Should We Primary Every Democrat?

Three views on left electoral strategy ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

In These Times Writers

Illinois State Rep. Will Guzzardi’s 2014 victory helped inspire a crop of new progressive candidates in 2015. (PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DILTS)

Challenge, But Don’t Divide

By Dan Cohen

The 2018 mid-terms afford Democratic primary voters an opportunity to support progressive leaders with the credibility both to inspire the Democratic base and to restore the confidence of the many disaffected, frustrated voters who sat out or swung to Donald Trump. Politicians like Trump and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner aren’t elected based solely on enthusiasm for their ideologies; they’re elected because voters lack confidence in a political establishment that they view as corrupt, or elitist, or blithely unconcerned with their needs.

Democratic Party leaders believe that they can sidestep this crisis of faith with the message that they are standing up to Donald Trump.” But as long as they are voting with the GOP to reauthorize warrantless domestic spying and military spending while refusing to put forward a bold domestic agenda, they are blocking the solution and the leadership we need. The party seems to be torn between countering the GOP with a bold progressive agenda or with the not-so-inspiring 2017 party slogan A Better Deal” (translation: We might suck but they suck worse”). We need Democratic elected leaders who will actually lead, and who embody a true commitment to social and economic justice, inclusion and respect.

That means we need contested Democratic primaries: on every level of government, in nearly every district, as often as possible. We should be challenging not only conservative or centrist Democrats, but any Democrat failing to act so as to restore confidence in our party and in government.

Today’s political climate enables candidates to take progressive stances that would have been unthinkable not long ago. Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the Bernie Sanders campaign have shifted public thinking left. The more that people run on issues of social and economic justice and win, the more that other candidates will follow suit. More people who have checked out of politics might have a reason to get back in, too

But there’s a caveat. If we are running to transform the party in a more progressive, inclusive direction, we must foster a culture of respect for those with whom we, at least for now, disagree. Self-proclaimed progressives who hurl insults at their opponents frequently justify the tactic with, The other side does it.” But the GOP doesn’t have the same objectives that we do. The GOP benefits from people’s loss of confidence in government, while we need to restore it.

Likewise, our primary opponents are not the enemy, nor are the voters who put them in office. We need not compromise our values, but there is a world of difference between saying, My opponent is a corporate shill,” for example, and saying, I respect my opponent and we agree on some issues, but we disagree on the need for a living wage now.”

And while the Sanders campaign helped inspire the current progressive electoral turn, we cannot fall into the trap of relitigating that primary. Clinton’s primary voters are not the enemy, either. In fact, many agree with most Sanders voters on most issues. That means when a Clinton voter says they hated Bernie for such-and-such reasons but agreed with him on the issues, the answer should be, I respect that, let’s talk about how to advance those issues.” Too often, though, the answer is, What is wrong with you?” Not helpful.

We must remember that we build movements over a longer time frame than one election cycle. Many of our challengers will lose, at least their first run. My first Chicago campaign as a strategist after moving to the city was the 2012 state representative primary challenge by progressive Will Guzzardi against a machine incumbent. We were told Will couldn’t win. And he didn’t: He lost by 125 votes. But two years later, he won by 21 percent. More than that, his campaign demonstrated the cracks in the Chicago machine and inspired a crop of progressive candidates in the 2015 municipal races. An even larger number of progressive candidates are already planning runs for City Council in 2019.

If we had a strong progressive in every legislative district on the federal and state level in 2018, we would force thousands of corporate Democrats, at minimum, to adopt some of our policy positions. What’s more, if we don’t beat them this time, it gives us leverage to hold them accountable. All of which helps move the party left, because when politicians publicly endorse progressive policies, it tells voters, That’s what Democrats are about.”

Dan Cohen has been a pollster and strategist for progressive electoral and issue campaigns for almost 20 years. He is president of Blue Sun Campaigns, and splits his time between Boston and Chicago.

When Not To Primary

By Jane Kleeb

We all love our local beer. We go to the farmers market and buy local beef and veggies. The tomatoes in Nebraska are different than the ones in Florida, and we celebrate that diversity. Yet when it comes to politics, for too many progressives, the basic theory of local seems to go out the window.

Primarying conservative and moderate incumbent Democrats simply because they are not as progressive as other Democrats, as Dan advocates, has never made much sense to me. Call me whatever label you want, but I would rather have a Democrat who is with us 70 percent of the time than a Republican who is against us 100 percent of the time. Even more than that, I firmly believe that diversity is a strength — not just diversity of race, or religion, or nationality, but also of ideas. A Democratic Party that has both Elizabeth Warren and Heidi Heitkamp makes us stronger. For example, when a farmer with a rural perspective on how healthcare improvements could impact their community sat at the table with an economics professor, those perspectives joined together to make Obamacare stronger.

America is a country of 330 million different people, each with different experiences, backgrounds and ideas. The Democratic Party needs to reflect and embrace those differences. Just as a banker in Omaha, in my home state of Nebraska, will have had different experiences than a teacher in Scottsbluff, a Democratic senator from Indiana will have a different worldview than a congresswoman from New York. If we define being a Democrat” as having only one valid opinion about each of the many issues facing our country, that makes us weaker, not stronger. As Democrats, we have a responsibility to broaden our base, which does not mean abandoning our values. I come from the grassroots.

Whether it was working in Nebraska to help pass Obamacare, or taking on the Keystone XL pipeline, my background is in the streets, at kitchen tables, in combines with farmers during harvest, on conference calls with young activists across the country, and at rallies with Native allies. We each had different ideas at different times and did not always come to consensus. I learned that diversity made us more resilient, more enduring and, yes, stronger. There was a richness in having a rancher come together with a Native elder, both taking different paths but working toward the same goal.

Democrats in red states have no other choice. Voters expect leaders to work for the people, and that means reaching across the aisle to actually get legislation over the finish line, even when we do not agree with everything in the bill. Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, both up for reelection in 2018, represent Missouri and Montana, and the local issues facing their communities are different than those facing West Coast Democrats such as Sens. Kamala Harris or Ron Wyden.

Neither McCaskill nor Tester votes with the Democratic Party 100 percent of the time. Nor should we expect them to. As Democrats, we do not act like Republicans, who ignore the fundamental fact that their job is to represent the people who elected them. The Democratic Party is stronger for it. And so is, incidentally, any legislation we hope to pass as the majority party. Democrats in red states make our bills more durable because they are reflective of the broad variety of people across our country that the laws will impact.

A good example is the support for ethanol and biofuels by Democrats in red states. Some progressive Democrats argue that diverting land to biofuels will undercut the food supply. However, those of us who live in agricultural states see the positive economic impacts and the obvious fact that biofuels compete with Big Oil in the marketplace.

As a party, we should be encouraging more voices to participate rather than fewer. Vigorous debate is a very good thing. I understand primarying conservative and moderate incumbent Democrats is a path some will take. But to primary people not as part of a well-thought-out strategy, but simply because they do not hold the progressive line 100 percent of the time, is short-sighted and ultimately weakens us as a national party. I prefer to walk the road of building the party so our bench is broad and we put an end to the current one-party rule governing many of our states and our country.

Local is good. Local builds our party. Local celebrates the diverse ideas that Democrats bring to the table, creating a winning coalition for our families.

Jane Kleeb is the founder of Bold Nebraska, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, a member of the Democratic Party’s Unity and Reform Commission, and an Our Revolution board member. She lives in Hastings, Neb.

Why the Left Must Contest 

By Dayton Martindale

For some of us fire-breathing radicals, it’s hard not to bristle at the arguments above. Dan scolds us on what we can and cannot say. (“But some of them are corporate shills,” part of me argues.) Jane goes further, telling us those we disagree with can help make the party stronger. This seems not only wrongheaded but baffling: Jane has been one of the most effective voices against the Keystone XL pipeline, so why put in a good word for Heidi Heitkamp, the Senate’s third most conservative Democrat and a supporter of Keystone XL?

I think both pieces, in different ways, are guided by an admirable principle: Meet voters where they’re at. Yes, a winning coalition must include Clinton voters and Heitkamp voters, people skeptical of big government,” people who have read neither Marx’s nor Piketty’s Capital.

As a response, then, I look to my Catholic upbringing and say: Hate the sin, love the sinner.” By this I mean: We should reach out to and communicate with red-state Democrats, not think less of them. We should avoid calling our opponents names. I am swayed that this represents a more democratic, humane and effective approach to politics.

But when Dan says, for example, Our primary opponents are not the enemy,” I worry we aren’t talking about the same fight. In a close general election, sure, hold your nose and vote for whatever corporate Democrat you need to if it keeps out the Republican. Even knock on doors. But in a primary, a Democrat who advocates for Keystone XL or arming Saudi Arabia, or who opposes single-payer healthcare, is supporting a world in which more suffer and die. It is important to be honest and up front that these aren’t reasonable allies with whom we happen to disagree on a few matters. They’re a serious threat to a whole lot of people.

The differences between, say, a pro-fracking candidate and an anti-fracking candidate, one who wants to end the Drug War altogether and one who just wants to soften its edges, can have life-or death repercussions. We must convey this urgency if we want voters to care. Our desire for mutual respect shouldn’t keep us from communicating the drastic differences in our visions. In fact, if we Marxists, anarchists and radical environmentalists are serious about our politics, we should challenge progressive incumbents, too, even Bernie himself. 

As Dan points out — and as Bernie proved — primary challenges provide an incredible opportunity for public education. They allow us to expose the bankruptcy of the status quo, to communicate to our fellow citizens that not only is there a better way, but a much better way.

Of course, care must be taken to engage people in a way that’s democratic, respectful and non-condescending, that incorporates their concerns rather than lectures them from above. Jane is right: In some contexts, radicals must negotiate and compromise, among themselves and with others, and learn to work in a political landscape that contains diverse points of view. But where voters are at” is dynamic terrain.

Points of view are not static; democracy requires not only incorporating different values but contesting them.

In 1858, some Republicans supported the slavery-agnostic Democrat Stephen Douglas over Republican Abraham Lincoln in Illinois’ Senate race. This was a general election, not a primary, but the race shows that running a principled campaign against a moderate can empower a movement.

In the debates, writes Brooklyn College professor Roy Tsao, Lincoln mock[ed] Douglas as the only man in the country without an opinion” on slavery. After Douglas won and took office, Lincoln noted that his opponent never lets the logic of principle, displace the logic of success.” In an April 1859 letter, he wrote:

Of course I would have preferred success; but failing in that, I have no regrets for having rejected all advice to the contrary, and resolutely made the struggle. Had we thrown ourselves into the arms of Douglas … the Republican cause would have been annihilated in Illinois, and, I think, demoralized, and prostrated everywhere for years, if not forever.

One year later, he was elected president.

Dayton Martindale is an assistant editor at In These Times.

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