Jul 31, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Left loses momentum

Donkey split in half
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

An Axios analysis shows the moderate candidate won 14 of 22 congressional primaries this year, when a progressive candidate challenged a more moderate candidate in seats Dems can win. That's almost two-thirds of the time.

Why it matters: Democrats are tending to nominate pragmatic, electable candidates in a midterm year when they're running uphill.

Zoom out: Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W. Va.) support for a scaled-back health care and climate-change bill is the latest moderate Democratic triumph over the party's progressive wing.

  • Instead of spending trillions on social spending (Build Back Better) that progressives championed, Manchin's legislation is a narrower bill (Inflation Reduction Act of 2022) that even Larry Summers loves.
  • If Democrats pass the bill, it'll mark the third major legislative success from the Biden administration in the last month, following a bipartisan gun control bill and legislation investing in U.S. semiconductor production. Both were championed by moderates and backed by more than a dozen Senate Republicans.

Zoom in: The biggest moderate victories include a narrow win by Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, the only pro-life Democrat in the House; a come-from-behind victory by Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown over progressive favorite Nina Turner; and a landslide defeat for former Rep. Donna Edwards against Glenn Ivey in Maryland.

  • Progressives can tout a few key wins. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman comfortably defeated Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania's Senate primary, though he rejected the progressive label during the campaign. In Oregon, attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner ousted Rep. Kurt Schrader, but faces a challenging fight in the general election.

Between the lines: Pro-Israel groups have emerged as key bulwarks for the Democratic center, spending aggressively in primaries on behalf of moderate-minded candidates.

  • Candidates backed by AIPAC's new super PAC or the recently formed Democratic Majority for Israel have won nine of 12 closely contested Democratic primaries where they spent money for favored candidates.

The big picture: Gallup data from last year show that the Democratic party’s voters are almost equally split between moderates and liberals: 51% of Democrats identify as liberal, while 49% identify as either moderate or conservative.

  • But liberals are gaining ground: In 2011, just 39% of Democrats identified as liberal while 59% considered themselves moderate or conservative.

The bottom line: Liberals make up the smallest share of the electorate. Gallup found a 37% plurality of voters ID as conservative, 36% as moderate and 25% as liberal.

  • That means Republicans can play to their base and still manage to win elections with a minority of moderates, but Democrats need moderate support to win outside the bluest parts of the country.
The left's next tests

Another major round of moderate vs. progressive primary showdowns is coming in August, including:

  • Michigan's 11th District primary (this Tuesday): Because of redistricting, Rep. Haley Stevens is facing progressive Rep. Andy Levin in a primary that has become a proxy battle among Democrats over support for Israel. Stevens, who's supported by pro-Israel groups, has surged ahead in independent polling.
  • Wisconsin’s Senate primary (Aug. 9): In a big win for progressives, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has all but locked up the Democratic nomination after his leading rivals dropped out of the race. The bid to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson would be the biggest test of the Left's political viability in a swing-state general election.
By the numbers

Swing seats (8-3 moderates):

Calif-13: Adam Gray vs. Phil Arballo — MODERATE

Ill.-06: Rep. Sean Casten vs. Rep. Marie Newman — MODERATE

Ill.-17 – Eric Sorensen vs. Litesa Wallace — MODERATE

Nev.-01 – Rep. Dina Titus vs. Amy Vilela — MODERATE

N.C.-01: Don Davis vs. Erica Smith — MODERATE

Ohio-Senate – Rep. Tim Ryan vs. Morgan Harper — MODERATE

Or-05: Rep. Kurt Schrader vs. Jamie McLeod-Skinner — PROGRESSIVE

Pa.-Senate: John Fetterman vs. Rep. Conor Lamb — PROGRESSIVE

Pa.-17: Christopher Deluzio vs. Sean Meloy — MODERATE

Texas-15: Michelle Vallejo vs. Ruben Ramirez — PROGRESSIVE

Texas-28: Rep. Henry Cuellar vs. Jessica Cisneros — MODERATE

Safe seats (6-5 moderates):

Calif.-42: Robert Garcia vs. Cristina Garcia — MODERATE

Ill.-01 – Jonathan Jackson vs. Pat Dowell — PROGRESSIVE

Ill.-03: Delia Ramirez vs. Gilbert Villegas — PROGRESSIVE

Ill.-07 – Rep. Danny Davis vs. Kina Collins — MODERATE

Ky.-03 – Morgan McGarvey vs. Attica Scott — MODERATE

Md.-04: Glenn Ivey vs. Donna Edwards — MODERATE

N.C.-04: Valerie Foushee vs. Nida Allam — MODERATE

Ohio-11: Shontel Brown vs. Nina Turner — MODERATE

Pa.-12: Summer Lee vs. Steve Irwin — PROGRESSIVE

Texas-30: Jasmine Crockett vs. Jane Hamilton — PROGRESSIVE

Texas-35: Greg Casar vs. Eddie Rodriguez — PROGRESSIVE

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