Liberal activists warn party’s lawmakers: Primaries are coming

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, shown speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, is among the Democrats up for re-election in 2018. Liberals warn of primary challenges if Democrats don’t do their best to take on President Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, shown speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, is among the Democrats up for re-election in 2018. Liberals warn of primary challenges if Democrats don’t do their best to take on President Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress. AP

Liberal leaders have a warning for their lawmakers in Washington: Get in line, or else.

Frustrated by the party’s performance on Capitol Hill and emboldened by the mass protests against President Donald Trump, a coalition of progressive groups say they are open to supporting primary challengers next year against Democratic members of the House and Senate – even if many inside the party believe that intra-party races might ultimately only help the Republican Party gain more power.

The organizations, many run by former members of Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign, say they haven’t drafted a list of targets just yet. But they vow to recruit, fund and support intra-party challengers if Democratic lawmakers don’t start doing more to oppose the new president and his congressional Republican allies.

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“Every single Democratic incumbent considering aiding and abetting the Trump administration needs to consider their jobs at high risk,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a grassroots progressive advocacy group based in Vermont.

Every single Democratic incumbent considering aiding and abetting the Trump administration needs to consider their jobs at high risk.

Charles Chamberlain, Democracy for America

For a party that has had just one incumbent senator lose in a primary in the past 10 years – former Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., in 2010 – the warning might sound hollow. Many progressive leaders, in fact, say it was more than a decade ago, when anti-war in Iraq Democrats booted out former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., in a 2006 primary, when the party’s activist base last scored a major victory over a sitting Democratic lawmaker. (Lieberman went on to win re-election that year as an independent.)

But officials with these organizations say the anger many Democratic voters feel, evident during the large anti-Trump marches and town-hall protests that have marked the first month of the Trump administration, can easily turn against members of their own party.

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Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., perhaps the pre-eminent icon of the liberal left, faced biting criticism in January when she voted in committee to support Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson.

“The base is more than restless – it’s furious,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director for, a longtime and well-known liberal advocacy group. “It’s up to each and every elected Democrat: If they want to be part of the resistance, they’ll have an army by their side.

“And if they don’t, they’ll have to face the biggest grassroots movement that I’ve seen in my life,” he added.

The threats are representative of a rift within the Democratic Party over its midterm election strategy, between its more moderate establishment and an emboldened liberal faction. Many members of the party establishment think its lawmakers, especially those who represent states of districts won by Trump last year, must win over Republican voters by finding times to cooperate with the president.

The base is more than restless – it’s furious.

Ben Wikler, Washington director for

Adding to the tension is that 10 Senate Democrats are running for re-election next year in states Trump won during last year’s presidential campaign. Five of the states were also won by former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

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But the notion of cooperating with Trump offends many liberals – and strikes them as bad strategy to boot. Democrats, they say, should take advantage of the energy on the left and funnel that into grassroots support and small-dollar contributions into their own campaigns.

“This is a grassroots movement that is directing tens of thousands of phone calls to congressional offices and is showing up at town halls across the country,” said Claire Sandberg, a co-founder of We Will Replace You, a political action committee formed this year to back progressive candidates in Democratic primaries. “That movement will show up at the polls and vote against Democrats who are failing to stand up to Trump when their communities and our democracy are on the line.”

Many of these same activists acknowledge that Democrats on Capitol Hill, after some initial stumbles, have done a better job lately of opposing Trump. Wikler, for one, described the lawmakers as “going in the right direction.”

But they are quick to add that the lawmakers still have a long way to go, with many pressing challenges ahead. Most prominent among them is the confirmation vote in the Senate for federal appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

Anything short of an all-out effort from Democrats to stop the judge, including forcing Senate Republicans to lower the existing 60-vote threshold for confirmation of Supreme Court justices, will incite the base, they say.

There’s recent political precedence for an energized political base giving its own party problems: In 2010, the Republican-aligned tea party ousted former Republican Utah Sen. Bob Bennett and later, in 2014, then-GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Democratic lawmakers themselves say they see the parallels between the current mood of the liberal base and the tea party – and expect the primary challenges to come.

“I may have a primary because there is, in our party now, some of the same kind of enthusiasm at the base that the Republican party had with the tea party,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told KMOX News Radio last week. “We are seeing that same – and many of those people are very impatient with me because they don’t think I’m pure.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also is drawing interest from some primary challenges, including from progressive activist Tim Canova, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., in a primary last year.

Activist leaders are split on which Democratic lawmakers they should target. Some argue that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has backed most of Trump’s Cabinet appointees and boasts about his eagerness to work with the president, should top the list.

Others dismiss that as folly, either because Manchin is the best Democrats can do in a state Trump won by roughly 40 points or that, in some of these deep red states, liberals simply don’t have a pool of alternative candidates from which to choose.

“Realistically, with the bench in West Virginia, I’d be surprised if we have a candidate against Joe Manchin,” said Chamberlain, the executive director of DFA.

Even among the activists, there’s hesitancy to challenge red-state lawmakers who might sometimes vote with Republicans. Internal conflicts can siphon time, money and energy that would otherwise be spent battling the opposing party.

For the Democrats, who just lost the White House and don’t control either chamber of Congress, that might be too high a price.

“Progressives need to keep pushing congressional Democrats to resist Trump, but when we’re considering primary challenges, we’ve got to be savvy about which incumbents we target,” said David Nir, political director of the Daily Kos, a widely read liberal blog.

Nir suggested the party focus on defeating incumbent lawmakers in blue states and districts.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6078, @Alex_Roarty