By Susan Milligan
Presidents typically use the platform of the State of the Union to let the opposing party know where the policy lines are and what issues are off the table during their tenures in the Oval Office.
Unusually, President Joe Biden had to draw those lines with fellow Democrats.
Defund the police? Forget about it, Biden said Tuesday night. With crime on the increase around the nation – making for a nervous midterm electorate – the answer is to fund the police, Biden said. He also said very pointedly that he is a capitalist, albeit one who thinks big corporations should “pay their fair share” in taxes.
On immigration, Biden called for reform – while also saying that those who “are not legitimately here can be sent back” to their home countries. He also made a point of noting the law enforcement credentials of his Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
It’s all about addressing one of the Democrats’ bigger problems as they head into a very challenging midterm election season: keeping moderate Democrats from being labeled as too progressive for their districts or the country.
“There’s no question that we lost seats (in 2020) because of that,” says Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “We know those attacks landed, and they landed hard,” and similar characterizations of Democratic incumbents as “socialist” or in favor of defunding the police could cost the party even more seats this fall, he says.
Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, one of the members of the progressive “squad” in the House – delivered a fiery response to Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night on behalf of the Working Families Party. That move angered mainstream Democrats who don’t want to have to fight both Republicans and a wing of their own party when defending their narrow and imperiled majorities this fall.
“It’s like keying your own car and slashing your own tires,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer, New Jersey Democrat, told Axios before Tlaib spoke.
Progressives point to their successes – such as the upset primary win of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York in 2018 and Tuesday night primaries in Texas, where leftist Greg Casar won his Democratic primary for the House and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros advanced to a runoff with incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus.
The progressive wing of the party also provides the energy and organizing abilities to keep key elements of the Democratic base – such as Black voters – engaged and showing up at polling places, experts say.
But the leftists’ message does not work everywhere, critics say, and could end up electing more Republicans.
In San Francisco last month, three progressive school board members were ousted amid complaints that they were spending more time renaming schools, including the Abraham Lincoln High School, than on making sure they were open and operating safely during the pandemic era. The three were also criticized for pushing to end merit-based admissions at the prestigious Lowell High School.
In liberal New York City, it was former police Capt. Eric Adams who bested several far more progressive candidates to win the Democratic nomination for mayor and, ultimately, the mayoralty itself last fall.
Progressives “have been very successful at winning smaller, council district races” but did not have the broad appeal to win citywide, says Bill Cunningham, a New York City-based communications consultant who worked for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
And mainstream Democrats worry that progressive candidates, while promoting an agenda aimed at working class voters and people of color, are not yet succeeding in corralling those voter groups.
The branding of Hispanics as “Latinx” has fallen flat with actual Latinos, who reject the gender neutral moniker as something white liberals came up with to appear egalitarian, political experts say. Polling by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found that barely more than a fifth (21.5%) of Hispanics like the term.
Progressive mayoral candidates mainly got their votes from white liberals, Cunningham says. Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez won over young voters but lost the Black and Hispanic vote to the incumbent she beat, former Rep. Joe Crowley.
In Buffalo, Democratic socialist India Walton won the Democratic primary last year but lost the general election to incumbent Democratic Mayor Byron Brown, who ran as a write-in. Walton lost working-class South Buffalo by a 5:1 margin, election tallies show.
When progressives win (or lose) in comfortably Democratic districts, it’s a no-harm, no-foul result for Democrats. Casar, for example, is widely expected to win a Texas congressional seat this fall, adding to the progressives’ numbers in the House.
But the situation gets more worrisome for Democratic campaign officials when the districts are more conservative. Cuellar, for example, represents a district with about a 10 percentage point advantage for Democrats and would be heavily favored to win this fall, should he best Cisneros in the runoff, says Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
But “Jessica Cisneros is significantly to the left on many high-profile issues” in the district, Jones says, meaning the GOP could flip the seat if she wins the May runoff.
The Justice Democrats are very much like the Tea Party Republicans 10 years ago,” Jones says, referring to the group running progressive candidates against more mainstream Democratic incumbents. “They tend to value purity over pragmatism.”
Further Democratic incumbents who don’t subscribe to the progressives’ agenda are vulnerable to GOP campaigns to attach them to the leftist wing of the party, Bennett says.
Florida Democrats Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala both lost their House seats in 2020 amid charges they were part of the “socialist” Democratic Party – even though Mucarsel-Powell’s family fled a socialist regime in Latin America, Bennett says. Former Rep. Anthony Brindisi of upstate New York lost his House seat after unfounded charges that Democrats like him wanted to “defund” the police, Bennett adds.
This year, Third Way is fighting back with a super PAC called “Shield PAC,” Bennett says, to defend moderates against charges that they “are in league with the far left.”
He said the Super PAC is focusing on about a dozen incumbents – all women – they expect to be targeted by the GOP.
“We don’t know if it will be crime or schools,” but the group will be ready to counter claims that the lawmakers are aligned with the progressive wing of the party, Bennett adds. It’s an unexpected challenge, experts say, that is due to divisions within the Democratic Party itself.