Commentary Magazine


Will Democrats Have Their Own Tea Party?

With the help of a massive campaign contribution by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, gun control advocate Robin Kelly won the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed Jesse Jackson Jr. The result is reason for Bloomberg to crow, but any attempt to interpret the victory of a liberal candidate in an Illinois Democratic congressional primary as a harbinger of a shift in American politics is obviously a stretch. The infusion of more than $2 million into a contest to win what amounts to an urban rotten borough was simply a matter of cash and carry. The fact that Kelly’s opponent once got an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association was motivation enough for Bloomberg to get involved–but even if he hadn’t stepped in, no one who hopes to represent that district was going to be anything but liberal.

As Seth wrote yesterday, figuring out exactly what Bloomberg is up to with his donations is no easy task. But whatever direction the mayor takes, the example of his decisive intervention in a primary battle could turn out to be more influential than it might seem on the surface. Just as conservatives and Tea Party activists have helped shift the Republican Party to the right with threats of primaries funded by outside activists with deep pockets, what Bloomberg has done is to illustrate that liberals can play the same game with similarly problematic consequences for the Democratic Party.

We’ve spent much of the months since November listening to an endless loop of pundits telling the public that the problem with the Republican Party is that conservatives hijacked it. Republicans who worry about Democrats permanently capturing the center, as well as liberals who don’t wish the party well, have joined in lamenting the influence of conservative donors and activist groups who have financed primary challenges to moderate GOP incumbents. The result is that several winnable seats have been lost by Republicans because of the primary victories of people like Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin. Tea Partiers can answer, with justice, that establishment Republicans were beaten just as soundly as the right-wingers. But it is hard to argue with those who point out that at times the activists have prioritized ideology over electoral sense.

Democrats have looked on at this growing civil war on the right with smug satisfaction. The more the Club for Growth and other conservatives seek to target moderates while Karl Rove and his crowd counterattack, the better they like it. The prospect of the GOP being torn apart by the two factions is fueling Democratic optimism about the 2014 midterms. However, Bloomberg’s decision to turn the Jackson seat into a primary on gun legislation is a sign that Democrats are just as vulnerable to being led down the path of internecine combat as Republicans.

In the past few election cycles, the Democrats have shown greater unity than at perhaps at time in their recent history. They won back control of Congress in 2006 specifically by recruiting moderates to run in the South and the West where traditional liberals would have no chance. That’s left them with seats to defend next year in red states in which their priority must be to hew to the political center rather than to pander to their party’s base.

But if liberal activists are going to really prioritize their campaign for gun control, the result may well be that red-state Democrats who have voted with the NRA are going to be facing some well-funded primary challenges.

The reason why the president’s gun control legislation, including an assault weapons ban, has no chance even in the Democrat-controlled Senate is that many in the majority don’t wish to vote on any bill that will put them out of step with their state’s voters. That means that any trend toward primary challenges to pro-gun Democrats will not just divide their party, but hurt their chances of holding onto the seats that have enabled them to be in charge of the upper body and to gain ground in the House.

An obsession with political purity is not the sole preserve of the right. Should other liberal donors follow Bloomberg’s example and start investing in efforts to purge pro-gun Democrats, they may well be as successful in determining their party’s nominees as he was in Chicago. But when that experiment is applied to seats in competitive districts, the result will be just as disastrous for Democrats as some of the Tea Party’s victories have been for Republicans. Far from welcoming Bloomberg’s deep pockets and obsession with gun control, liberals should realize that he is showing the way toward a more Republican future.

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