Things are certainly going the Democrats’ way so far in the 2018 elections. They seem poised to win a majority in the U.S. House and possibly even the Senate, and to win back dozens and dozens of other offices they lost in 2010 and 2014. But there’s still plenty of time for the party to sabotage itself.
The sheer number of people seeking to run creates a two-stage trap for Democrats. If they nominate the wrong candidates, they could lose races they should’ve won. If they elect the wrong candidates, it will be harder to capitalize on any electoral gains by making governing harder.
The primaries for the 2018 primaries are coming. Texas kicks it off in only eight weeks, on March 6, followed by Illinois on March 20.
Republicans just served a reminder of how poor primary decisions can lead to worse electoral outcomes for a party: Against all odds, they lost a U.S. Senate seat in deep red Alabama. With enthusiasm is at record levels, Democrats are competing in places they tended to write off as unwinnable. Now we’ll see how they manage that enthusiasm.
Parties generally control subpresidential nominations by flooding resources (money, technical expertise, quality staff and consultants, volunteer time, and more) to favored candidates. Ideally, they “clear the field” by withholding resources from other potential candidates, leaving only the party’s choice to run in the primary election. However, it’s a difficult strategy to execute when different factions of the party network disagree on the best candidate. And that’s going to be the case in many House districts and other jurisdictions in 2018 because political parties are organized more from the bottom up than the top down.
Democrats have five candidates on the March ballot seeking to oppose Republican incumbent Will Hurd in Texas’ 23rd congressional district. Seven more are lined up in the state’s seventh district to take on John Culberson, a potentially vulnerable Republican. I live in the 21st, where Republican Lamar Smith’s retirement opened up a potential upset and four Democrats are vying for nomination. Smith was re-elected without any Democratic opposition to three of his last seven terms.
So what can go wrong?
Local Democrats in some of districts across the country have little experience dealing with multicandidate primaries, so buffoons and other kinds of poor candidates can sneak through. The chances of flukish or essentially random results can be fairly high, especially with little media coverage and limited spending in many cases even from party-favored candidates.
The party must also worry about candidates with unpopular policy positions winning the nomination. It’s one thing if the party collectively chooses to change policy positions as part of some broader strategy. But large primary fields increase the odds of victories by fairly small but intense factions. And especially in swing districts and Republican districts temporarily vulnerable because of Trump’s unpopularity, that could have significant costs in the general election. It’s possible some anti-Trump Republicans would be willing to vote for a relatively moderate Democrat but wouldn’t be willing to support one who campaigned as a Bernie Sanders supporter. Republicans likely to stay home out of frustration with Trump could be energized by a very liberal Democrat.
And there is a related but more serious problem: the (seemingly) small group of Democrats that seeks to elect radicals, mirroring conservatives in the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus.
If nominated, it’s not clear that those candidates would have any immediate electoral disadvantage. But elected officials who reject compromise and spend their time seeking to expose alleged quislings in their own party (even if they have to take increasingly more extreme positions themselves to draw out distinctions) would create significant problems down the line. And elevating a faction that embraces those tactics would have important and troubling implications for future nominations, including the selection of presidential candidates.
The counterweight against all of this is supposed to be that dedicated party actors, within and outside of formal organizations, have strong incentives to find winning candidates who can then enact the party’s agenda. And that may well prevail. After all, it appears that Virginia and New Jersey Democrats successfully nominated strong candidates for governor and other offices in 2017, and Democrats also appear to have had solid candidates in 2017 special elections.
But there are a lot of elections happening in the coming months. Party coordination is always difficult in U.S. primary elections, and the difficulty increases when there are unusual circumstances. The 2018 flood of candidates is certainly unusual. So I’ll be watching the March primaries carefully to see how Democrats are managing it.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.