Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a news conference on Sept. 14, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

How Trump’s Feuds with Republicans Are Impacting Democrats

April 10, 2018
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

In Donald Trump’s first year as president, Democrats watched as he feuded with fellow Republicans, aggravating tensions that helped sink the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and that continue to highlight the president’s efforts to wrestle control of the party away from what he derides as its establishment leadership.

With the 2018 midterm elections inching closer, Democrats are galvanized in their opposition to the president and their desire to win back control of Congress, governors races and statehouses across the country. Democratic turnout is up and the party’s candidates have flipped seats in 20 state legislative special election races since 2017, according to Ballotpedia, from a seat in the Connecticut House that had been held by Republicans for more than 40 years, to a win in a Florida House district where Republicans held an advantage of nearly 13,000 more registered voters. They’ve taken back the governor’s mansion in Virginia and New Jersey, and just last week won a statewide election for a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin by more than 11 points.

But while Democrats are united in their opposition to the president, experts say that uniformity is also masking divisions within the ranks. Progressives and moderates are split, they say, about how to work with a president that is deeply unpopular within the party, and about whether the path to winning back Congress — and ultimately the White House — depends on championing a progressive agenda, or on swaying moderates in areas won by Trump.

In March, for example, Democrat Conor Lamb won Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, a rural, blue-collar community in the heart of steel country that President Trump carried by almost 20 percentage points in 2016. Lamb agreed with President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and ran on a platform that was supportive of gun rights and included a pledge not to support Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for House Democratic leader. 

“He endorses a wide range of what are traditionally Democratic stances, but he also ran for office saying he would not support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. And that’s a fairly stunning statement from a Democratic candidate,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “Where [the Democrats] probably wouldn’t have put much effort into trying to win Pennsylvania’s 18th or the statewide election in Alabama, it’s now worth the effort to try and field candidates for those places.”

In other states, established Democrats have faced pushback for not being liberal enough. In February, the California Democratic Party opted not to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her bid for re-election. Instead, the party favored her opponent, state Senate leader Kevin de León, by a vote of 54 percent to 37 percent.

De León, who did not reach the 60 percent threshold required for an official party endorsement, has been vocally anti-Trump on the campaign trail, and has portrayed Feinstein as out of sync with the party’s base.

“There are two types of Democrats that we’ve seen emerge in the wake of Trump,” said Danielle Thomsen, a political science professor at Syracuse University. “The bulk of those are coming from the liberal Democratic end, but there are pockets of more conservative leaning Democrats that have the potential to anchor the party at the center and shape the party’s ideological course in the years to come.”

While the party’s current focus is winning back the House in 2018 — which would require flipping 23 GOP-held seats — experts say that a long-term, unified strategy to take back the White House remains a point of uncertainty. While Trump is already deeply unpopular, they say Democrats need to figure out how to bridge the fissures playing out within their ranks.

“Trump’s unpopularity and his apparent hostility to virtually everything Democrats believe in is a great motivation to the party and is helping it kind of at least temporarily taper over a lot of its divisions,” Masket said. But, “hatred of Trump is not necessarily enough for a governing agenda. That’s something that would be harder to put together and something that Democrats would have to deal with if they were to wind up back in power again anytime soon.”

For some Democratic candidates, a willingness to work across party lines can bolster electability. That was partly the case in Alabama’s special election, where Democrat Doug Jones was elected to the Senate in a deep-red state. While Jones’s campaign was bolstered by the allegations of sexual misconduct against his opponent, Roy Moore, his pledges to work across party lines was also a determining factor, said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked on the Jones campaign.

“In Jones, they saw sort of a breath of fresh air and a guy that’s talking about common ground and working across party lines and ultimately saying, ‘I’ll work with Dick Shelby, who is the Republican senator,’ and that’s a good thing and I think that was the opening in a place as conservative as Alabama,” he said.

Frances Lee, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said that a driving question facing the party is to what extent candidates are willing to work with Trump. She said the party is grappling with a new set of uncertainties under the current administration — like a Republican president skeptical of free trade and who may resonate with working-class Democrats in the country’s rust belt.

“Rust belt Democrats are not taking a hardline stance on Trump … But, other Democrats will say, ‘How can you work with someone who ran for office by demonizing immigrants?'” she said, adding, “I think it’s safe to say that among Democrats, it’s going to vary across regions. It’s not going to be one single type of candidate who is going to predominate everywhere.”

Experts say that for now, that means there will be progressive Democrats elected in some places, and more moderate candidates gaining traction in others. And, at least in the short-term, they say that  lack of a unified message is fine.

“For 2018, if I were the party, I’d be pretty optimistic that there will be some bruising primary fights, but for the most part the common enemy of Trump and the Republicans will be enough so that whoever wins those primaries will generally be able to get the support of the vast majority of the party,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “The bigger question is will there be a candidate in 2020 who can bridge this divide and appeal to all different kinds of Democrats, and I think that’s an open question and a bigger challenge.”

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