As Democrats gear up for what they hope is a fruitful midterm election season for their party, they’re also dealing with a one-two punch of turbulence within their own ranks.
First, Democratic New York Rep. Joe Crowley, a well–liked establishment Democrat in a leadership position, suffered a shocking primary loss to newcomer Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez last Tuesday. Meanwhile, some 20 Democratic House candidates said they would not vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker if Democrats take back the House this fall, according to a tally by DC publication Politico, led by Democrat Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, who won a surprising upset in his Pennsylvania special election in March.
Even as analysts focus on the often-chaotic state of the Republican Party, the identity crisis in the Democratic Party — highlighted by the 2016 presidential primary battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton — lives on.
“Neither political party is exactly unified as we head into the mid-term elections,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, who said that there are still lingering animosities between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party.
Ohio in middle of debate
That there’s restlessness among Democrats is more than evident in Ohio, where at least three Democratic House candidates have suggested they would support new Democratic leadership in the House and where Rep. Tim Ryan, a Youngstown-area Democrat, first gave voice to some Democratic leadership concerns when he challenged Pelosi for her leadership position in 2016 after becoming concerned that Democrats weren’t doing enough to appeal to the working class voters who had traditionally been a key part of their base.
Two years later, Ryan stands by his premise that the Democratic Party is ripe for a change at the top.
“The focus is on 2018, but I think there is going to be some change, whether it’s newer members or maybe someone not in leadership right now,” said Ryan, who said he still does not plan to vote for Pelosi for speaker if Democrats take the House. “I don’t know what direction we’re going to go in yet, but I do see change coming.”
Among Democrats challenging Republicans for U.S. House seats in Ohio this year, Theresa Gasper, who is challenging Rep. Mike Turner in the 10th district which covers most of the Dayton region, and both O’Connor, who beat Russell to run in Central Ohio’s open 12th District seat, and Ken Harbaugh, running for eastern Ohio’s 7th District have indicated a willingness to back new leadership. O’Connor highlighted his desire for change in his first TV ad.
“Although this discussion is premature, I would support new leadership in the House,” Gasper said through a spokeswoman.
And Harbaugh, in an interview, said though he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what he calls “the D.C. chess game,” he maintains that “leadership needs to be held accountable for not doing anything.” He includes both parties in that opinion.
“It’s high time the torch was passed,” he said.
Their willingness to speak out against current leadership may also be indicative of Pelosi’s divisiveness; Even though O’Connor has indicated he won’t back her, a super PAC linked with House Speaker Paul Ryan is airing ads in the 12th District linking the two Democrats.
“Nancy Pelosi is the most unpopular figure in American politics, period, end of discussion,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that purchased the ads. He calls it “laughable” and “largely meaningless” that O’Connor has disavowed Pelosi because “he supports Nancy Pelosi’s agenda.”
“Elections are about choices,” he said, saying “today’s Democratic party is led by Nancy Pelosi and her values.”
Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper said he has no problem with Democratic candidates choosing to support or not support Pelosi: “That’s up to the candidates,” he said. What’s more important, he said, is winning. And on that principle, he said, “we are as united as we can be.”
Ryan and other Democrats insist that while there may be a thirst for change at the top, Democrats are united on the issues and the need to win. Crowley, Ryan said, was quick to endorse his primary opponent and in Ohio’s 12th District, most the Democrats who ran against Danny O’Connor were quick rally behind him.
“There’s no turbulence on the issues that unite our party,” said John Russell, an Indivisible leader and Galena farmer who also ran in the 12th District primary.
A changing party
Still, the party itself is changing, argues Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He said while the party used to be dominated by “white men with ethnic European surnames” like Crowley, “the party is increasingly reliant, particularly in diverse places like New York City, on nonwhite voters and women in general.”
He said that the Democrats who have spoken out against Pelosi combined with Crowley’s surprising loss may not be the canaries in the coal mine that some think they are. The New York primary, he said, “means little for November,” he said and the midterms themselves, he said, “are mainly about the party in power.”
“However, the future of the Democratic Party will be at the heart of the 2020 nomination process, and at that point, the decisions of primary voters will become more important and more tone-setting for the future,” he said.