Democratic senators once dreaded an onslaught of liberal primary challenges.
They’re not worried anymore.
In a remarkable development, none of the party’s 11 battleground incumbents — those in states Republicans have targeted — is set to face a serious threat from the left this year. That includes the 10 Democratic incumbents running in states Donald Trump won in 2016, who have quelled progressive rage despite relatively moderate backgrounds.
Senate Democrats are even likely to dodge chaotic primaries in a trio of competitive states — Arizona, Tennessee, and Nevada — held by Republicans, the kind of races that usually draw a litany of challengers. Instead of bracing for a potentially damaging fight, the party has already settled on a de-facto nominee in each.
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At a time when liberal activists yield major influence within the party, the absence of primaries is a welcome development for Democrats officials, who think a shock win in the Alabama Senate race and an increasingly favorable political climate give them a chance to win the Senate in November. And according to leading progressive activists, it’s a reflection of a movement that — surprisingly — has had little to be angry about with Democratic lawmakers.
"It has been a surprise and a delight this year that Democrats have been on the front lines rather than sticking their heads in the sand," said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org. "If you look at the number of Democrats who voted for the Iraq War or for a string of Bush policies, the contrast couldn’t be clearer. And it’s a credit to the spine of Democrats and their political agility that they stood strong rather than grasping at a middle ground with this administration."
Wikler praised Democratic senators for uniformly opposing the GOP’s efforts to repeal the health care bill and approve sweeping tax cuts: Not one Democratic senator voted for either measure despite many red-state lawmakers, especially those up for re-election this year, facing electoral pressure to support at least part of Trump’s agenda.
Three Democrats, Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, did vote for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. But Wikler said more important than their individual support was the caucus’ otherwise full-throated resistance to Gorsuch, which forced Republicans to change the filibuster rules for Supreme Court justices before he was confirmed with fewer than 60 votes.
Those three lawmakers, along with Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jon Tester of Montana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are commonly thought of as the top GOP targets of 2018.
Republicans have also discussed challenging Tina Smith, set to replace departing Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota this week, in a state Trump nearly won in 2016. Smith’s unexpected entrance into the Senate makes it unclear if she will face a Democratic primary challenge, although she has already earned the support of popular progressive Congressman Keith Ellison.
One Senate Democratic incumbent does face a potentially stiff challenge: Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, who faces a liberal challenge in a race activists have targeted as a major opportunity to replace a lawmaker they consider far too moderate.
But Democrats and Republican alike consider it unlikely that deep-blue California will become a GOP target this fall, regardless of what happens to Feinstein. Activists, in fact, consider her a more attractive target because a primary doesn’t put her seat at risk in a general election — unlike the red state seats held by the likes of Manchin and Heitkamp.
Wanting to win in November is part of the reason for the dearth of primaries, liberal leaders say, because even if many progressives want to remake the Democratic Party, they’re even more compelled to defeat Trump any way they can.
"I think there’s a lot of excitement about the possibility that we could take the House and maybe take the Senate and hopefully have a tidal wave of progressive energy that leads to this coming election result," said Shannon Jackson, executive director at Our Revolution, a liberal political organization founded by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Democrats list a variety of other reasons Democrats face so few primaries in the Senate, including that a recent series of difficult elections has left the party with few candidates who can realistically run major Senate races. In Arizona, for instance, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema had already banked millions of dollars in fundraising before she even entered the race, leaving potential rivals — especially those who hadn’t held major elected office before — facing a significant financial deficit should they enter the race.
The same financial advantage helped Rep. Jacky Rosen in Nevada, whose strongest primary opponent raised less than $150,000 through September, more than $2 million less than the congresswoman. And former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s entrance into that state’s Senate contest persuaded the previous strongest Democratic candidate, James Mackler, to drop out.
Some Democratic incumbents do technically face primary challenges: Paula Jean Swearengin earned a flurry of media attention when she announced her challenge to Manchin in West Virginia last year. But through September she had raised only $200,000, and liberal groups tracking her campaign said she had yet to do enough to earn their support.
That campaign has failed to take off so far," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America. "That’s not to say it can’t or won’t. They’re not raising the kinds of resources it would take to win."
The higher barriers to running a Senate race might also explain why Democrats have avoided primaries there while bracing for dozens of competitive intra-party contests on the House side, where it’s easier for first-time candidates to run.
Chamberlain, Jackson, and Wikler each warned that Democrats could still incite progressive voters if they stumble on a series of upcoming legislative items, especially if they fail to prevent the so-called Dreamers from being deported as part of a DACA compromise. Jackson said his group, Our Revolution, will go through its endorsement process this and next month, and reserved the right to endorse primary challenges against these Democratic incumbents.
But by and large, they were complimentary of the Democratic Party’s efforts.
"It’s a credit to elected Democrat that they avoided the gaping rift that broke open between the grassroots and the Republican Party, in the tea party moment in 2009 and 2010," Wikler said. "That was absolutely possible on the Democratic side this year."