Zephyr Teachout, fresh from her better-than-expected showing against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York’s gubernatorial primary, now is urging similar challenges against other Democrats across the country.
No politician deserves immunity from primary challengers. Anyone has the right to run and make the case that he or she has superior ideas and positions. But is Teachout strategically correct? Is an army of primary challengers the wisest path to maximizing liberal influence within the Democratic Party?
The recent history of the Republican Party suggests not. The GOP has been presiding over a low-grade civil war between purists and pragmatists for the last three election cycles, which has severely hampered the party’s effort to rehabilitate its brand following the George W. Bush presidency.
The friction hurt Republicans’ ability to take over the Senate, as several Tea Party-fueled primary victories in 2010 and 2012 proved pyrrhic in the November general elections. And though such candidates have fared well in House elections, winning has arguably hurt the party more than losing. Surviving incumbents were scared straight after seeing some of their friends beaten in primaries, giving Tea Party backbenchers significant leverage over the House leadership. The resulting “shutdown” caucus made it impossible for the Republican Party to unite around a positive agenda, let alone govern in a functional manner.
Republicans may still take the Senate this year because there are so many Democrat-held seats on the ballot in red states (and because Tea Party primary challenges mostly fizzled). But public approval of congressional Republicans still lags behind their Democratic rivals, registering 19 percent in one recent poll. No matter what happens this November, the war-torn GOP will not be in grand shape at the start of the race for 2016.
In addition to the cautionary tale of the Republicans, Democrats should not forget that they have suffered the consequences of failed primary challenges themselves. The 2006 attempt to oust Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) paved the way for his re-election as an independent without Democratic support. Liberated—and peeved—Lieberman transformed from a right-leaning yet loyal Democrat into an antagonist who endorsed Sen. John McCain for president. Undeterred, progressives instigated a 2010 primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.). Lincoln escaped the primary, but with so many bruises that she was easy picking for her Republican opponent in November.
Less remembered but no less important is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s attempted purge of conservative Democrats in the 1938 midterm elections. He had grown frustrated with their increased willingness to oppose him following his failed court-packing scheme. But after most of his favored primary challengers lost, emboldened conservative Democrats tightened their alliance with Republicans and put the kibosh on furthering the New Deal.
Does this mean that progressives should roll over and submit to the whims of the corporate-friendly wing of the Democratic Party, in the name of political expedience? No. It only means that a strategy of mass primary challenges is a risky and dubious way to build influence within the party.
What many on the left are reluctant to accept is that they already possess a significant amount of the influence within the Democratic Party. For example, progressives have stymied “Third Way” Democrats who want to curb Social Security benefits and expand international trade agreements. And primary challenges have had nothing to do with it. Solid organizing, strong arguments and an active small-dollar donor network (along with some like-minded millionaires) deserve the credit.
Gaining influence without launching a civil war also means that unlike the dynamic in the Republican Party, disagreements within the Democratic family are not debilitating. Inside the Democratic “big tent,” different factions bargain in good faith, forge compromises and accomplish things. To enact the Affordable Care Act, progressives sacrificed a “public option” but gained an individual mandate that was more palatable to the insurance industry. To win passage of the Dodd-Frank bank reform bill, progressives accepted they couldn’t bust up the big banks in order to win regulations on what big banks could do.
In contrast, congressional Republicans, who almost to a person say they want some sort of immigration reform, came up empty and may lose a generation of Latino voters because of it.
I would not second-guess the decision of Teachout or any other American to run for office. She had legitimate differences with Cuomo on issues that divide Democrats nationally, including charter schools and natural gas exploration, and had the right to give New York voters a choice. But if she wants to build on what was, in the end, a losing campaign, she might consider organizing around those issues to be a more effective strategy than spoiling for more primary fights.