Moderates an Endangered Species as Primaries Play Out

Moderates an Endangered Species as Primaries Play Out

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 9, 2014

July is a relatively quiet month for congressional primaries. This past Tuesday night came and went without any votes cast -- or any news, surprising or not, about establishment vs. Tea Party candidates.

But this month nonetheless marks a milestone of sorts in the election cycle. By now, 70 percent of the nation’s primaries have been held. Dozens of nominees are already on their way to Congress (or to re-election), given the makeup of House districts and thus the predictability of some general election outcomes.

While much of the national attention during this year’s races has centered on the GOP and its intra-party divide, House Democrats have been engaged in some significant, soul-searching primaries as well. And progressives, running on a message of economic populism, have largely been successful.

Last month, many on the left hailed what they called a “Progressive Super Tuesday,” in which Democratic candidates running on expanding Social Security and raising taxes on the wealthy defeated their more moderate opponents in safe Democratic districts.

They included Bonnie Watson Coleman, who sounded this theme in her New Jersey race to replace the retiring incumbent Rush Holt; former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy, who ran his campaign for the 1st District seat as a “bold progressive” arguing for an increase in the minimum wage; and California incumbent Mike Honda, who overcame a cash disadvantage to beat businessman and former Obama administration official Ro Khanna in the 17th District.

At the same time, centrist incumbent Democrats in Republican districts are having a tougher and tougher time trying to survive. The Blue Dog coalition in the House is greatly diminished, with each election year claiming or scaring away members. Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina announced their retirements this year, and their seats are considered likely to turn over to Republicans.

Remaining centrists like Collin Peterson in Minnesota, John Barrow of Georgia, and Nick Rahall (pictured) of West Virginia, among others, are top targets for the GOP and become more endangered each cycle.

Moderate Republicans in Iowa and Virginia are also leaving Congress at the end of this term. And those who are running for re-election are winning a lesser portion of the vote than in cycles past. New Jersey’s Leonard Lance, one of the few Republicans to vote for the divisive cap-and-trade energy bill, and New York’s Richard Hanna are examples of those hanging on. (Democrats have been targeting a handful of Republicans in districts President Obama won last cycle.)

The upshot from GOP and Democratic primaries thus far, and from the exodus of moderates in Congress, points to a more polarized House of Representatives, with the two sides moving farther apart. Even if the balance of power remains the same in the House after this midterm election, it can be argued that the Republican caucus will stay conservative and the Democratic caucus will be more liberal.

“This will continue in the House until we have another redistricting, and there’s no guarantee it won’t continue after the next redistricting,” said James Thurber, director for the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “The primary is the real election. There are only about 50 districts that are competitive in [the general] election. … Very few people have an impact on who gets the nomination.”

A moderate “Blue Dog” has represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District (one of the largest and most rural in the country) for the past decade. Michael Michaud, a pro-life Democrat who won his seat in 2002 against a pro-choice Republican, is leaving Congress to run for governor. His impending departure from the House fueled two competitive primaries. On the Democratic side, voters chose the more liberal candidate, Emily Cain, and on the Republican side, voters chose the more conservative one, Bruce Poliquin.

“It speaks to the polarization of voters,” says Dave Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “Parties have become more aligned in the ideological makeup of their supporters, so it’s no surprise primary elections are producing more liberal and conservative candidates.”

Poll after poll shows an increasingly divided electorate -- a likely reflection of gerrymandered districts, permanent campaigns, and the outsize influence of special interest groups. Party polarization has been building for decades, but a House district in Maine seems to especially underscore it this cycle. The Pew Research Center recently found that Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than ever before

“Interest groups have figured out the real competition has moved from the general electorate to the primary,” Wasserman said. “Seven-eighths of congressional districts are pretty much ordained by Election Day.” The system has spawned an industry of interest groups that realize they need only sway a small portion of the electorate in the primary to be successful in the general election, Wasserman said.

“Most of the attention has been on Republicans but a similar thing has been happening in Democratic primaries,” he noted. “Whereas the trend line on the Republican side has been more ideological, the trend line on the Democratic side has been ideological and demographic.” For example, women and minorities became the majority in the House Democratic caucus for the first time in 2012, and the proportion of white male voters is plummeting in Democratic primaries.

Wasserman agrees that the polarization of the electorate and Congress isn’t likely to change anytime soon, but says an important question lingers: Will voters who don’t like either party go the independent route? He noted that the share of the vote for independents this cycle has ticked up slightly.

While party infrastructure and ballot rules make independent bids difficult to wage and sustain, “the real question is which party is going to recalibrate, to tap into this huge reservoir of votes and bring the middle back in,” said Michelle Diggles of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

Unlike Republican primaries this year and in 2012, Democratic primaries aren’t as vulnerable to losing a winnable seat for the party. The rhetoric is also slightly different. Progressives fighting for a stronger voice within the party reject the comparison to the Tea Party working to influence the GOP.

“On almost every economic issue of the day, the majority of general election voters are on the sides of progressive positions,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, pointing to issues such as student debt, Wall Street reform, and health care.

Progressives have come to identify themselves as part of the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party, a tribute to the Massachusetts senator and anti-Wall Street crusader whose message, they argue, appeals to so-called moderate candidates in places like West Virginia and Kentucky. And while there isn’t much hope for taking over the House in the 2014 midterms, the left measures its successes by the outcome in these kinds of primaries.

Green argues that the progressive message appeals not only to base voters but also to independents who supported Obama in 2012 but may stay home in 2014.

“Our message to the Democratic Party this cycle is: Issues that resonate with the base in primaries are the same issues that will drive voters to the polls in November, if the party nominates truly populist candidates,” Green asserted. “People talking about eliminating student debt, jailing Wall Street bankers and changing campaign finance rules … helps get people off the couch” and to the ballot box.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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