It’s still Obama’s Democratic Party

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 8

This week:

  • DNC to choose a new chairman
  • A Kennedy enters the race for Illinois governor
  • Is Jeff Flake in trouble?

Democratic Party

Chairman’s race: Democrats will choose a new part chairman on Saturday. With the tacit backing of Barack Obama and overt support from his fellow alumni of the administration, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez is claiming he’s locked up at least 180 of the 224 votes he needs ahead of time. Perez’s claim doesn’t make it true, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it were.

The selection of Perez, if it goes down that way, demonstrates an unwillingness among Democrats to move outside the comfort zone of the Obama years. Even as most of his accomplishments disappear in a flurry of deregulation and repeal, they remain fond of the recent memories.

Many Democrats seem willing to blame Hillary Clinton and her wing of the party for the destruction they has recently suffered, but no one is willing to blame Obama for the direction in which he took Democrats.

This is an interesting feature of the party right now. It remains unwilling to accept that the voters’ verdict against them — and in favor of someone they find as horrifying as President Trump — had anything to do with the direction in which they moved during the last decade under Obama’s leadership.

Perez is definitely a left-winger, but in this particular race he represents the “establishment” wing of the party, or what is left of it. He’s had to keep an awkward balance between pandering to the Sanders wing and keeping the party establishment behind him.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who received the early backing of several lawmakers, was at one point the frontrunner, but as suffered from some of the more outlandish things he had previously said. Still, he remains Perez’s most serious opposition. It would take a massive impasse between the two for someone else — probably South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg — to come through as a dark horse candidate.

The new DNC chairman will not set the tone for the party’s politics. Rather, he will manage its technical side. He (or she) has to get the party ready for life after Obama, equipping candidates and state parties with the data operation they will need to compete nationally, while also raising the money to support this and other party projects.

Whomever they choose, Democrats will be starting off far behind the ball. But in their first skirmishes in 2017 and 2018, they will at least enjoy the advantage of a party running against an incumbent president. As Republicans massive losses in 1982 demonstrate, that should be worth something.

The new chairman will be tested immediately with the governor’s race in Virginia (which might determine who redistricts the state in 2020) and the party’s quest to retake the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010.

Governor 2018

Illinois: Gov. Bruce Rauner, R, a moderate Republican, won in 2014 on a reform platform. The trouble is, it’s not so easy to get results when Democrats hold three-fifths supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature and can even override your vetoes.

Rauner got a slight reprieve in election 2016 — Democrats lost ground in both the House and Senate, and just barely lost their supermajority in the state House. But in terms of enacting his reform agenda, Rauner still faces a steep uphill climb, against both the legislature and a state court system that has resolutely rejected nearly every attempt at much-needed pension reform so far. Rauner’s relative powerlessness will not make his re-election easy, especially if Democrats decide they can wound him and regain power by refusing to cooperate.

Between the state’s business climate and its quality of life (which in Chicago includes incredibly high rates of violent crime), Illinois has lost nearly 80,000 residents in the last three years. This trend began before Rauner was governor, but he will be the one defending his record in 2018.

Democrats, on the other hand, have to nominate a credible challenger who can compete against Rauner’s millions — he has already given $50 million to his own campaign. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D, who represents the Quad Cities area, already passed on this race.

Chris Kennedy, the nephew of JFK, already entered the Democratic primary on February 8. But beware: The Kennedy name isn’t necessarily magical outside New England. His cousin, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lost her bid for governor of Maryland in 2002.

Senate 2018

Alabama: Attorney General Luther Strange’s appointment to the U.S. Senate to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions means that all 50 states have had at least one new senator since 2000.

That’s the trivia. The more important issue: By appointing Strange, who had been investigating him for using state resources in an affair, Gov. Robert Bentley has apparently stained both himself and Strange with an impression that he is trying to undermine the investigation.

On very rare occasions, senatorial appointments backfire — usually when governors appoint themselves or appoint family. This is not a case of those things, but it might turn out to be one of them.

The appointment has apparently revived an impeachment process that had been fizzling out. Meanwhile, Strange, who immediately before his appointment had downplayed the investigation’s importance, may face a serious primary challenge in 2018.

It’s an interesting dilemma: Had Strange simply refused the appointment and announced his intention to run for the seat next year, he might have run with only token opposition. Had Bentley given the seat to a placeholder-senator, he probably wouldn’t be facing impeachment this spring.

Arizona: Since election day, there have now been two polls showing Sen. Jeff Flake performing miserably in a Republican primary against both former State Sen. Kelli Ward and state Treasurer Jeff DeWitt. Neither poll is of especially good pedigree, but there’s no question Flake is in trouble after upsetting conservatives with his moves to the center and upsetting Trump supporters with his refusal to support the party nominee.

Flake’s seat will be the Democrats’ number-one pickup target in 2018, in a year when they don’t have many realistic targets. They can be expected to put a lot of resources behind this one.

Given Arizona’s late primary, Flake has about 17 months to right the ship. But the danger is that his early weakness among Republican primary voters will attract a swarm of ambitious Republican pols..

Rep. Paul Gosar, R, ruled out a challenge to Flake earlier this month, but surely there are others who might jump in.

Michigan: There’s now talk of Kid Rock running for Senate against incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Of course, much, much stranger things have been tried — and have worked — only recently. But the idea that this would be a serious possibility — that the experienced pols would pass up the chance — demonstrates the concern that experienced Republican politicians seem to have about 2018. They are afraid of running in the Trump midterm. Are they being overly cautious?

Pennsylvania: Sen. Bob Casey, D, won’t have to worry about Rep. Pat Meehan, R, this year. Meehan has announced he will be running for re-election instead of going for the Senate in 2018. Pennsylvania Republicans, if they hope to build on Trump’s victory in next year’s Senate race, will have to find someone new.

Virginia: Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and radio talker Laura Ingraham have both expressed interest in challenging Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018. Both poll quite poorly against him in the early results from Quinnipiac: Each at 36 percent, with Kaine about 20 points ahead in the high 50s. For the record, Kaine scores one point higher against Fiorina than against Ingraham.

Still, this contest cannot be judged accurately until we’ve had time to see how this year’s race for governor goes. The takeaway, for the moment, is that Kaine is not personally unpopular enough that anyone should expect to beat him easily. Someone is going to have to make a case against him that so far hasn’t been made.

Wisconsin: Republican Rep. Sean Duffy somewhat surprisingly announced that he will not be running for Senate next year against Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D.

This is a bit of a gut-punch to a state GOP on a long winning streak. It takes arguably their strongest candidate and most credible, steadfast Trump supporter out of the equation at a time when Republicans would really like to build on their performance in 2016.

Duffy’s decision not to enter makes it much more likely that state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald will get into the race. The field here is still forming, and there’s a lot of time — Wisconsin’s primary is not until August 14, 2018.