failed to do in the aforementioned special elections. Take the race for Montana’s sole Congressional seat, vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as an example. The Democratic nominee was Rob Quist, a country singer with some more liberal political positions including his support for single-payer health care. Quist lost to his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, despite Gianforte being charged with assault in the days leading up to the election. Though Montana is a conservative-leaning state, Democrats have shown an ability to win statewide elections there, as the state has a Democratic governor and one Democratic senator.

Likewise, the special election in Georgia’s 6th district pitted Democrat Jon Ossoff against Republican Karen Handle. Ossoff cast himself as a moderate, a wise move considering the traditional political bent of the affluent district. However, Ossoff’s youth and energy disguised his own vulnerabilities, including his bland, if not vague, policy platform and the fact that he lived out of the district. He eventually lost to Handle in a runoff.

The series of special House elections was just a trial run for Democrats as party’s fate in Congress will ultimately depend on the results of the 2018 midterms when all House seats and a third of Senate seats are up for election. Furthermore, there are several types of seats in different regions with various political landscapes for the Democrats to target. Still, if Democrats are to have a realistic shot at regaining the House majority, they will need to pick up seats in Republican mainstays like Georgia’s 6th district and Montana.

The 2018 midterms represent the best chance for Democrats to form an effective opposition to Trump before the 2020 presidential election, and a coordinated campaign could restore a Democratic majority in the House. A favorable Senate map will likely shield the GOP’s slim Senate majority from even a strong Democratic wave, only adding to the importance of the Democrats’ ability to find and target vulnerable Republican districts.

Party infighting between progressives and moderates will significantly hinder, if not altogether devastate, the Democrats’ chance to regain a Congressional majority. Though the various wings of the Democratic Party have legitimate differences in terms of policy positions, these differences do not justify putting the fight for the party over the fight of the party. Democrats must recognize the importance of unity to counter Trump effectively and must embrace the ideological diversity within the party if they are to regain control of Washington.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu