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Opinion: Democrats’ Own Spanish Inquisition Could Burn Party

How Democratic ‘restisters’ stand to hurt party’s chances in November

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign stage a sit-in at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. With the party’s progressive wing flexing its muscle in primaries, Democrats run the risk of nominating general election candidates far out of the mainstream, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign stage a sit-in at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. With the party’s progressive wing flexing its muscle in primaries, Democrats run the risk of nominating general election candidates far out of the mainstream, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When a Democratic candidate picks up nomination papers, to quote Monty Python, “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” — that is until now. More and more, Democratic primary candidates are being treated to a litmus test that feels more grand inquisition than great debate.

A particular brand of progressivism rooted in the “Resistance” is growing in its distemper and disassociation with what these activists see as outdated, traditional Democratic ideology, further dividing their leaderless and, as they see it, increasingly aimless Democratic Party.

Ominous signs that this could be the spring of discontent for Democrats are beginning to emerge in hotly contested primary races from coast to coast. In Massachusetts, Rep. Michael Capuano, with an almost 20-year liberal record, is facing a tough primary from the first African-American woman elected to the Boston City Council, who is seen as even more to the left.

In Chicago, moderate Rep. Daniel Lipinski is being tarred as too conservative for today’s Democratic Party as his opponent and national liberal groups accuse him of apostasy on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Lipinski calls this opposition the “tea party of the left.”

In Texas, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went on the attack and tried to drive anti-Trump activist Laura Moser out of the 7th District race, fearing her prior inartful comments about living in the state made it impossible for her to win against Republican incumbent John Culbertson in suburban Houston. The dispute has only created division and anger among the various progressive factions as Democrats took sides in what has become a national story. 

But the poster child for progressive anger is California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who faced humiliation at her party’s recent state convention when it refused to endorse her bid for a fifth full term, favoring her more liberal opponent, Kevin de León, by a vote of 54 percent to 37 percent.

De León, a self-described leader of the Resistance, complained to The Nation that Feinstein “doesn’t line up with what Californians believe are the most pressing issues of the day: climate change, Medicare for all, the minimum wage.” (He also added immigration reform to round off his agenda.)

Widening divide

At the same time, as the Warren-Sanders progressive wing flexes its collective muscle in Democratic primaries around the country, in Washington, 12 sitting Senate Democrats, many on this year’s electoral endangered species list, have broken ranks with their progressive compatriots to co-sponsor the Crapo banking bill, which would roll back some of Dodd-Frank’s most egregious provisions. As Elizabeth Warren rages against the banking machine, political survival has overcome fear of progressive retaliation, especially for those red-state senators up for re-election this year.

While Hill Democrats have managed a unified front against the Trump/Republican agenda until now, even voting unanimously against tax reform, as the polls shift, the Democratic divide seems to be widening with “resisters” and the crop of potential Democratic presidential contenders on one side heading left and more traditional Democrats trying to position themselves to weather what they hope is a temporary ideological storm, not unlike Republicans who faced similar wrath from tea party activists.

Ironically, what these progressive activists, or resisters, do not see is that they are, in reality, derivative of the Democratic Party elites they abhor, not the new guard for the old party of the working class. Their issues are the issues of Democratic elites and not the blue-collar workers who were once the mainstays of their party. That miscalculation cost them the 2016 election and could do so again.

I suspect they would be dumbfounded to learn that their views aren’t mainstream. Contrary to far-left thought, most American don’t put climate change or single-payer health care in their top tier issues. But Democratic elites do.

Watch: Progressive Groups Protest Pending Senate Tax Vote

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Out of touch

Last December, I wrote about a recent 8,000-sample postelection study done for the Democracy Fund in which I analyzed voter behavior based on issue priorities. Two key Democratic groups emerged from the survey — “Democrat/Independent Liberal Elites,” or DILEs, who represent about 15 percent of the electorate, and the “Democratic-Leaning Working Class,” which was the largest cluster we found at 25 percent.

Although I’m sure the resisters stirring up Democratic division in primaries and pushing the party further left honestly believe their issues are the “people’s” issues, they’re simply wrong. We found that voters’ top four issues were the economy, health care, jobs and Social Security. That hasn’t changed in more recent polls.

While other issues like terrorism or immigration in certain states will sometimes replace health care and Social Security as top issues, nationally, the progressive agenda focused on issues such as climate change, gender and racial injustice, or the minimum wage. These are simply not among the most important issues for most voters. But they are to those we identified as DILEs, who only represent a fraction of the electorate.

On the other hand, the priorities of the Democratic-Leaning Working Class voters reflected the top issues of the majority of Americans, illustrating the issue divide we’re seeing in the primaries.

Democratic resisters are often compared to the tea partyers who pushed the Republican Party toward what they saw as a more responsible fiscal and economic agenda. Both groups are disrupters, but the difference is that the tea party’s focus on economic reform was in sync with the views of the majority of voters. Much of the far left’s platform is not, nor is hating Donald Trump enough.

Resisters run the risk of nominating people who may meet their ideological purity test but are too far out of the mainstream for a general election other than in solidly Democratic seats. Clearly, the DCCC’s intervention in the 7th District primary in Texas reflects a strategic decision to pick candidates party leaders think can win. But as we’ve seen, in doing so they also stirred up a hornet’s nest of outraged progressive voters who see such interference as proof of a corrupt party establishment, the same establishment that gave them Hillary Clinton and now Trump.

The question facing Democratic leaders is whether their party’s progressive wing will nominate leftist versions of Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin or candidates who can win.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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