By Kim Strassel
The Democratic primaries are generating nominees who are embracing, or even going beyond, the president’s unpopular agenda.
What do Joe Sestak, Bill Halter and Colleen Hanabusa have in common? The left loves them. This is yet another reason Democrats are in trouble this fall.
Given the obsessive coverage of the Republican “civil war,” you may not realize Democrats are also feuding. Angry and disappointed that their president and Congress has not done more, the party’s liberal base is throwing itself into the primaries, pushing the party to the left even as the country moves right.
Ask Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who on Tuesday will fight to keep her party’s nomination against progressive Bill Halter, the state’s lieutenant governor. Also up for judgment that day is Sen. Arlen Specter. He has his new party’s full financial backing. Recent polls nonetheless show the liberal Mr. Sestak within striking distance.
Later next week Hawaii holds a special election to replace Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who resigned to run for governor. His district is Democratic, but the liberal Ms. Hanabusa is siphoning support from the party’s preferred candidate, former Rep. Ed Case. Republican Charles Dijou might win.
These races follow primaries in Ohio and North Carolina where the anointed Democrat fought damaging battles against insurgent liberals. Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher prevailed over Netroots favorite Jennifer Brunner, but not before she had drained Mr. Fisher’s campaign coffers. In North Carolina, the base’s preferred pick, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, has dragged the more conservative state Sen. Cal Cunningham into a June runoff.
True, candidates like Mrs. Lincoln and Mr. Specter are struggling against today’s anti-incumbent, anti-Washington fever. But the primary challenges are also the result of mismanaged expectations. Barack Obama allowed the left to believe he was one of them. Some of his campaign promises certainly fed its hopes: He’d close Guantanamo, pass union “card check,” renegotiate Nafta, leave Iraq. Adding to the left’s exuberance was the party’s filibuster-proof Senate majority.
But Guantanamo is still open, card check is still dead, Nafta is still functioning, and troops remain in Iraq. Meanwhile, the president dangled the public option in front of his liberal supporters, only to further enrage them when he lost that fight. All this has forced Democratic congressmen to take the blame for failures like card check.
The base has interpreted the policy failures as proof that the decision to sit back while the Democratic Party elected more moderates was a mistake. The response has been for unions and grass-roots groups to throw their money and support behind more liberal candidates. Democrats are currently battling as many, if not more, ugly primary challenges than Republicans.
No one exemplifies the dynamic better than Mrs. Lincoln. Over her 12 years in the Senate, she’s been careful to project herself as a Democrat in tune with Arkansas voters and business. The party leadership’s decision to push card check and the public option (both highly unpopular with the general public and the Arkansas public) forced Mrs. Lincoln to push back, which cast her as the spoiler of liberal dreams.
Mr. Halter was the result, propelled from the start by groups such as MoveOn.org. The lieutenant governor has run far to Mrs. Lincoln’s left, and in March, his first month of campaigning, he raised more than $2 million. And the left is unleashing money against his opponent; the Service Employees International Union recently unveiled a $1 million ad campaign against Mrs. Lincoln.
Win or lose, the base’s candidates are pulling the Democratic field left. Colorado’s appointed Sen. Michael Bennet was intending to win re-election by keeping his head down, splitting the difference on tough issues. Then, last September, the grass roots fueled former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff’s entrance into the race, who announced his support for an ObamaCare public option. Not to be outdone in a closed Democratic primary, Mr. Bennet became the Senate’s most vocal public-option supporter.
Unfortunately for both men, the winner will now be on record supporting a position few in Colorado’s general electorate share. In Pennsylvania, Mr. Specter was against the unpopular card check; thanks to Mr. Sestak he’s now for it. Mr. Fisher was ambiguous about the Democratic health bill, until, prodded by Ms. Brunner, he declared “100%” support. These are positions that can’t easily be dialed back.
This lurch toward liberal priorities coincides with polls showing that the electorate— particularly independents—has shifted significantly to the right since Mr. Obama took office. While some Republican primaries are proving bloody, most are turning out candidates largely in tune with today’s public frustration with Washington.
The Democratic primaries, by contrast, are generating nominees who are embracing, or even going beyond, the president’s unpopular agenda. This is the feud that may have the bigger consequences for this fall’s midterms.