Kara Eastman has a message for Democrats looking for change they can believe in.
“I’m tired of hearing Democrats don’t have a backbone, that we don’t stand for anything,” the 45-year-old said in a commercial. “That changes now!” Eastman won her party’s primary for a House seat in Nebraska, beating a former congressman who was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s choice to turn the Republican-held seat blue.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee celebrated Eastman’s victory by asserting “the way to inspire voters in 2018 is to campaign on a bold progressive agenda of Medicare for All, higher wages for workers, and other economic populist ideas that help working families and challenge corporate power.”
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Democratic primary voters took a sharp left turn this week in their bid to dethrone the Republican congressional majorities and soak President Trump in a giant blue wave. It was a far cry from Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., running successfully on some conservative themes in a special election earlier this year, or the strategy Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rahm Emanuel pursued in 2006 that saw them recruit candidates who could win regardless of ideology.
This year, ideology is a big factor in the Democratic primaries, including the hangover from the 2016 battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Clinton won the Democratic nomination, Sanders their hearts — and the Democratic establishment lost control.
That worries some Democrats in Washington, who point to Lamb as a winner who did not have to face scrutiny from primary voters, allowing him to better reflect his districts’ political sensibilities. But the recent primary winners’ liberal bent could augment the base’s anti-Trump enthusiasms and further energize grassroots progressives in November.
Democratic voters could have gone the Lamb route in contesting another Pennsylvania House seat, the one being vacated by centrist Republican Rep. Charlie Dent. District Attorney John Morganelli, a critic of abortion and sanctuary cities who once expressed a willingness to work with Trump, was originally considered the front-runner.
Instead Morganelli was pilloried by liberal groups like EMILY’s List and Tom Steyer’s NextGen America as a Trump lackey. “If Morganelli won’t stand up to Trump, he can’t represent us,” said the narrator in one of the attack ads. The spot argued that you might like Morganelli as DA but “in Congress, the job’s being tough on Trump.”
Liberal Susan Wild ended up winning the Democratic primary.
On paper, Rachel Reddick had everything going for her. She was young (just 33), female, a mother, and military veteran, characteristics in high demand among Democrats. “Proud progressive” Scott Wallace beat her, relentlessly pointing out she had been a registered Republican since until 2016.
Wallace is the grandson of Henry Wallace, a former vice president who was dumped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for being too liberal and who eventually ran to the left of President Harry S. Truman in the 1948 presidential election. He tweaks Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan by promising to “make America sane again.” He will challenge Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
Eastman didn’t win by much — a little over 1,100 votes — but it was still quite an upset. A political neophyte running against former Rep. Brad Ashford, the party apparatus was against her, assuming the Blue Dog Ashford was a better fit for the Omaha-area district. She campaigned for tax increases, universal background checks for gun purchases, and government-run healthcare in the form of “Medicare for All.”
The question remains whether these liberal nominees can win general elections in mixed districts as easily as they hunted Blue Dogs in the primaries. Right after Wallace beat Reddick, for example, Forward reported the newly minted nominee, now running in a heavily Jewish district, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups that want to boycott and divest from Israel.
In Pennsylvania, even a pair of Democratic Socialists of America racked up big primary wins against two sitting state representatives. “In Pittsburgh, the local DSA chapter is 500 members strong and hosts Marxist reading groups, organizes against controversial anti-abortion pregnancy centers, and works to reduce police stops by fixing residents’ brake lights,” Mother Jones reported.
There have been exceptions, of course. Anti-abortion Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., narrowly survived a spirited primary challenge. None of the red state Democratic senators up for re-election this year, some of whom vote with Trump much of the time, faced serious primary challenges.
Yet it is still mostly the case that in Democratic primaries, “The Resistance” isn’t futile.