After President Trump was elected in 2016 with help from his narrow victory in Pennsylvania, Jess King — an economic-development official, fighting poverty in her native Lancaster County — was frustrated by watching how the Democratic Party had failed to connect with economically struggling voters in the center of the state who instead were lured to Trump’s throw-back nationalism.
“I never saw myself running for office,” King told me this week. But the more she brooded about Trump’s success, she thought, “He’s using a language that people in my neck of the woods are responding to. As Democrats, we need to own the issues for working families. We need to address the challenges in those districts that are Trump Country … that are struggling with the loss of jobs with automation, with off-shoring.” Last June, King announced her candidacy for Congress.
Running for Congress is a daunting task, especially for a political novice, and especially in a district that was mapped for GOP dominance, represented by a Republican incumbent. But 2018 isn’t a normal political year by any stretch of the imagination. In a grim political landscape, the only real energy is coming from the progressive grassroots — the thicket of heavily female “resistance” groups that sprung up in disgust with the vulgarian Trump and that have amplified support for truly liberal policies like single-payer health care.
In east-central Pennsylvania, King fed on the electricity of an amped-up grassroots group called Lancaster Stands Up and by the end of 2017 she was raising more money than any candidate in the then-16th Congressional District — even more than incumbent GOP Rep. Lloyd Smucker — en route to endorsements by progressive groups like the Working Families Party. Indeed, only one key group didn’t seem excited by everything that first-timer King had accomplished: The Democratic Party establishment, with its ability to tip the May party primary.
Last October, the influential Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, held a weeklong training event for candidates. Jess King wasn’t even invited. Instead, an invitation went out to a rival candidate — Christina Hartman, who’d won the party’s nomination in the 16th in 2016 and built close ties with Democratic insiders even as her centrist appeal to white exurban voters fell flat in a lopsided defeat by Smucker. Planning to run again in 2018, Hartman won the immediate nod from of a bevy of establishment types like Ed Rendell, the former governor and national Democratic chairman, and also from the highly influential Emily’s List, which was created to encourage female candidates like King but didn’t even reach out to her before its endorsement.
King’s problems — which got national coverage in the Intercept in January and which, in her case, has had a happy interim ending (more on that later) — aren’t unique. Across America, the tsunami of newcomer candidates who decided to get involved in politics because of anger over Trump, generating grassroots enthusiasm, is hitting an unexpected obstacle: the Democratic Party that many had perhaps naively expected to welcome them with open arms.
In regions like the Philadelphia suburbs, where mostly women first-time candidates are lining up in hopes of challenging Republican incumbents, the so-called Trump resistance is bumping up against a party establishment that continues to fight the last wars (even though it lost those wars, for the most part) by favoring more connected insiders who are wealthy enough to fund their own campaigns or tap other rich friends, and who — not coincidentally — tend to hold moderate views aimed at nonexistent “swing voters” instead of the fired-up liberal base.
Those tensions boiled over in public this past week as the DCCC — convinced that only a Republican-lite centrist can win in a suburban Houston district that’s on its list of potential pick-ups after it went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — actually lashed out in an attack ad against the female Democratic primary candidate who seemed to be gaining grassroots support, Laura Moser. The party muckety-mucks apparently decided she was too liberal, although the DCCC’s line of attack is that Moser is a “Washington insider” (because she’d lived there with her husband, a videographer … for Barack Obama).
Like most of the Democratic establishment’s clumsy, heavy-handed moves, the attack on the slightly-more-liberal Democrat Moser seems to have completely backfired. Not only has it given the Houston challenger a national profile, but contributions began pouring in — $86,700 in just a matter of days — from rank-and-file Democrats infuriated by this election meddling by the real Washington insiders, the DCCC.
But the national party’s attempts to tamp down enthusiasm for female newcomers like King and Moser could cause the Democrats to do what it’s always done best: Snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With Trump’s unpopularity spiking up to 60 percent, the party infighting between the party’s grassroots and its establishment hasn’t stopped a string of victories for the Democrats since November, with some unlikely upset wins in Virginia legislative races while nationally flipping a remarkable 39 formerly GOP-held state legislative seats in special elections. About the only thing that could screw up a Democratic “wave” this coming November is bitter party infighting tamping down enthusiasm among the party base. And that seems to be happening, right on schedule.
The tensions boiled over last weekend in California, where delegates to the state Democratic convention failed to endorse a party stalwart, four-term Sen. Dianne Feinstein, over her centrist policies on issues like government spying and school vouchers. Some of the party intramural bloodshed is clearly a carryover from the Democrats’ bitter 2016 political warfare between supporters of Clinton and the more progressive Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose calls for the party to move left on single-payer health care and free college tuition have echoed with the grassroots. Meanwhile, party insiders — many raised in the more centrist era of Bill Clinton — seem to cling to a 1990s playbook that calls for cautious middle-of-the-road candidates from wealthy backgrounds, the better to raise lots of money to compete.
In recent days, leaks have exposed that the DCCC continues to push its candidates toward the soft, soulless middle. One party memo recently leaked to the Intercept showed that — in a time of surging support for single-payer health care — the DCCC is using poll data that critics say are skewed in an effort to steer Democratic candidates away from that issue. Even more embarrassing was the release of DCCC memos from after the mass shootings in Las Vegas and again last month in Parkland, Fla., that urged Democratic candidates to not politicize the issue on Day One but to take a noncontroversial thoughts-and-prayers approach to gun violence.
The last memo hit just as the teen survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were angrily rejecting the thoughts-and-prayers strategy and calling for immediate gun-law reforms — and electrifying the nation. That gun debate would still be mired in stalemate if the mush-mouths at Democratic HQ in Washington had their way. And that’s symbolic of the broader problem — insulated party poobahs who don’t seem to have a clue about the anger and energy on America’s streets today … or maybe they’re just afraid of that grassroots energy.
We all know that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing that failed, again and again. Thus, the Democratic Party’s determination to stick to the same tired playbook that lost control of the U.S. House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016 is officially insane. The intensity of the anti-Trump resistance — people who were barely engaged in politics two years ago, now determined to knock on neighbors’ doors or even run themselves if that’s what it takes — is the game-changer the Democrats have been waiting for. The tired establishment can lead, follow, or get out of the way. Or put up a wall, the dumbest possible choice.
In the case of Jess King out in Lancaster, the story has a happy ending … sort of. Her good news is that when the state’s congressional map was changed last month by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the controversial and much-ballyhooed gerrymandering case, her rival Hartman decided her prospects were better in the next district over. This week, King’s candidacy was officially endorsed by Lancaster County Democrats. The bad news? The map made the new 11th District more Republican and more favorable for Smucker.
But in a year in which the political momentum is flowing against all things Trump, the longer odds don’t seem to bother King. She told me that her idea is to prove to the Democrats that a new approach can win back some of the voters who defected to Trump, to show that “we have rebuilt left-wing populism.” Amid a grassroots tidal wave, that kind of new thinking sounds refreshingly … not insane. Are you listening, Beltway Democrats?