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For the last six years, the one thing that has kept the Democratic Party unified and motivated is Donald Trump. Fear and loathing got Democrats to turn out in the 2018 midterms, and kept those voters engaged in 2020. Sure, the party was divided ideologically and generationally, with liberals and younger voters flocking to the Bernie Sanders wing and older, Black and more moderate Democrats sticking with Joe Biden. But, at the end of the day, both sides understood that the most important and existential issue was defeating Trump.
This strategy for the 2018 midterms was summarized best by then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's slogan of "Just win, baby." Primaries were for picking the candidates who could win these swing CDs, not for intra-party ideological warfare. In 2020, Democrats rallied behind the more centrist Biden simply because they believed he provided Democrats the best chance to beat Trump that fall.
But, with Trump no longer in the White House and Biden's approval ratings underwater, the electability message is falling flat in Democratic primaries. In 2018, Democratic candidates prevailed in GOP-leaning CDs by leaning into a message of bipartisanship. Today, however, a restive Democratic base, discouraged by a lack of action on many of their key issues (like climate and student loan debt), and frustrated by GOP attacks on issues like abortion and election integrity, want fighters, not unifiers as their candidates.
There's no greater example of this shift in priorities for Democratic voters than Rep. Conor Lamb's struggling campaign in the Democratic primary for the Pennsylvania Senate. Lamb was easily 2018's "Electability" poster-child. As a moderate outsider who distanced himself from the party's more divisive positions, his profile helped him win a Trump-leaning CD in a special election. Lamb raised more than $3M in small donations for that contest, an unheard-of sum for a candidate who doesn't have a national profile or a progressive platform. Donors were less interested in his policy positions than they were in his role of denying Trump a GOP majority in Congress.
This year, however, Lamb's attacks on front runner Lt. Gov. John Fetterman as too liberal to win in this swing state in November haven’t worked. And, both Lamb, and the SuperPAC set up to help him, have struggled to raise money. For his part, Fetterman, a former Bernie Sanders supporter, isn't running as a progressive warrior. None of his ads talk about "Medicare for All," or feature testimonials from liberal activists. Instead, he leans into his blue-collar background and outsider image. More important, the six-foot-nine Fetterman casts himself in his ads as a fighter. He describes himself as a "Democrat with a backbone" who is "taking on every politician, insider and out of state rich guy trying to take over Pennsylvania."
In Oregon, Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader is facing an existential primary threat on May 17 from a Democratic opponent to his left. One of just a handful of Blue Dog Democrats left in Congress, he's also one of the few Democrats representing a substantially rural district. He's won this 'swingy' district even in tough environments, like 2010.
But, as my colleague David Wasserman writes, Schrader has also "gone out of his way to infuriate those on his left by publicly dissing Nancy Pelosi, comparing the 2021 impeachment of Donald Trump to a "lynching" (for which he later apologized) and initially throwing cold water on the American Rescue Plan."
On top of all of that, Schrader's newly drawn 5th CD includes the liberal-leaning city of Bend, where his opponent has a devoted activist base of support.
Schrader, like Lamb, is leaning into 'electability' in this contest. In his ads, he argues that he "knows how to win in this part of Oregon" and that he is the "only Democratic who can win [this seat] in November.”
However, insiders, we talk to believe Schrader is in genuine danger of losing the primary.
That desire for 'fighter' over a 'pragmatist" is something I've picked up in listening to two Democratic focus groups this week. These voters were frustrated by what they see as Democrats' inability to rack up tangible wins in Washington, and worried that the overturning of Roe v. Wade will lead to the rolling back of other rights by Republicans in the near future.
"I'm pretty sure gay rights will be next on the chopping block," said one woman. Another chimed in that she thinks "contraception might be next." Agreeing with those assessments, one man said, "I can see Plan B [contraception] getting taken off the market."
But, when asked what Democrats are doing about the potential rollback of abortion rights, these voters basically threw up their hands. "I'll be honest and say I'm not sure," said one woman. But, there was also frustration that Democrats weren't doing more. "Where's the counter-offensive?" said another Democratic voter.
When asked to describe Democrats in Congress as an animal, almost all picked docile creatures, or as one man described them, animals that are "slow and arboreal." When asked what kind of animal they wished Democrats would be, they chose "great white shark," and "grizzly bear." Another said she wanted them to be like a hyena, an animal that is "fast, aggressive, assertive, and gets what they want done."
Overall, these voters were tired of what they perceived as Democrats getting rolled by the GOP. Biden, said one of these Democrats, is "way too trusting of McConnell and his ilk. I think he needs to fight fire with fire at some point." Another member of that focus group concurred, saying that Republicans "stole a Supreme Court seat from Obama."
In 2018 and 2020, Democratic voters were united by the shared interest in beating Donald Trump. But, with Trump gone and Democratic priorities in tatters, Democratic voters are less swayed by 'electability' or pragmatism arguments and more eager to support a fighter willing to take it to the GOP.