Grass-roots Democrats are getting mad at their party’s leaders, and their dissatisfaction might soon find an outlet. In Florida, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is facing a high-voltage primary challenge for her House seat, in what is effectively a referendum against the direction taken by the party leadership in recent years.
Much of the anger at Shultz stems from what critics see as her mishandling of the Democratic primary debates. Supporters of candidate Bernie Sanders accuse Wasserman Schultz of scheduling as few debates as possible and contend that the ones she scheduled often took place at odd times that seemed designed to minimize viewership — during college football games or on holiday weekends.
This can be read as an effort to help Hillary Clinton, whose 2008 campaign Wasserman Schultz managed. Former candidate Martin O’Malley went so far as to accuse the chairwoman of “rigging the process and stacking the deck.” And even if that’s not true, the lack of Democratic debates ceded the public spotlight to the Republicans, allowing them to propagate their conservative ideas while Democrats took a backseat. According to Nielsen ratings, the combined viewership of the debates before the Iowa primaries were 42.5 million for the Democrats and 116 million for the Republicans.
As Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel argued, “The lack of debates is already inflicting needless damage on both the party and Clinton.” A number of DNC officers have broken into open dissent against Wasserman Schultz. As Bloomberg Politics reporter John Heilemann wrote, those officials say she is “endangering Democratic prospects in 2016 and beyond.”
Amid this controversy, Wasserman Schultz is facing her first primary challenge since her election to the House of Representatives in 2004. Her opponent, law professor and financial-reform lobbyist Tim Canova, is taking up the banner of grass-roots Democrats eager to push back against what they see as a pro-corporate, rightward drift in their party.
If his insurgent campaign catches on, it could represent a serious problem for the Democratic Party establishment. It could signal an increasing willingness by grass-roots activists to use primary challenges to place champions for working people in office rather than accept lesser-evil candidates simply because they are incumbents.
Inside the Beltway, the idea of challenging incumbent candidates is generally frowned on. The reasoning is that it makes little sense to rock the boat: A diffident ally is better than a victorious opponent. This logic has permeated many of the most important constituencies in the Democratic Party, even those that are routinely taken for granted by the Democratic establishment.
The labor movement is a great example. For unions, endangered by declining membership rates, retaining Democratic government is a matter of life or death. President Ronald Reagan inaugurated an era of union busting with his handling of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981, and President George W. Bush hastened unions’ decline by appointing management-friendly officials to the National Labor Relations Board. Knowing that Republicans want them dead, most unions today have opted to stick with Democratic insiders, even if those politicians have failed to champion workers’ rights or have opposed labor’s agenda on issues such as neoliberal trade deals.
Yet the logic of the lesser evil can stop making sense, particularly if your ostensible ally starts acting like an opponent. That’s what Canova claims happened with Wasserman Schultz.
He said repeatedly that he decided to run only after lobbying Florida’s congressional delegation to vote against fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a corporate-friendly free trade agreement that the Economic Policy Institute argues will depress wages and accelerate the decline in U.S. manufacturing. Of the politicians in the delegation he contacted, Wasserman Schultz was the only one who supported the deal. As he explained to journalist Glenn Greenwald, her ties to business lobbies make her “the quintessential corporate machine politician.” The success of Canova’s primary challenge will hinge on whether union members and progressive Democrats in her district see themselves as being taken for granted and act to change it.
The idea of an anti-establishment challenge to an incumbent leader has precedent on the other end of the political spectrum. In 2014, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to a little-known tea party challenger. Politico described that shocking Virginia primary race as “completely upend[ing] the GOP hierarchy in both Virginia and Washington.” And on the Democratic side, Matt Cartwright defeated four-term Rep. Tim Holden in a Pennsylvania primary in 2012. Holden voted against the Affordable Care Act. Cartwright is arguing for a stronger National Labor Relations Board and for raising the minimum wage, and as a member of the committee investigating the Flint water crisis, Cartwright is calling for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to appear before Congress.
By demonstrating to incumbent politicians that their party affiliation is not enough, primary challenges can be a very effective way of influencing the direction of the national party. And by providing core constituencies in the party a forum where they can’t be taken for granted, primary challenges show how party building in a democracy ought to work: from the bottom up.
As a point of strategy, primary challenges should be part of a wider effort by unions and progressive groups to revamp their electoral efforts. Instead of just lobbying existing leaders, these groups should be vetting and cultivating their own candidates to run for office, starting at the local level and continuing up the chain of government. The key measure of a politician’s suitability should not be whatever fickle promises they make on the campaign trail but the candidate’s track record of seeing social movements as vital partners in governing.
Of course, when it comes to national races, primary challenges have to be carefully selected to make sure they are strategically viable. Nevertheless, an increasing willingness on the part of local organizations to use these challenges is a good sign. While embracing the lesser evil tends to produce a disengaged base, demanding accountability even of incumbent politicians is a recipe for revitalization. And the excitement around the Florida race, which may shake up the Democratic Party leadership, is exhibit A for this case.