The Left Strikes Back

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 9-

This week:

  • The Left mobilizes in reaction to Trump
  • Dems stop the bleeding in Delaware
  • Upcoming House special election will show how serious the backlash is

As we noted last week, Tom Perez’s victory as DNC chairman ratifies the Obama-stablishment’s control over the Democratic Party. A lot of Sanders-types are not happy with this outcome, even though Perez is, by every possible measure, a true-blue progressive who advanced their agenda while serving as secretary of Labor.

This is probably a familiar story for conservatives who were angry with the Republican leadership in 2013. The Democratic fringe basically wants to hear more of their anger voiced, the more the stridently the better. And most of all, they don’t want party insiders putting a thumb on the scale, the way many of them still think the DNC did on Hillary Clinton’s behalf during the 2016 primaries.

But of course, it’s one thing to be upset about the primary, and quite another about the choice of a chairman. A party chairman doesn’t set the tone for the party’s rhetoric, message, or ideology, but that of a functionary: He exists to serve the needs of his candidates in general elections.

Keith Ellison, left and Tom Perez, right.

Democrats are probably better off with an agreeable progressive like Perez in charge than Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. Ellison might be more outspoken and more willing to talk about impeaching President Trump, but he is not necessarily the guy you want building your party’s infrastructure and get-out-the-vote operation and raising the money that will get candidates across the finish line in close races.

The fact is, party leaders are political animals, and tend to be followers, not leaders, when it comes to party message. For example, Reince Priebus’ personal beliefs may be more or less conservative than the average GOP voter’s, but it was never his job to set the party’s ideological tone. He was the guy who raised the money and caught Republicans up with their previouly obsolete and dysfunctional get-out-the-vote operation, so that Trump could carry all of those close states rather than lose them narrowly.

If you want to win, that’s the party leader you want — the technocrat. His personal story hardly matters at all, unless it becomes an unwanted distraction.

Perez, of course, has an uphill climb. He is fortunate, though, that in most respects, there’s only one direction for the Democratic Party to go in 2018.

Midterm backlash? Speaking of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, they’re out there right now, and they’re being especially loud.

During the February recess, Republican lawmakers went home and, to the extent that they held in-person town halls, faced unusually hostile audiences.

Some Republicans claimed these were “paid protestors.” That probably isn’t true. Judging by the town halls available on video, the angry people who showed up were fanatics, and genuinely angry. There is only sense in which they might be considered inauthentic: Generally, they do not seem representative of the electorates where they showed up. For example, it is hard to imagine that Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s Utah constituents are generally in the mood to scream at him about “patriarchal privilege,” considering he just won re-election three months ago with 74 percent of the vote. Or that Sen. Tom Cotton’s Arkansas constituents have spontaneously become hopping mad about the presidency that 61 percent of them just voted for.

Still, these protestors are real people, and in most cases real constituents of the people they’re protesting. They represent a genuine mobilization of the left-wing minority in even the deepest Red states and districts.

The question is whether the rage that the Left feels about politics in general now, and with which it is acting out, is something that can last long enough and be organized sufficiently to deliver a wave election back in the Democrats’ favor when Trump’s first midterm comes around.

Delaware Legislature: Over the weekend, we saw an early test of this: The first evidence that Democrats have at least stopped the electoral bleeding in some places. With their base energized, they possess the power to win in the right environment.

On Saturday, Republicans had an opportunity to reduce Democrats’ power even beyond the historic low at which it stood. Control of Delaware’s state Senate hinged on a special election, made necessary by the elevation of Democratic Sen. Bethany Hall Long to the state’s lieutenant governorship.

Delaware is one of only six states where Democrats control both the governorship and the legislature. But in the state Senate, after losing one of the chamber’s 21 seats in the November election, their control hinged on the same lieutenant governor’s tie-breaking vote. So this race would have diminished Democratic power at the state level to just five states.

Democrats retained control on Saturday, though, in an election that might well show the early signs of a real left-wing mobilization in reaction to President Trump.

Overall turnout (including a third-party candidate) was unusually high for a special election — in fact, more votes (by a few dozen) were cast than had been in the 2014 midterm race for the same seat. The Democrat received about 1,100 votes more this time; the Republican (the same candidate as in 2014) got about 800 votes fewer. Thus, what had been a very close race in 2014, decided by 267 votes, was decided by more than 2,000 votes this time around.

To be sure, this state Senate district is Democratic — Hillary Clinton carried it with nearly 58 percent of the vote, even though she only got 53 percent statewide in Delaware. And a major reason for the boost in turnout might have been massive spending by Democrats, who recognized their backs are to the wall nationally. A single SuperPAC spent about $400,000 to boost the Democratic candidate, to say nothing of party and candidate expenditures. Needless to say, this is many, many times what is normally spent in total on state legislative races.

But this Delaware race was also the first serious test of whether Democrats’ Trump-rage can be translated into something tangible. In this case, things worked out for them on relatively friendly ground.

Georgia-6: The next big test will be a more difficult one for them: The April 18 special election race for the suburban Atlanta U.S. House district of HHS Secretary Tom Price — a district that Price always won easily, but which Trump just barely carried by a margin of 1.5 percentage points. There are other special elections out there — in Montana, South Carolina and Kansas — but generally Democrats’ chances are viewed as much poorer in those.

The format in the Georgia special election is a Louisiana-style jungle primary — if no one gets 50 percent, then the top two candidates advance to the runoff no matter which party they belong to.

Democrats are rallying behind former congressional aide Jon Ossoff. Early polling (as imperfect as it is) suggests that Ossoff has a very good chance of making the runoff, which stands to reason given that there are about a dozen Republicans running. Among the Republican candidates, 2014 U.S. Senate candidate Karen Handel is the Republican most likely to face him in that runoff.

If Democrats manage to take over this seat, the alarms will be blaring at RNC and the White House. It will come as an early sign that liberals’ scorched-earth strategy against Trump is resonating with their base, that there’s something going on a lot like the Tea Party anger of 2009, and that the 2018 midterm could be a wave election for them.

On the other hand, if Republicans can hang on, it will demonstrate, at least for the time being, that there is an upper bound to what this Democratic rage can accomplish. After all, this seat may not have voted Trump, but it has never been viewed as a swing seat or anything like it.