Primary Challenges: More and Better Democrats

Ed Note: Just so there’s no confusion, if you can’t see the button to the right of this post, let me express my unequivocal support for Steve Cohen’s campaign. The discussion that follows expresses my opinions on primary contests in general and is targeted at no specific candidate.

Many moons ago, the folks over at Open Left started the ”Bush Dog” campaign. The idea behind this campaign is to highlight those Democratic Representatives that consistently vote against Democratic positions, particularly in regard to issues involving Iraq and FISA.

There has been some acceptance, a great deal of hand wringing and more than a little disdain for this campaign. It should be noted, that the stated goal of this campaign is “More and Better Democrats”. To briefly explain what that means to the hand wringers out there, more means that in heavily Republican districts (MS-01 for instance) we want a Democrat, any Democrat. However, in districts that lean more Democratic, we want the best Democrat that we can get.

Neither goal is necessarily easy. It can take a lot of time and money to get a competitive Democrat in heavily Republican leaning districts. For the most part, the DCCC, DSCC, and local party operatives have done a good job of recruiting candidates, particularly in the past 3 special elections that brought us the formerly strong Republican seats of Denny Hastert (IL), Roger Wicker (MS) and Richard Baker (LA). Further, the current state of the Republican brand, and their fundraising problems for their congressional committees, may make getting “more” easier for Democrats for now.

While “more” Democrats is one element of building a strong caucus in the House and Senate, electing better Democrats is the key to passing more progressive legislation.

This is one area that makes people nervous, but there’s really no reason. Nowhere on the progressive or liberal left is anyone seriously suggesting that a liberal Republican would be better than a conservative Democrat. As Progressive Punch Scores indicate, there is a full 30 point difference between the highest rated Republican and the lowest rated Democrat in the House. There is a nearly identical result in the Senate when one looks at lifetime scores. Looking at these scores makes it clear that there is no realistic rationale for any Democratic leaning voter to support any Republican over any Democrat. This argument has been put forth over and over again by largely conservative Democrats and is a straw man.

The real reason for the FUD about primary challenges is that it represents a challenge to the established power. Even in many Democratic circles, challenging the system is frowned upon. People challenging the system are treated as ungrateful or turncoats. The truth of the matter is that challenging the system is something that is deeply coded in our nation’s DNA.

The Challenge

Challenging established powers is one of the things that gave birth to our nation. Had the patriots who led us into the Revolutionary War been quashed, the promise, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of a new kind of governance may have never come to fruition. Following that logic, if established powers that vote against the Democratic Party, or key interests in their districts in Congress are not challenged, the promise of a more progressive nation may never be realized. The effort is one of fine-tuning. By challenging elected officials in solidly Democratic districts, who vote against the party, even if only on specific issues, we can either correct the bad behavior, or put someone in who will better reflect the will of the people in that district.

A common complaint by those who fear the threat of a primary challenge is that such an effort represents outside interference in the district in question. This is also a straw man. If outside interference is the reality, then the Representative being primaried need not worry. Successful primary campaigns, such as the one mounted by Donna Edwards in Maryland, require serious effort by locals to have any hope of succeeding. The truth of the matter is that incumbents have a huge advantage over their primary and general challengers. Over 90% of incumbents won re-election in House races over the past several cycles.

Indeed, this year alone the primary challengers of “Bush Dog” Democrats Dan Lipinski in Illinois and Leonard Boswell in Iowa were soundly defeated. Both districts are safe Democratic districts, and while the candidates themselves may be irritated about being “primaried” the truth of the matter is that this result may have been avoided had the representatives been more in touch with their districts.

The Upside

As we have seen over the past several months of the Presidential Primary contest, there is an upside to a vigorous primary challenge. Record numbers of new voters have been pulled from the sidelines and involved themselves in the process. Estimates indicate that upwards of 36,000,000 people participated in the Democratic Presidential Nominating process. If a national contest can generate that kind of excitement, then, it follows that a spirited local contest may also generate similar results on a smaller scale.

It has long been the goal of the Democratic Party to involve as many in the process as possible. Traditional turnout numbers seem to indicate that high voter turnout benefits Democratic candidates in the general. That interest can be cultivated in the primary season where the debate is focused on the sometime subtle differences between the candidates. Primary challenges provide an opportunity to involve groups of people who may or may not have the ear of the current elected official. It is vital to bring these people into the process and keep them involved because, as many examples have proven, once the politics bug bites people, they tend to remain active and bring more people with them.

Once the primary is over, it’s the job of the winner and the loser to work together to unify the locals behind the nominee. We are, after all, Democrats. As we’re seeing in the Presidential race, this can be a difficult task. It is important that incumbents not take primary challenges personally (it’s business, not personal) and that both challengers and incumbents work to keep the campaign about policy and away from unnecessary personal attacks. The reality of most primary challenges is that on most issues the respective candidates agree. Taking those points of agreement to heal any divisions that may have been exposed is the key for achieving unity. Again, I think the Presidential Nominating process may prove to be an excellent model for this.

The Downside

There are some potential downsides to advocating for primary contests…your favorite progressive representative might face one. This is the reality of politics. If you are willing to call for someone to get primaried, you have to be willing to accept that your candidate may get primaried as well. In such an instance, just like for the candidates, it’s important that the supporters don’t get out of hand with the rhetoric. We are all still Democrats, and there has to be recognition that if someone is willing to dedicate the time and money to mount a primary campai
gn, they must have some supporters who feel strongly about it, even if that candidate’s strongest supporters are pro-business Republicans.

Another potential problem is that a close primary can suck the resources out of the eventual winner’s campaign, paving the way for an insurgent Republican. This is where you just have to exercise some caution. If you’re serious about mounting a primary campaign, then you probably have some connections in the community (you better have some connections). Taking the temperature around your district to make sure you aren’t paving the way to an insurgent Republican victory is a wise choice, lest you get egged at the next party meeting.

The Wretched

Still, sometimes people just gotta get primaried. Either they’ve been there too long (an arbitrary but sometimes relevant metric), grown unresponsive, or have intellectually or emotionally left the district behind. Maybe they haven’t had a serious opponent since they got elected (was that subtle enough?) and are just coasting. Maybe they’ve turned into Joe Lieberman and have left the party behind. There are all kinds of reasons. Just remember, should a candidate choose to primary a sitting Congressman, you’re on your own as far as Party support is concerned, until you win, and even after that, depending on the temperature of the local party structure, you could still be on your own.

In past cycles, Democratic groups focused on Congressional races have involved themselves in the primary process. The DCCC and DSCC are there to support Democratic Congressional candidates. Getting involved in primaries should be left to the locals, lest we end up with that outside interference argument. We saw this happen in the 2006 Democratic Senate Primary here in Tennessee. The truth of the matter is, the fallout of a national Democratic organization like DCCC and DSCC involving themselves in the primary may not be felt by the national party, but will most certainly be felt locally. Many speculate that Kurita’s vote against the party for control of the State Senate may have been prompted by this interference. It’s speculation, I know, but it’s something to consider, particularly as we move forward to redistricting in 2010. Remember, More and Better applies to state contests too.


Primaries are like a trip to the doctor, something everyone wants to avoid, but that’s necessary from time to time, to ensure the health of the party. We need the excitement, the fresh blood, and the new ideas to keep the Democratic Party’s brand fresh. Over the next few months, the primary season (congressional and local primaries) will come to a close. If you had or have a primary candidate, I encourage you to get behind the eventual winner of the primary, regardless of who you originally backed. If we remember the ultimate goal, More and Better Democrats, we can expect to see a robust Democratic caucus in the House, Senate, and state bodies, that will last for years to come.

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