There was no small bit of consternation among Democratic elites at Tuesday’s primaries, where several moderates lost primary races in purple districts to left-leaning candidates. But, you know, to become the Democratic nominee, Democrats have to actually want this person. And they often don’t. Is nominating progressives in purple districts a big problem for Democrats? I would argue no, because Republicans are going to use the same playbook against any Democrat–NANCY PELOSI! OBAMACARE! BLACK PEOPLE! MS-13!–so what difference does it make? This is a good piece on the issue, focusing on the NE-02 race, where milquetoast moderate Brad Ashford lost to a real Democrat, Kara Eastman.
While the primary was largely civil (the two candidates’ families are close), Eastman did run against Ashford, a former Republican who has always portrayed himself as a moderate, from the left. Most notably, Eastman emphasized her support for “Medicare for all” and ran a TV ad telling the audience she was tired of hearing that Democrats don’t stand for anything. Eastman also likely benefited from running at a time when women have been doing well in Democratic primaries.
Long before the primary was decided, most prognosticators concluded that Eastman would be a weaker nominee that Ashford. Observers argued that the GOP would be able to portray Eastman as too liberal for Omaha, a problem that the more moderate Ashford would in theory be able to avoid. However, despite the conventional wisdom, it’s far from clear that Ashford was actually the better bet.
Back in 2016, Ashford lost to Bacon 49-48, which was almost identical to the margin of Hillary Clinton’s close defeat in the district, so he may not have had the crossover appeal his supporters believed he’d have this year. And Ashford’s fundraising—a practice he openly disdained—was always weak, even as an incumbent and despite all his connections. Even though he’d been running for almost a year, his total haul at the end of the first quarter of the year put him at 97th among credible Democratic challengers.
But while Ashford was certainly an imperfect candidate, he was at least a known one. The only thing many national observers know about Eastman is that she beat a Blue Dog-endorsed former congressman while running to the left, so it’s pretty easy to caricature her as something like a progressive version of a tea partier. But like most caricatures, it would be inaccurate. Eastman’s support for universal health care, tuition-free college, and gun safety reform are about where the Democratic base is now, and these policies tend to poll well with the larger public, too.
The GOP certainly won’t waste time trying to portray Eastman’s support for expanding Medicare to all as some malign scheme to impose punitive taxes and turn America into a grim socialist hellscape … but it’s not like they don’t already plan to use that line of attack in every competitive race they can. It will be up to Eastman to push back and make a positive argument about her views rather than let the GOP define her.
There’s no good reason not to nominate the most progressive candidate you can in most districts, because the specific policy positions they hold just don’t matter to most voters. There is a limit to this–obviously if the candidate is a clown show, then there are problems. But there’s vanishingly little evidence that the conventional wisdom that holds such sway among Democratic elites that conservative voters can be swayed if just the Democrat is moderate enough actually works in elections.