How Democrats Are Saving the Party From Itself

by Paul Hogarth on May 24, 2010

Two years ago, Barack Obama would have not have won nomination – except grassroots activists in the Democratic Party said “no” to the Establishment, and blocked a Clinton dynasty. Today, many of those same Democrats are saving the Party from itself – even if the President is not with them. We saw this last week when they defeated Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and forced Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in a June runoff – both incumbents who obstructed the progressive agenda, but still had Obama’s support. Democrats have feared that 2010 will be a bad year – where they could lose majorities in Congress. But the grassroots accurately read the populist anger, knew it was as potent on the left as on the right, and refused to be apologists for the status quo. If Democrats want to keep a majority, they cannot run this year on incumbency. 2006 and 2008 were years of “change,” and voters in 2010 want candidates who also will bring change.

While the media remains obsessed about Rand Paul, here is what we really learned from last week’s Kentucky Senate race. First, Republicans are under siege from Teabaggers – and GOP candidates must pander right to win their primaries. Second, rather than bring “excitement” to the Republican base, Teabaggers are becoming more of a liability – as they alienate swing voters. Third, what no one talked about on Election Night – Rand Paul got fewer votes in the GOP primary than did Democrats Dan Mongiardo and Jack Conway. Teabaggers may have taken over the Republican Party, but as a portion of the total electorate they are a minority. After all, these are the folks who like Sarah Palin.

All of which should bring hope to Democrats as they look ahead to November, knowing that the Tea Party “movement” is not what it’s cracked up to be. Teabaggers may be loud and obnoxious, but they don’t represent a rightward shift in the electorate. Looking at the overall demographics, there is no reason why Democrats can’t make 2010 a good year. The Southern realignment of the GOP has pretty much run its course, Latinos (who vote Democratic) are voting in increasing numbers in the Southwest, and young people (who voted in record numbers in 2004, 2006 and 2008) side with Democrats. The only enemy of Democrats is a low voter turnout – if their progressive base is simply not energized.

Enter last week’s primary results in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. As I wrote on May 17, it’s rare for a scandal-free incumbent Senator to lose re-nomination – and Arlen Specter’s loss to Democrat Joe Sestak (especially when you consider his decades of elected office) should be a serious wake-up call to the Democratic leadership. Blanche Lincoln has survived to fight another day, but now faces a June 8th runoff against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter who is slightly favored to win. And for the first time in months, Democrats are energized.

Despite a new President and a new Congress, voters are still very unhappy – and there’s a genuine concern that they will blame the Democrats who are “in power.” But the Obama White House and Democratic leadership have acted for months as if 2010 would be the year to run as incumbents – hoping that hints of an economic recovery and passing health care reform would be enough. But the stimulus was inadequate, and the health care bill a product of extortion. It was not “change we can believe in” – and we deserve much better.

That’s why progressive activists had to take the matter into their own hands. Democrats are not supposed to run primary candidates against incumbents because it is “divisive” – but it was time to hold Senators like Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln (who killed the public option) accountable. 2006 and 2008 were the years that voters picked “change,” and both Senators are the reason such change failed to get traction. Joe Sestak and Bill Halter faced huge odds taking on a Senator in their own Party who had the President’s support, but what they had was disenchanted Obama activists who wanted to see change happen.

And by doing so, they are rescuing the legacy that rode Obama to the White House.

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