Primary showdowns highlight tensions over Democratic Party identity

The party faces something of an identity crisis in the midterm elections.

Democratic divisions that have simmered in the party since the 2016 presidential election are starting to boil over in primary contests across the country as the party struggles with identity without a clear leader.

Party leaders hoped their base would respond enthusiastically to Donald Trump's presidency with a rush to the polls to usher in their candidates.

The party faithful have rallied and showed up to the polls but there's been an unexpected side effect -- the progressive wing is fired up and that has brought out a crop of insurgent candidates to run against establishment favorites in key House races across the country.

“There’s also a different view of what the party should be,” Rutgers University professor David Greenberg said of the divisions among the Democrats. “Should it be a big tent or should it be a more single-minded ideological party?”

Those divisions will meet on the field of battle on Tuesday night in Illinois, with a primary contest in the 3rd Congressional District that features Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski being challenged from the left by progressive candidate Marie Newman.

And the rifts in this race have split the party.

Unions are split between the two contenders with teachers and service workers backing Newman while Lipinski has the firefighters, the police and labor groups.

And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is staying out of it.

Primaries from Washington state to Pennsylvania are featuring similar dynamics.

The party's moment of self-reflection comes as it wrestles with decisions over which candidates to support in contests that Democrats ultimately hope could help them take back control of at least one chamber in Congress.

Democratic National Committee members, party stalwarts, members of Congress all seem to have different answers when asked who they see as their party’s standard-bearer.

Some even joked about it.

“You take 10 different Democrats you’ll get 20 different answers. That is just the way it is,” said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler.

“I see myself as one of the leaders within the Democratic Party. I am not the leader. I’m not sure which article I can use,” he joked. “But in all sincerity, there’s not a leader. We’re fortunate as a party to have leadership at every level.”

The party does have a lot of big names and is dispatching them in areas where they are most useful.

“They speak to different audiences and they have different personalities, different backgrounds,” Fowler said of the party’s diversity of the leadership.

It’s also an answer that may not have to be solved this year.

While Democrats are trying to flip 24 seats to win control of the House of Representatives and are defending 24 Senate seats, a national message may not be as important in these contests as it is in a presidential year, when the faithful need to rally around a standard bearer to be their White House nominee.

Greenberg said it’s “best for the party” in House races this cycle to have representatives that fit the makeup of the district.

“You have to allow the different elements of the Democratic Party to support who they want. It only gets to be a problem really when you have statewide or especially national elections. Then you do have to have a fight. There’s really no way around it,” he said.

Lamb would fit the argument of a Democrat who fits the district. More of a Blue Dog model than a liberal one, Lamb supports gun rights, supported Trump’s position on tariffs and said he personally opposes abortion.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois who holds a seat Trump won by one point in 2016, said those type of candidates give her hope the party can retake control the House.

“We just have these candidates that are a perfect fit for their district and I think we’re going to be successful. I don’t know if I’ve ever really said that. Even last election cycle I hedged it,” she said.

But there are concerns the lack of a leader could mean a lack of a consistent national message.

Harold Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff and current member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, said the party being anti-Trump won’t be enough for the upcoming elections.

He argues “it’s the economy that’s going to be critical going into ’18 and 2020.”

He noted that “the fact is real wages are beginning to inch up. People have gotten bonuses and it’ll be a very strong issue for the Republicans. And so far we don’t have an economic message that is understood and compelling.”

Republicans, in contrast, believe their tax-cut message will carry through tough elections, particularly in suburban districts held by their party that Democrats are targeting.

Then there’s the danger the opposition will define leadership for the Democrats.

And Republicans seemed to have picked Pelosi.

Several attack ads in the Pennsylvania contest tied Lamb to the Democratic House leader, despite his repeated comments he would not support her for leadership.

Plus, Trump has taken to mentioning her by name in his stump speeches, using her moniker to rally the party’s base.

Pelosi, who is known to have a thick skin, shrugged off the GOP attacks.

“They're coming after me because of my city,” she said on Thursday at a news conference in the Capitol.

“Whoever the leader is, will be the target,” she said. “That's just the way it is.”