The current presidential race—the orderly, if uneasy, Hillary Clinton coronation on one side, and the 16-candidate, Trump-dominated GOP scrum on the other—gives the impression that the Democrats are unified and the Republicans are in disarray. So did the last three Congressional races—in 2010, 2012, and 2014—when incumbent Congressional Republicans faced raucous primary challenges from anti-establishment outsiders, and Democratic primaries were generally much more tame and predictable.
But as President Obama’s tenure draws to a close, and internal divisions within the Democratic Party come out into the open, Democratic Congressional contests may be starting to heat up. The New York Times reports that “after several years of watching Republicans maul one another in primary battles, Democrats now have a few skirmishes of their own” in Senatorial races, even as GOP primaries calm down. The Times reports on several hotly contested Democratic primaries, but focuses on a recent mutiny among Illinois Democrats:
In Illinois, for instance, Representative Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat favored to take on the deeply vulnerable Republican senator, Mark S. Kirk, is feeling pressure from supporters of Andrea Zopp, former president of the Chicago Urban League. This month, Ms. Zopp told reporters, “Washington insiders won’t be telling voters of Cook County who they should choose.” […]
To topple Mr. Kirk, the Illinois senator, Democrats have largely lined up behind Ms. Duckworth, a disabled Iraq war veteran. But recently, Democrats in Cook County declined to endorse her after African-Americans criticized the national party’s early dismissal of Ms. Zopp, who is black.
If the Zopp-Duckworth example is representative, Bernie Sanders won’t be the only left-wing populist to give the Democratic establishment a headache in 2016. A large contingent of voters on the left, from “Black Lives Matter” activists to anti-Wall Street agitators, is mistrustful of party elites and generally disaffected with the status quo. These voters haven’t been able to unify behind a presidential candidate with a real shot at defeating Clinton—in part because the Democratic “bench” has been wiped out in midterm and off-year Republican routs—but there are many of them, and they are likely to to make establishment Congressional candidates squirm this primary season.
The fact that fissures among Democrats vying for Congress are only now beginning to emerge in a real way—and that the Party has largely marched in ideological lockstep over the past seven years, even as Republicans have splintered—points to one of President Obama’s under-appreciated strengths. He has been able to hold together the divergent elements of the Party—the social progressives and the economic populists, the anti-Washington grassroots activists and the major corporate donors—with impressive success, given the gulfs that separate their priorities. Even as factions of the Democrats have moved sharply to the left, Obama has been able to put a unified face on his coalition. But the president will no longer top the ticket in 2016.
This means intra-party divisions that were more-or-less effectively managed during the Obama years will increasingly come to the fore. We’ve written before about the blue civil war at the state and local level—for example, the way pension obligations are pitting the interests of public sector employees against those of low and middle-income voters who rely most on government services. The Times story highlights the fact that Democratic divisions also extend to competitions for national office, where liberal constituencies are increasingly clashing with a Party establishment that has so effectively set the agenda throughout President Obama’s tenure.
As these races start to get more coverage, the depth of the Party’s internal conflicts will likely become more apparent. The past six years of ferocious GOP infighting—and, of course, the circus quality of the Republican presidential race today—make it clear that the Republicans are far from unified. But neither are the Democrats. Both party establishments are extremely weak, and both party coalitions are in a serious state of flux. 2016 will be an interesting year.