Southern California News Group
“The decision to cast all lots with Hillary in 2016 suggested a party tending toward caution and conservative/protective measures. That wing of the Democratic Party is still alive and well,” said Eric C. Anderson in a recent interview with The Press-Enterprise.
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By Nov. 7, Democrats will learn if their left turn steered them to victory or took them off a cliff.
The state party’s endorsement of Kevin de León, a self-proclaimed socialist’s upset of an establishment Democrat in a New York City congressional primary and talk of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and enacting single-payer health care show an embrace of progressive politics that heartens liberal activists enraged by conservative policies pursued by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.
But it’s unclear whether moving left will energize voters or endanger Democrats’ chances in competitive districts in the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, including four Republican-held congressional seats representing Orange County that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Democrats are systematically alienating sensible voters who understand a $32 trillion tax hike for single-payer or abolishing our nation’s border enforcement is unsustainable,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jack Pandol. “When the fever swamps of the Resistance collide with reality this November, the results won’t be pretty.”
While Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has embraced left-of-center policies, is favored to become California’s next governor, “he might lose in any of the tossup congressional races,” said Thad Kousser, who chairs UC San Diego’s political science department.
Democrats lack power in Washington, D.C., but they dominate California. With the state’s GOP voter registration in long-term decline, Democrats make up a plurality of California registered voters, control all statewide offices, hold 39 of the state’s 53 House seats and have a majority in the state Legislature.
Progressive activists who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016 have tried to wrest control of the party from establishment Democrats, a fight that played out last year in the election for party chair narrowly won by Eric Bauman over progressive-backed Kimberly Ellis.
The state party executive board’s July 14 endorsement of de León, a liberal state senator from Los Angeles, was a rebuke of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who’s been on Capitol Hill for almost 30 years. Despite the endorsement, Feinstein is widely expected to win re-election in November after finishing well ahead of de León in a crowded June primary.
In the 1990s, Democrats including Gov. Gray Davis openly supported the death penalty and fiscal conservatism, said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Those days are over,” he said.
“The leftward shift reflects changes in the state’s demographic and economic profile. Working-class whites no longer constitute a majority in the party. It is a coalition of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos and white professionals, all of whom tend to favor liberal policies.”
Anger at Trump is fueling liberal activists, “but there seem to be other factors at play,” said Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne.
“There is regret about missed opportunities in the Obama years on immigration and health care. The top-two primary (which advances the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party) has shut out Green Party candidates and Sanders’ campaign has shifted the energy of Greens and democratic socialists to influencing the Democratic Party.”
The party’s convention delegates have always been more liberal than Democratic voters, Godwin added.
“There appears to be some resentment by activists at Gov. Jerry Brown’s fiscal constraint and previous party chair John Burton’s tight control over the party,” she said. “Ironically, activists appear to have largely forgotten the regular fiscal crises of years past because the state has fared well in the Brown years.”
The shift is taking place when Americans are becoming more polarized. The Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Democrats who are liberal on almost every issue went from 30 percent in 1994 to 56 percent in 2014, although Pew in 2014 found that “the GOP ideological shift over the past decade has matched, if not exceeded, the rate at which most Democrats have become more liberal.”
There’s also the question about whether ideas once seen as far left are becoming more mainstream. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in April found 51 percent support single-payer health care.
‘Fits our platform’
Joey Aszterbaum, a member of the state party’s executive board from Hemet, said de León better reflects the party’s platform than Feinstein, who now opposes the death penalty after previously supporting it and who once suggested Trump “can be a good president” if he can learn and change.
“All we did was inform the public that this is a candidate that fits our platform better,” said Aszterbaum, a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “It’s a repudiation of the accommodational politics of a lot of Democrats in Congress that isn’t getting the Democratic agenda passed.”
The Riverside County Young Democrats lauded the de León endorsement in a Facebook post. The club “overwhelmingly” endorsed de León, who unlike Feinstein has visited the Inland Empire, said club chairwoman Maha Rizvi.
“We’re tired of the same establishment politics,” she said. “They’ve been listening to party leadership, not the grassroots campaign.”
The California Democratic Party “is becoming more issue-based, instead of just who we know,” Rizvi added.
Aszterbaum rejects the idea that Democrats will scare off voters by going too far left. Sanders’ success, he said, shows how an agenda catering to working-class Americans can attract people who normally aren’t interested in politics.
“I feel confident we’ll only have positive results if Democrats become economic populists rather than embracing lukewarm liberalism,” he said.
‘Pie in the sky’
Eric C. Anderson, a former assistant political science professor at the United States Air Force Academy who worked as a pollster for Midwest political campaigns, has a different take.
“The decision to cast all lots with Hillary in 2016 suggested a party tending toward caution and conservative/protective measures,” he said. “That wing of the Democratic Party is still alive and well.”
Anderson warned against reading too much into democratic socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset over New York Rep. Joe Crowley, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.
“I suspect this is a one-off. Something akin to what derailed (former Republican House Majority Leader) Eric Cantor,” who lost to a tea party conservative in 2014, he said. “Voters (tend) to be older and more conservative are not suddenly going to run off and re-start the Yippies.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, recently warned his party against embracing “pie in the sky policies” that might energize liberals but prove hard to deliver.
“We don’t have to be radical to be inspiring,” he was quoted as saying.
Pitney is skeptical a move to the left will hurt Democrats in California.
“Normally, a shift from the center might provide opportunities to the other party,” he said. “But Republicans have handcuffed themselves to Donald Trump, who is extremely unpopular in the state.”