top of page
  • Feldman Strategies

Quelling the Political Insurgency

By Susan Milligan 6/14/19

It was a day progressives had been dreaming about: The powerful House Ways and Means Committee was finally having a hearing to discuss "Medicare for All," a plan supported by the left wing of the Democratic Party but criticized by conservatives who call it a march towards socialism.

But the panel's Democratic chairman, veteran Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, opened the Wednesday session not with an endorsement of Medicare for All or any single-payer system, but praise for the Affordable Care Act, a measure he noted he was "proud" to have helped pass. The hearing, Neal emphasized, was to hear about "a range of ideas," including strengthening the existing law, allowing for a public option or buy-in to Medicare or Medicaid and, finally, Medicare for All.

Meanwhile, on the same Wednesday, Republicans were dealing with their own insurgency: Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who was one of the founders of the House Freedom Caucus, joined Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee in voting to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas regarding the U.S. Census. Amash had already irritated fellow Republicans for being the only member of his party in Congress to advocate impeaching President Donald Trump. And by Thursday morning, the calls for Amash's head (or just his seat) from within his own GOP ranks were getting louder.

Donald Trump Jr. needled Amash in a tweet, citing a poll that had primary opponent Jim Lower ahead of Amash by 13 points and adding, "See you soon, Justin… I hear Michigan is beautiful during primary season." The influential DeVos family of Western Michigan (related to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) has already cut ties with Amash, whose campaign they had previously supported with donations. It's not a certainty that Amash will run for reelection to his House seat; some conservatives think he will make a Libertarian stab at the presidency. But the cold shoulder from his own party remains.

The episodes show a problem Democrats and Republicans share – but with dramatically different coping mechanisms. Both are dealing with insurgencies or political pressure from the ideological ends of their respective parties. But leaders are handling it with variant approaches. Democrats are taking the role of permissive and semi-indulgent parent, giving a voice to the progressive wing of the party without letting it take charge of the whole operation.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, are threatening misbehaving GOP rank-and-file with the equivalent of reform school or being grounded for life: Shape up or lose the support of the president and perhaps with it, your job.

"On both counts, the extremes of the party are causing problems for the party in terms of maintaining seats," especially if the parties nominate candidates too far left or right for the district or state, says David McLennan, a political science professor and director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

That could cost the GOP a Senate seat there in North Carolina, McLennan notes. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is facing a primary challenge from conservative Garland Tucker, with other contenders still possible. Tucker recently ran a radio ad slamming Tillis for co-sponsoring a measure, with liberal Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. (Tucker didn't mention that the measure was also sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.)

Tillis also penned an op-ed in The Washington Post in February pledging to vote against Trump's emergency declaration at the border, a move the president is using to try to build his desired wall without congressional approval. Tillis, under pressure from conservatives and the Trump administration, backed down by the time the vote occurred – but it may not be enough to satisfy those who see fealty to Trump as an essential element of Republicanism.

"In North Carolina as with many other states, it really is the litmus test for Republicans – either you fall in line and never criticize Donald Trump, or you're labeled a troublemaker," McLennan says.

Conservative activists say that's just fine – that there are no true undecideds or independents, and winning is more a function of mobilizing the base. That's easier to do, they say, with a more purely conservative and pro-Trump GOP nominee especially with Trump at the top of the ticket. But bitter primaries can weaken a candidate – not to mention, force them to spend money and effort they'd prefer to save for the general election.

In 2018, former Rep. Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina, for example, lost his primary after Trump – accusing Sanford of being "unhelpful" to his agenda – endorsed his primary opponent. That seat went Democratic in the general election.

The pressure from the far left and right are playing out in other races as well. In Virginia on Tuesday, Republican Bob Thomas lost his primary race in the House of Delegates to a more conservative Republican, Paul Milde, who complained about Thomas's vote, with Democrats, to expand Medicaid in the Old Dominion. The state Senate minority leader, Democrat Dick Saslaw, barely eked out a primary victory against a progressive Democratic challenger.

On the federal level, an immigration and human rights lawyer, Jessica Cisneros, is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar in the primary for his Texas district, calling Cuellar "Trump's favorite Democrat." In Illinois, anti-abortion Democrat Daniel Lipinski is facing a primary challenge (again) by pro-abortion rights Democrat Marie Newman.

Democratic organizers, however, say they have a big tent – one that includes progressives and centrists appropriate to each district or state. "It's critical that you have the right candidate for each district," says Andrew Feldman, spokesperson for Hold the House, a group dedicated to expanding the Democrats' House majority next year.

While the progressive wing of the party is arguably its most energetic faction now, it was moderate Democrats in swing districts, Feldman says, who account for the Democrats' 40-seat pickup last year. While a segment of the party is pushing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, to impeach Trump, "When you get outside the Beltway, I don't think people are as focused on impeachment," instead, they are worrying about student loan debt and health care, he adds.

And in state and local races as well, there's a diversity of ideology and opinion, says Kelly Dietrich of the National Democratic Training Committee, which helps Democrats with online and in-person training on how to mount a campaign. There's one thing, though, that they have in common.

"Democrats just want to win at this point," Dietrich says. "People are fired up," with a record number of candidates running already for 2020 races, he says. And Trump – for both the Republicans demanding loyalty to the president to the Democrats determined to oust him and his supporters – will be at the center of it.


bottom of page