In the midst of a global pandemic, economic recession, and national debate on policing and race, it’s unlikely that many Americans are focused on a few Democratic primaries in New York and Kentucky. But congressional Democrats should be paying attention. An upheaval may be coming.
While the votes were still being counted as this column was published, Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was trailing lefty upstart Jamaal Bowman by a wide margin in his Democratic primary race. Representative Carolyn Maloney was barely fending off her opponent Suraj Patel. In another primary, to fill the seat of retiring Representative Nita Lowey, the progressive candidate, Mondaire Jones, looks poised for victory. In Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary, where absentee ballots were still being tallied, it was not clear if establishment pick Amy McGrath would hold off her opponent Charles Booker.
The success of these insurgents, all of them people of color who were dramatically out-spent by their opponents, portends a possible turning point for the Democratic Party. Going forward, the greatest electoral challenge for congressional Democrats might come not from Republicans, but rather from their own party.
This potential shift is a byproduct of America’s polarization. As the country has become more divided along political lines, the share of Democratic senators from red states (and Republican senators from blue states) has declined dramatically. There are only nine Democratic senators in states that Trump won in 2016 and only three from states where Trump is ahead in the polls today. The few remaining red state Democratic senators were largely wiped out in 2018. The centrist, fence-straddling Democrat is becoming a much rarer species.
Looking forward to 2022, not one Democrat currently up for re-election will be running in a state that Donald Trump won in 2016. Most will be considered safe from Republican challenge, meaning their greatest electoral threat could come from a challenge in a primary.
Take, for example, Chuck Schumer, who is hardly beloved by progressives, and has watched so many of his fellow New York Democrats face serious primary challenges. He’s far more likely to be worried about falling to an insurgent progressive than losing to a Republican in one of the bluest states in the country — particularly if that insurgent is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While Schumer would be the favorite in any intra-party fight, like most politicians he’d just as soon run unopposed and would have every incentive, as the Democratic leader in the Senate, to neutralize a potential challenge by making legislative concessions to progressives. And that’s the upshot of all this: These progressive insurgents are not just a reflection of the leftward drift of the Democratic Party, they are actively pushing it in that direction — and that’s true even if they lose primary fights.
The rejoinder to this argument is that if Democratic politics were truly moving to the left, why is Joe Biden and not Bernie Sanders the presumptive Democratic nominee? The answer lies in the noxious threat of another four years of the Trump nightmare and the reasonable belief that Biden is the best bet to win in November. It’s also true that, earlier this year, liberal candidates fared poorly in Senate primaries. But that was before George Floyd was killed and race jumped to the forefront of the nation’s politics. With a number of primaries coming up in the next few weeks — on both the House and Senate side — there is potential for progressives to run up their numbers.
But no matter the outcome in those races, it’s clear where the energy in the Democratic Party is moving. It hardly seems accidental that Biden has embraced what is arguably the most progressive policy platform ever for a Democratic nominee. He’s expressed support for the Green New Deal, backed elements of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan for reducing student debt and changing bankruptcy laws, endorsed a $15 minimum wage, and unveiled a proposal that would raise taxes by more than $4 trillion over 10 years (mainly by raising rates on the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers). If Biden wins in November and if Democrats take control of the Senate, the pressure from the party’s liberal wing to go big on everything from climate change and policing to health care and taxes will be enormous. And with Senate Democrats more likely to be troubled by primary challenges than by their Republican opponents, Congressional Democrats may be pried out of their usual defensive crouch.
There’s another consideration as well. If Democrats believe that Biden will only serve one term because of his advanced age, many senators with presidential aspirations will be thinking about 2024 and trying to win over progressive activists by supporting more liberal policies.
For a decade, the incentive structure for red-state Republicans has been to stay on the good side of conservative voters, to avoid the fate of numerous establishment figures felled by right-wing insurgents. Democrats may, increasingly, find themselves taking a similar tack with liberal voters. And the party that emerges from the Trump nightmare could look very different from the one of just a few years before.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.