WASHINGTON — While the Republican Party grapples with a center-right divide after its election losses last fall, Democrats may be setting up a center vs. left battle for the 2016 election to succeed President Barack Obama.
Two of the potential candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – are methodically positioning themselves to be the favorites of the party’s liberal wing. Both were early advocates of same-sex marriage. They pushed some of the nation’s toughest gun-control laws, and they’ve championed other causes the left has long embraced.
Both face enormous hurdles. Most obvious are the juggernauts that would be created instantly should former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden enter the race. Clinton, whose supporters already are laying the groundwork for a run, and Biden, who’s also positioning himself in key early-voting states, have long, friendly histories with the left, giving them space to emphasize more centrist views on some subjects.
O’Malley and Cuomo, on the other hand, must show they have the passion, and the track records, that the liberals will demand.
Going too far left, though, risks becoming the Democrats’ version of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He got national attention by governing Massachusetts from the center-right. To win the nomination, however, he had to turn sharply right, a move that badly wounded him in the November election.
The O’Malley and Cuomo camps won’t talk about presidential ambitions, let alone strategies. “Gov. O’Malley’s focus has always been on results, not political posturing,” said Lis Smith, adviser to O’Malley’s political action committee. “He’s also never shied away from making tough decisions to cut spending, reform the state’s pension system and address Maryland’s transportation problems.”
Regarding Cuomo, veteran independent New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf cited the governor’s battles with public-sector unions in this time of tight budgets. “He can pick up some people who are conservative on some issues and people who are liberal on others,” Sheinkopf said.
So far, he’s picking up mostly liberals. In January 2012, 21 percent of New Yorkers regarded Cuomo as liberal and 57 percent said he was moderate, according to a Marist Institute for Public Opinion survey. Last month, 35 percent called him liberal, while 37 percent branded him moderate.
Insiders say Cuomo and O’Malley will get a hearing from the liberal Democrats who provide the grass-roots energy so crucial to a presidential bid.
Both are earning credibility for their energetic support of same-sex marriage at a time when it was risky for anyone with national ambitions to do so. Cuomo vowed in his 2010 campaign to be “the governor who signs the law,” and he did just that six months after he took office. Last year, O’Malley signed Maryland’s law, then he led the fight to get it approved in a November referendum.
The two governors were also relentless fighters for some of the nation’s toughest gun-control laws. After the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., O’Malley pushed hard – and successfully – for an assault weapons ban, limits on the size of magazine clips, tougher background checks and fingerprinting for gun owners.
Cuomo won legislative approval about a month after the Newtown shootings for a package that includes the assault weapons ban, limits on magazine clips and background checks for ammunition buyers.
Clinton and Biden have similar views. Biden has led the Obama administration’s fight for tougher gun laws, and his support for same-sex marriage was seen as prodding the president to do the same. Clinton announced her support for same-sex marriage last month, and she’s long backed an assault weapons ban and other strong gun-control measures.
Nevertheless, Democrats are noticing how Cuomo and O’Malley took the risk, fighting tense legislative battles.
“We were early supporters of marriage equality,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “Cuomo and O’Malley are doing something we’ve accepted for a few years now.”
Democrats in the state, which traditionally holds the nation’s first presidential primary, tend to be one of two types, said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center.
Some are old-school trade union members, willing to back big government but socially conservative. In recent years, they’ve been overwhelmed by an influx of what Smith calls “faculty Democrats,” highly educated people migrating to the state from liberal bastions such as Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“They tend to be quite liberal,” Smith said.
In Iowa, where the party usually holds the presidential year’s first caucus, “most Democrats here are in favor of some type of law that addresses gun violence,” said Tom Henderson, the Democratic Party chairman in Polk County, the state’s largest.
While same-sex marriage and strict gun control rev up the Democratic base, they might be poisonous in the general election.
A CBS News poll found last month that two-thirds of Democrats want stricter gun laws, while only 29 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents agreed.
And 70 percent of Democrats told a CNN/ORC survey last month that same-sex marriages should be recognized by law. Republican support was 25 percent, and 55 percent of independents backed the idea.
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