Why Primaries Are Just As Important As General Elections-- Sometimes More So
The SisterGiant/Blue America Progressive Candidates Forum video above features interviews by Marianne Williamson with Alan Grayson (D-FL), DuWayne Gregory (D-NY) and Alex Law (D-NJ). DuWayne is already the official Democratic Party candidate running for the Long Island seat held by Republican neocon Peter King. Grayson and Law, however, are in important primaries against conservative Democrats. Both of them are on Bernie's team and both of them challenging establishment bosses' picks for the offices they seek. Grayson, particularly, discusses that in some depth with Marianne. Also discussing the idea of these anti-establishment primaries at some depth was Paul Rosenberg, writing for Salon Saturday. Rosenberg focuses on 4 Senate races and somehow forgot to include the Maryland primary between progressive champion Donna Edwards and establishment Wall Street hack Chris Van Hollen. When he wrote of Wall Street errand boy, Patrick Murphy, Grayson's corrupt conservative opponent, that he "is a walking caricature of what’s wrong with the establishment," he could also have been as easily referring to Van Hollen.
The Democrats' DC Establishment, epitomized by fully-owned Wall Street whores Chuck Schumer, Steve Israel, Steny Hoyer and Debbie Wasserman Schultz hate, hate, hate primaries. What they really hate are people-- and primaries, first and foremost, are a political manifestation of people challenging their business model. In his introduction, Rosenberg notes that "in four key states, each among the Democrats’ best bets to take over Republican seats, upstart challengers are mounting primary contests against the candidates party leaders feel have the best chance next November. In Ohio, 31-year-old Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld is challenging establishment-backed, 75-year-old former Gov. Ted Strickland. In Illinois, former Chicago Urban League president Andrea Zopp is challenging another establishment candidate, Iraq War veteran Rep. Tammy Duckworth. In Pennsylvania, former Rep. Joe Sestak, whose unconventional style has consistently irritated Washington Democrats, is taking on Katie McGinty, a protégé of former Gov. Ed Rendell. And in Florida, liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson is loudly attacking his House colleague Patrick Murphy, the establishment favorite, in the race for Marco Rubio’s seat."
It would be oversimplifying things to portray these races simply as reflections of Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton, and nothing more. But given the dynamics of how top-down party endorsements and funding work, and the kind of grass-roots energy needed to challenge them, there is no denying that strong similarities are present.These are brief excerpts from Rosenberg on each of the candidates:
In fact, when 78-year-old former Ohio governor Dick Celeste endorsed Sittenfeld recently, he directly invoked what was happening in the presidential race. “What we’re seeing in the presidential campaigns across the country is a growing level of discontent with party leadership in both parties. And I think it was a mistake for the Democratic Party of Ohio, for example, to make an early endorsement in the Senate race,” Celeste said. “PG Sittenfeld represents a fresh way of moving forward,” he said, pointing to Sittenfeld’s hands-on engagement in dealing with a multitude of urban issues.
“What we have here is a race between the future and the past,” Celeste continued. “When I say the past, I’m talking about the Democratic Party itself. It is trying to operate in an old way. And that old way was insiders who tried to make decisions and insiders who tried to call the shots. And that’s not what people want.”
What’s different in the different races is sometimes striking-- both on the establishment side and amongst the outsiders, who in at least two cases could plausibly have been establishment picks. The strongest establishment candidate, in terms of résumé, is former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost re-election in 2010, his last time on the ballot. The weakest, Kathleen McGinty, in next-door Pennsylvania, has never won a campaign before. She only ran once, coming in fourth in the 2014 Democratic primary for Pennsylvania governor, with 7.7% of the vote. The other two are two-term congressmembers who’ve never run statewide. If it sounds like a motley crew for the establishment team, with no candidate truly in their prime, well, it is-- a further sign of how weak and ineffectual the party establishment is. That alone is reason enough to doubt the soundness of their reasoning, even on their own terms.
In contrast, party elders are spurning at least three progressive outsider candidates who have complementary strengths that could help anchor the Democratic Party’s growth in years to come. In Ohio, as already suggested, P.G. Sittenfeld is the very epitome of a fresh face, a near-perfect embodiment of the promise that millennials can bring to politics, with a strong sense of how issues that Strickland barely seems to notice are intimately interrelated. Politico noted that “National Democrats were initially excited when he entered the contest earlier this year. His youth, relatively brief career in politics, his liberal stances-- all set up strong contrasts with well-funded GOP Sen. Rob Portman,” contrasts that are strikingly absent in Strickland, who last won an election a decade ago, having lost in 2010, when John Kasich defeated him in his re-election bid. In Florida, Alan Grayson already has a national reputation as an outspoken, no-nonsense progressive, though he’s adopted a more subtle, get-things-done-incrementally approach in the current GOP-dominated House. Thus he’s been both strikingly more progressive than Patrick Murphy-- the Republican-turned-Democrat the establishment is backing-- and more effective as well.
In Pennsylvania, the party is shunning both Sestak-- a retired admiral who lost by just 2 percent in the GOP’s 2010 wave election –and John Fetterman, the Harvard-educated mayor of Braddock, whose fight to revitalize that Rust Belt town echoes powerfully with the message of Bernie Sanders, whom he has endorsed. In Illinois, though, Zopp’s long experience-- in public policy, not politics-- is the sort of thing one expects the establishment to value, and perhaps if the establishment were still at the top of its game, they would have backed her-- or at least not endorsed someone else. The common thread throughout all these races is not only the inward-looking arrogance of decision-making without public input, but also the lack of any sort of long-term vision guiding party leadership. Even if their anointed candidates all won, it’s extremely dubious they would advance the party’s fortunes in the long run—much less the people they are supposed to serve. Let’s look at each of the four states in turn, to see what sorts of lessons could be learned.
Ohio: Sittenfeld vs. Strickland
At the most obvious level, this race pits an aging, backward-looking insider against a young, forward-thinking outsider. As Celeste said, it’s “a race between the future and the past.” But the past also means an aging candidate significantly at odds with his party’s voting base-- though with varying degrees of obfuscation-- who has repeatedly refused to debate his opponent… for good reason, it would seem.
Florida: Grayson vs. Murphy
In announcing for Senate he said, “In the past two years in Congress, I’ve written more bills, passed more amendments on the floor of the House and enacted more of my bills into law than any other member of the House-- No. 1 out of 435 of us,” a claim that Politifact, after its typical long-winded analysis, finally admitted was “accurate,” adding that it “needs additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.”
The establishment doesn’t like Grayson, which is just one more reason why the base does. But the establishment pick, Patrick Murphy, 32, is a walking caricature of what’s wrong with the establishment, including attacks on the party from the right. First off, he was a lifelong Republican (donating $2,300 to Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign) until just four months before first declaring his candidacy running for Congress as a Democrat. He has won just two house elections-- the first a squeaker, the second by comfortable margin, thanks in part to spending over $5.3 million, the most of any Democrat seeking re-election. At least he has the money side of being the establishment candidate down. But he’s stabbed Democrats in the back on the Keystone pipeline and on Benghazi-- two of the GOP’s favorite sweet spots. He’d make more sense as a GOP establishment up-and-comer, not a Democratic one... The alternative is Alan Grayson, a candidate whose passion, intelligence, integrity and guts have a tendency to remind folks of what they’re missing. Of course that’s not how his opponents in the party want to put it. They argue that he’s “too liberal” for Florida voters, but as Politico noted:
Grayson’s team disputes claims that his outspoken liberalism would hurt the party’s chances in Florida, arguing that Murphy’s moderation would be more of an impediment. Kevin Franck, a senior adviser to Grayson’s campaign, notes that President Barack Obama won Florida twice, while the moderate former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist lost the 2014 gubernatorial race.Pennsylvania: Sestak and Fetterman vs. McGinty
“National Democrats have a fundamentally outdated view of how to win statewide elections in swing states,” Franck said, insisting Grayson’s boldness is necessary to excite low-turnout, Democratic-leaning demographics, adding: “Which candidate in the primary is more like President Obama, and which is more like Charlie Crist?”
The situation in Pennsylvania is more complex. By all rights, Joe Sestak should be an ideal establishment candidate, a retired admiral, who the party originally recruited to run for Senate in the 2010 cycle, before Arlen Specter switched parties, knowing he would lose his primary fight to Pat Toomey. The party then embraced Specter-- from Obama and Biden on down-- but Sestak refused to bow out, defeated Specter, and came close to winning the seat in the Tea Party wave election of 2010.
When Sestak announced again last year, party insiders seemed to hold a grudge. “There just isn’t a really warm feeling toward him among many party insiders,” one observer said at the time, in a story that also cited a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, saying that Pennsylvania had “a lot” of Democrats who could beat Toomey. But months later, a long string of them had bailed out, and the party seemed to be moving toward accepting Sestak, before veering away again. The fact that they settled on Kathleen McGinty-- as already mentioned, an electoral nonentity-- signals something profoundly wrong with the party.
But there’s also a very exciting outsider candidate as well. John Fetterman, the 46-year-old tattooed Harvard-educated mayor of the majority-black working class rustbelt community of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a man who despite his town’s small size has taken on enormous problems, and gained a national stage, appearing on various TV shows-- David Letterman, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, etc. Fetterman has polled virtually as well against Toomey as Sestak or McGinty in a recent PPP poll, and recently endorsed Bernie Sanders, explaining at Daily Kos:
Bernie Sanders and I are both running for the same reason: we believe that politics is about standing up for people instead of catering to corporate influence. We represent everyday working people who have been cut out of the political process by big money.Illinois: Zopp vs. Duckworth
The least questionable of the establishment candidates in this bunch may be Tammy Duckworth, while her opponent, Andrea Zopp, may be the least obvious outsider. It would be relatively easy to imagine their roles being reversed. But it really helps to know a bit of recent history here.
Duckworth, like Murphy, is only a two-term representative, but a wounded Iraq War combat veteran (double amputee) who credibly fits the establishment mold, even if she is obviously being rushed. But being rushed is her Achilles heel. Duckworth lost her first race for Congress, in part because she was running in a district she didn’t live in-- just as she’s currently lacking in statewide experience. In 2006 she was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to run against a grassroots, anti-war, single-payer activist, Christine Cegelis, who was responsible for making the district competitive in the first place, with her 2004 run against long-time incumbent Henry Hyde (of the “Hyde Amendment” infamy). Cegelis ran without DCCC support (they considered the seat “unwinnable”) but with the support of Howard Dean as one of the “Dean Dozen.” Despite being outspent 3-1, Cegelis got 44% of the vote in what was still a fairly solid GOP year, and she never stopped organizing in the district. Her strong showing was credited by some with getting Hyde to retire, and with the seat now open, the DCCC then decided to recruit Duckworth, who narrowly beat Cegalis in the primary, but then lost to the Republican candidate that November. Presumably, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee likes Duckworth now for the same reasons the DCCC liked her in 2006. And they could well be making a similar mistake.
Zopp is as conservative and establishment as Duckworth, which is why Blue America hasn't gotten involved in that race. In the Pennsylvania race we like Sestak and Fetterman both, though Fetterman is the more progressive candidate and we're raising money for him on our Bernie candidates ActBlue page, which also includes Grayson. But the Blue America official Senate page is all about raising money for Grayson, Donna Edwards, P.G. Sittenfeld and Russ Feingold, all rebels who can be expected to stand up for principles and constituents regardless of what a tin-hat authoritarian like Schumer (or Trump) has to say. You can access that page by tapping the thermometer: