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Democrats on the verge of their own tea party problem

Party headed down the same path the GOP began in 2010

Recent primary upsets by Democrats such as   Ayanna S. Pressley, second from left, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, have emboldened progressive candidates and will affect party policy, Gonzales writes.
Recent primary upsets by Democrats such as Ayanna S. Pressley, second from left, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, have emboldened progressive candidates and will affect party policy, Gonzales writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For years, Democrats mocked the tea party movement and enjoyed watching it dethrone Republican incumbents in primaries and control the GOP with fear. A decade later, the Democratic Party is headed down the same path, as progressive candidates flex their muscles and feel more emboldened than ever.

It might seem odd, considering the vast majority of incumbents are still getting renominated and Joe Biden is well positioned to be elected president. But that won’t stem a civil war. 

Remember, the tea party rose to power as Republicans were simultaneously united against President Barack Obama in general elections and fighting each other in primaries. A similar dynamic is happening with Democrats. They’re nearly universally opposed to President Donald Trump while also fighting over the ideological direction of the party. 

Even before Trump’s election, there were rumblings of anti-establishment sentiment in the Democratic ranks. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent challenge to Hillary Clinton foreshadowed competitive primaries to come, and subsequent races have shattered most of the remaining barriers (and excuses) for potential progressive challengers.

Worried about taking on a member of leadership? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York took care of that with her 2018 primary victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley when he was the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House.

Worried about being a woman of color against a 20-year incumbent? That wasn’t a problem for Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts in her defeat of Rep. Michael E. Capuano in a 2018 primary.

What about challenging a 30-year-plus dynasty in Illinois? Marie Newman proved that wasn’t insurmountable with her victory over Rep. Daniel Lipinski in this year’s primary.

What about taking on the chairman of a powerful committee? That didn’t stop former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman from declaring victory over Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel in the recent New York primary. (Engel has not conceded as votes continue to be counted.)

Worried about getting outspent by $20 million? In the face of an insane fundraising gap with Amy McGrath, Democratic state Rep. Charles Booker of Louisville surged into contention in the Kentucky Senate primary. (The race was called for McGrath on Tuesday.)

Worried about challenging the campaign committee’s chosen candidate? See Booker, above.

There are, quite simply, fewer and fewer hurdles for potential progressive candidates that haven’t already been cleared by someone before them. Even if the conditions of the races were more complex and difficult to replicate in another contest by another candidate, the narrative about them has been built and solidified, and it’s encouraging news for future establishment foes.

Early stages

There is at least one key difference in the recent Democratic primaries and the tea party contests. As of yet, the Democratic infighting has largely taken place in safe blue districts and hasn’t resulted in the party losing competitive seats they should have otherwise won. 

Democrats haven’t yet had their Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell or Richard Mourdock moment. The only argument might be whether Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia, who both defeated more moderate primary opponents in 2018, came close to winning their gubernatorial races because of their unapologetic progressive posture or if they ultimately fell short because of it. Kara Eastman’s nomination in Nebraska’s 2nd District in 2018 might be an example, but she nearly won without the outside help enjoyed by most of the Democratic challengers who won last cycle.

But progressives don’t have to win primaries (and maybe don’t even have to run a credible challenge) in every race to have an impact. 

The tea party was never a majority of the GOP, but it constituted a loud and vocal minority. The threat and fear of a potential primary challenge from the tea party controlled the GOP caucuses and pushed the party to the right. After House Republicans watched one of their leaders, Eric Cantor, go down, it wasn’t hard for many of them to imagine that they could be next. 

Similarly, the threat of a progressive primary challenger is going to start to seep into the minds of Democratic incumbents, especially as Ocasio-Cortez has started to rally her supporters to help challengers. The call for ideological purity will be particularly strong if Democrats sweep the White House, Senate and House this fall. Democrats will claim a mandate. With more power will come more pressure from liberals to go big and bold with policies.  

That would be a risky legislative strategy that could produce a backlash in the 2022 midterm elections if voters are more motivated this year by the chance to get rid of Trump and his Republican enablers than by a love for Democrats and some of the aggressively progressive policies being pursued by challengers.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an election analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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