The Battle For The Democratic Party's Soul: A Retrospective

A look at how the much-hyped fight played out (with help from the HuffPost FDR zombie meter).
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez (left) and Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, who's also a congressman from Minnesota.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez (left) and Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, who's also a congressman from Minnesota.
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

Since Donald Trump won the presidency, the Democratic Party has found itself embroiled in a custody battle of spiritual proportions, pitting insurgent progressives against establishment types over what the press and other observers can’t help but label a battle for its “soul.” What “Dems in Disarray” was to the 2000s, the current throwdown for the party’s immaterial being has become this era’s tired shorthand for Democratic infighting and ideological uncertainty.

It’s notable that a party regularly derided by its opponents as godless and altogether spiritually bereft is spending a lot of time fighting over that most religious of things.

″[T]he party’s left flank is convinced that a full embrace of progressivism is the only way to return to power, and it is ready to fight for the party’s soul,” wrote The Hill’s Ben Kamisar in March, 2017.

“The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party Begins,” blared the headline in a February 2017 Vanity Fair article about the party, going so far as to affix “Dems in Disarray” to the piece.

These battles, wrote The Washington Post’s Robert Costa early this year, “could have sweeping implications for the future of Congress and the political soul of the party as it barrels toward November and then the 2020 presidential election.”

The examples are endless. And while establishment Democrats may have more than held their own, as HuffPost Kevin Rollibard has noted, insurgent progressives prevailed in a number of high-profile contests, particularly ones with soul-level stakes.

So with primary season finally behind us, let’s turn to the fight over the incorporeal vessel of the Democratic Party’s everlasting essence and see just which skirmishes over the ghostly manifestation of its eternal nature were the most … soulful.

Feb. 25, 2017: Chair of the Democratic National Committee

The custody fight over the party’s soul began shortly after Trump’s election, the battle lines seemingly drawn even before the final departures from Hillary Clinton’s election night party. Without a Democratic president-elect to name a new chair of the party, such responsibility would fall on the shoulders of the DNC’s 447 voting members.

In a social media-laden, post-“Citizens United” age that has given rise to a constellation of dark money groups and other well-funded outside stakeholders, it might seem that a party apparatus doesn’t wield as much influence as it once did. But while it is true the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms are much diminished, the DNC still exerts outsized influence. It’s arguably the party’s switchboard, serving as the most prominent nexus of Democratic campaigns, consultants, contractors and donors.

Suffice it to say this one was a full-blown tug-o-war for the party’s soul. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota was the favorite of supporters of the ‘16 presidential campaign Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) had waged while former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez was the choice for many allies of Clinton and former President Barack Obama.

“Whatever happens, much of the party’s soul-searching will play out in its pick for chair,” Sam Frizell wrote in Time.

While progressives did not lose their battle for “the soul of the Democratic party,” Kate Aronoff wrote in The Guardian, “it did suffer a blow.”

Perez ended up narrowly defeating Ellison, but quickly tapped his challenger as the party’s deputy chair. ”[T]here will be a continuing saga of efforts made, accepted, or rejected to put this contest behind a party that needs a breather from any struggle for its soul,” Ed Kilgore wrote in New York magazine after the vote.

Such a breather wouldn’t materialize.

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 4 Zombie FDRs


June 13, 2017: Virginia Gubernatorial Primary

The contest between former Rep. Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov Ralph Northam presented a particular state’s Democratic voters the first chance to decide just which wing of the party would lay claim its soul, like some kind of Dementor with a flag pin.

Perriello remained a hero to the left flank: he supported Obamacare during his one term in Congress, a move that many attributed to his loss in the 2010 tea party wave. After Congress, Perriello further entrenched himself in the left, heading up the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. Though Perriello was not without blemishes on his progressive record ― he voted to restrict abortion access while in Congress ― he was far to the left of Northam, who voted for George W. Bush for president twice.

The Atlantic labeled the Perriello-Northam faceoff “A Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” CNN said the contest would be the “first battle in [the] war for the party’s soul.” Writing in The Washington Post, Republican operative Erich Reimer called the race a “struggle for the soul” of the Democratic Party.

In the end, endorsements from major progressives like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) weren’t enough for Perriello, who was handily defeated by Northam. (Northam went on to easily win the general election in November.)

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 1 Zombie FDR


May 22, 2018: Georgia Gubernatorial Primary

Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, mounted an aggressively progressive campaign in the heart of the old Confederacy against a more moderate challenger, former state Rep. Stacey Evans. Abrams’ campaign also carried with it an undeniably powerful narrative: if elected, she would be the first black woman governor in U.S. history.

The National Journal played all its chips months before the primary, declaring it in a December headline definitively “The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party,” not simply a battle for that much sought-after soul.

A few months later, describing how progressives viewed a potential Abrams primary win, Molly Ball wrote in TIME that it “would be a victory for the left in the war for the soul of the Democratic Party.”

That a progressive Democrat would win a gubernatorial race in a state where Dixiecrats (i.e., staunch conservative southern Democrats) had once ruled supreme and where not that long ago one of its Democratic senators backed George W. Bush in his presidential re-election campaign was stunning. Yet it was never really much of a contest and Abrams trounced Evans, winning more than three-quarters of the vote.

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 2 Zombie FDRs


June 26, 2018: New York 14th Congressional District Primary

Until the votes were counted on primary night, New York’s 14th Congressional District didn’t factor heavily into the national debate over the Democratic Party’s soul. True, many progressive activists and a handful of media outlets were tuned into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent and deftly run campaign against incumbent Joe Crowley. But the rest of the media and political world mostly tuned it out

As it turned out, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, scored the primary cycle’s biggest upset with her defeat of Crowley, who had been a leading contender to eventually replace California’s Nancy Pelosi as the leader of House Democrats.

What the primary lacked for soul-searching in its lead-up, it more than made up for in its aftermath. Arguably no other race this cycle has led to more debate over the party’s soul than this one.

“Who will win the war for the soul of the Democratic Party?” read the title of an Op-Ed in the Washington Post urging California Democrats to heed the lessons of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. “The soul-searching within the Democratic Party that, to date, had played out largely on the sidelines was thrust into the spotlight on Tuesday in a series of primaries that amounted to arguably the best night for progressives this year,” announced CNN after Ocasio-Cortez’s win.

The hot-take oven was put into overdrive, as pieces about Ocasio-Cortez’s impact on the battle for the Democratic Party’s soul became inescapable. Truly, it amounts to a most soulful chapter in the Democratic Party’s history.

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 4 Zombie FDRs


Aug. 28, 2018: Florida Gubernatorial Primary

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s come-from-behind victory to claim the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the Sunshine State was arguably the most portentous of the cycle.

Gillum, who trailed the front-runner, former Rep. Gwen Graham, in polling leading into Election Day, managed to mount a grassroots campaign in one of the country’s largest (meaning most expensive) states that also sports one its most diverse Democratic electorates. It was a remarkable feat of coalition building in a state that doesn’t always make such things easy.

The battle between Gillum and Graham, a Tallahassee resident representing a more centrist, establishment form of Democratic politics, was widely viewed as a real soul showdown (souldown?).

“Tallahassee’s top two politicians now find themselves diametrically opposed in a battle for the soul of Florida’s Democratic Party,” The Tampa Bay Times asserted. Allies of Gillum’s campaign made a point of framing the primary as just that.

As if all that weren’t enough, CNBC reported that Gillum’s victory set up “a heated fight for the soul of a swing state” against Republican nominee Ron DeSantis.

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 3 Zombie FDRs


Sept. 4, 2018: Massachusetts 7th Congressional District Primary

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley managed to pull the rug out from under an entrenched lawmaker, 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano. Unlike the New York race, however, this wasn’t as much a contest of ideology as it was of perspective and background.

Capuano has been one of Congress’ most liberal members, supporting, among other initiatives, Medicare-for-all. But the crux of the race came down to whether Capuano had grown increasingly out-of-touch with his majority-minority district, perhaps best exemplified by his objections to NFL players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial and social inequality.

Though the Democratic Party’s soul was not so much at play form a policy perspective, that didn’t prevent some on the left from framing the race as a contest for the future of the party and how it will represent a country that demographers predict will soon be majority-minority.

“This is a fight for the soul of our party and the future of our democracy,” Pressley told reporters after voting. “Ayanna Pressley Wins a Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party,” blared one headline in The Nation.

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 2 Zombie FDRs


Sept. 13, 2018: New York Gubernatorial Primary

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long been a source of consternation for the Democratic Party’s left flank, who regard him as an opportunist whose progressive accomplishments are undermined by his cozy relationship with Republicans at the statehouse in Albany. It’s a frustration compounded by a widespread belief that Cuomo will readily betray his base in exchange for some centirst optics to tout as a presidential candidate.

Naturally, actress and longtime progressive activist Cynthia Nixon’s primary challenge to Cuomo was met with tremendous excitement on the left: Here was a candidate with high name recognition, solid policy chops and, most significantly, an unabashedly progressive platform.

You better believe this was going to be a real soul throwdown. Axios, as is its wont, delivered a characteristic “Be Smart” proclamation about what was at stake: “The bottom line: This race is another battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.”

Nixon lost to Cuomo by a wide margin. But even in defeat, that pesky matter of the party’s soul remained up for grabs.

“This race for the nomination may be over, but the fight for the soul of the Democratic party is just beginning,” Nixon said in her concession speech.

“Democrats struggle for the soul of the party as midterms approach” Newsday declared following Nixon’s defeat.

So this you can take to the bank ― if Cuomo does make a 2020 presidential bid, this won’t be the last he’ll hear about the party’s soul.

HuffPost Patented Democratic Soul Battle-Meter©: 2 Zombie FDRs

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