Democratic Centrists Lament Missed Opportunities to Keep the House

All of the Democratic cheers about the party’s surprisingly strong midterm showing have drowned out a running argument on the left that never ends: Whose political philosophy had it right, centrists or progressives?

As usual, it’s the might-have-been races that are provoking the most discussion. Did Democrats lose a potentially winnable House race in Oregon because the left picked off a Blue Dog incumbent, Representative Kurt Schrader? Or was it because the Democratic establishment stopped investing in Jamie McLeod-Skinner, the progressive challenger who beat him in the primary?

Centrists have their own what-ifs.

They point to how Democrats flipped a Republican seat in the Cincinnati suburbs, made a credible showing against a 10-term Republican incumbent in the California desert and came within a whisker of unseating Representative Lauren Boebert, a darling of the Trump base, in rural Colorado. With another $1 million, could Representative Tom Malinowski, a moderate Democrat in New Jersey, have escaped defeat?

Schrader reckons that had he won his primary, he would have been re-elected by eight percentage points. He blames Oregon state lawmakers for drawing new boundaries that included parts of McLeod-Skinner’s state legislative district.

“They guaranteed a socialist in the primary and a Republican in the general,” Schrader said. (McLeod-Skinner had the backing of progressive groups like Indivisible and the Working Families Party, but does not identify as a socialist.)

Reflecting on the results nationwide, “it kind of feels like Democrats are celebrating in the locker room because we lost by four,” said Liam Kerr, a co-founder of Welcome PAC, a nascent group that aims to become the Justice Democrats of the political center.

To Kerr, one of the most telling statistics of these midterms lies buried in the campaign finance reports of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the nominal leader of the “Squad” of progressive lawmakers. This year, Ocasio-Cortez spent more money fulfilling orders for merchandise — $1.6 million — than Democratic candidates did on their entire races in many districts he argues they could have won.

“That’s more money spent selling ‘Tax the Rich’ and ‘Abolish ICE’ sweatshirts and stickers than 12 Democrats running in flippable Republican-held districts (where Trump received between 50-54 percent of the vote in 2020) have raised this entire cycle — combined,” Kerr wrote in a recent analysis.

As of Friday afternoon, Boebert was leading by just 554 votes, with more than 327,000 counted to date, but her opponent had conceded despite the prospect of an automatic recount. And Representative Ken Calvert, a Republican who has held some version of his Inland Empire seat in California since 1993, won his race against Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, by just three percentage points, or 7,150 votes.

Boebert’s Democratic opponent, Adam Frisch, was a political unknown before he entered his party’s primary. When I spoke with Senator Chris Coons of Delaware last week, he recounted meeting Frisch at an event this year in Colorado and wondering: “Who is this guy? How come I never heard of him?”

Neither of the major Democratic groups thought Frisch had a prayer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent just $330 on ads on his behalf; House Majority PAC, a group close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, chipped in $1,563. Boebert’s campaign outspent Frisch’s on television by about half a million dollars.

By contrast, Democratic small donors shoveled $15 million into a doomed effort to oust Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose northern Georgia district was a 37-point blowout in favor of Trump during the 2020 presidential election. Marcus Flowers, the Democratic candidate in that race, lost to Greene by slightly less: nearly 32 points.

And it wasn’t just the online left that allocated resources in seemingly irrational ways. Money that could have been moved to competitive races got bottled up with safe Democratic incumbents like Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, who amassed a $13 million hoard on his way to winning by almost double digits. And when Michael Bloomberg chipped in an extra $10 million to House Majority PAC a few weeks before Election Day, a good chunk of it went to Gottheimer.

The fiercest debates among Democrats have been in cerulean-blue New York, where Republicans flipped four House seats, including that of Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But she has pointed out that the Democratic establishment spent millions in an unsuccessful effort to save Maloney, who has blamed her for the party’s losses in New York. Could that money have been better deployed elsewhere?

“Many moderate dems + leaders made it very clear that our help was not welcome nor wanted,” she wrote in a recent Twitter thread, blasting Maloney. “Despite our many, many offers. Yet found ways to try to help from afar. So for them to blame us for respecting their approach in their districts is laughable. Take some ownership.”

House Democrats can point to only a handful of successes in genuinely red districts this year. And even those often come with asterisks.

There’s Representative Jared Golden of Maine, who just survived re-election in a district Trump won by 5.5 percentage points in 2020, but he had the help of a ranked-choice voting system. Representative Marcy Kaptur easily won re-election in northwestern Ohio, but her far-right opponent, J.R. Majewski, was the subject of reports by The A.P. that he had lied about his military record.

One of Democrats’ most impressive victories this year was Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez’s defeat of Joe Kent in Washington State, but he was an election denier who had cozied up to white supremacists to win his primary.

Representative Mary Peltola, a Democrat who is ahead in the race for Alaska’s lone House seat, had all three asterisks: a pro-Trump opponent seen as unlikable and extreme in Sarah Palin, a slight incumbency advantage after winning a special election in August and a ranked-choice-style election system that was designed to favor moderates.

The way Kerr thinks about it, grass-roots Democrats need to forget about no-hopers like Flowers, while party leaders need to do a better job of identifying candidates like Frisch who can run in red districts and win. Kerr calls them “platypuses” — rare political creatures that are hard to find and even harder to describe.

One ingredient these “platypus” campaigns had in spades: They all distanced themselves from the national Democratic Party brand.

Frisch called himself “a businessman and a fiscal conservative” who supported “the Second Amendment, securing the border and less government regulation.” Greg Landsman, a Democrat who defeated Steve Chabot, a Republican, in a close race in Ohio, played up his support for the police. Representative Elissa Slotkin, who won a tough re-election race in a swing district in Michigan, ran an ad featuring Douglas Lute, a retired general who served in George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

“We left a ton of Adam Frisches off the board,” Kerr said. “Democrats could have played in another dozen districts.”

Schrader, who views both parties as moving to their respective fringes, said, “I don’t see Republicans or Democrats interested in learning anything” from this election, and he speculated that third parties might eventually gain steam if the trend continued.

But if there is any lesson to be learned from 2022, Schrader said, it’s “be the big tent.”

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On Monday, newly elected representatives arrived on Capitol Hill to begin their orientation. But upstairs in the House minority leader’s suite, Representative Kevin McCarthy was busy calling members to shore up support for his play to be the next speaker.

The Capitol complex is an absolute maze, and I knew there could be several different routes McCarthy could take while heading to and from a meeting with House Republicans to discuss the leadership election.

I positioned myself in the upstairs portion of the Capitol Visitor Center, which bisects the main hallway outside the old Capitol building itself. When he emerged to return to his office, I took this photograph, holding the camera above my head to show the swarm of reporters who moved with him. I think a little elevation helped to show the moving press bubble that will now accompany McCarthy everywhere he goes.

McCarthy did not say much, nor did his facial expression change during the entire walk.


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