Nancy Pelosi survived her leadership election and will continue to lead House Democrats in the next Congress. But the fact that she received a credible challenge, who was supported by one-third of her members, is yet another sign that the times have changed for the Democratic Party.
For the last eight years, Democrats have enjoyed watching the greatest show on Earth: the Republican Civil War. Democrats could grab a bowl of popcorn, sit back, and watch the Republicans eat themselves alive in primaries.
Meanwhile, Democrats boasted about their ability to avoid messy situations. Pelosi, New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, President Barack Obama and a handful of others had the luxury of moving the pieces on the board and everyone falling into place.
But “winter is coming” for the Democrats (to borrow the “Game of Thrones” line) and tougher times are ahead.
The best recent example is probably Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Amidst all the noise of the election cycle, it’s easy to forget the fact that an old, white guy (who isn’t even a Democrat) took Hillary Clinton (from one of the most powerful Democratic families in a generation) to the brink of the presidential nominating process. Sanders bucked the Democratic Party establishment, even antagonized it, and found considerable success.
In the Senate, young Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was told to step aside for former Gov. Ted Strickland in Ohio. It didn’t faze Sittenfeld that the establishment, including President Obama, backed Strickland. Sittenfeld lost the primary (65 percent to 22 percent) but must feel vindicated by Strickland’s 21-point loss to GOP Sen. Rob Portman in a general election race that was decided weeks before Election Day.
The so-called Democratic establishment also opposed former Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Rep. Alan Grayson in Florida. Neither man was deterred and continued their spirited challenges to the point that the DSCC had to spend money to make sure they didn’t win. Establishment favorites Katie McGinty and Patrick Murphy won those primaries with 43 and 59 percent of the vote and each lost the general election in November.
Each time a party is out of the White House, there is no clear leader. The out-party wanders in an electoral wilderness in search of ideological and strategic direction, and a standard-bearer. That’s where Democrats are headed.
The growing division within the party is likely to manifest itself in primaries.
With a large class of Senate incumbents seeking re-election in 2018, the Democratic Party might see more fireworks in House races where candidates are jockeying to challenge GOP incumbents. Taking on a sitting senator is simply a higher threshold and the intraparty angst may not be at that level yet.
But Democrats will be out of the White House for at least four years, so there is time for the division to escalate.
Winter is coming.