Balancing Act: The path ahead for the Democratic party

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., center, speaks during an abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, as the Supreme Court hears arguments in a free speech fight over California’s attempt to regulate anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It’s that time of year again. With the 2018 election season officially kicking off in Texas just a few weeks ago and in Illinois just a few days ago, the “blue wave” so widely heralded should roll in soon.  For those especially optimistic, it already did. But the two elections represent a struggle for power in the Democratic Party. Big money is flowing, and heads are butting.

Leading the progressive charge is Kirsten Gillibrand, junior senator from New York. Launched into the limelight in mid-December by the innuendo-laden tweets of President Trump, her political career started as an uphill battle. Entering the ring in 2006 against John E. Sweeney, a Republican from New York’s 20th Congressional District, she won all major counties. That includes Saratoga Springs, Troy, Rensselaer and Dutchess County. Only Delaware and Green County went to Sweeney. 

Was she welcomed with open arms? Not quite. Her peers in the House consistently demeaned her as “Tracy Flick”, the “hyper-ambitious” blonde (read, woman) from the movie Election.  And yet, she filled Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination sit at the front of her political agenda. To quote Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz, “She was taking on powerful men and calling out sexual harassment and assault long before there was a hashtag.” Over the past year alone, she called for fellow senator Al Franken to resign. She argued that President Clinton should have stepped down from office over his sexual misconduct. And she came out swinging against President Trump, backing his accusers.  Most importantly, Senator Gillibrand is beginning to wield her influence, positioning herself as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

In the Texas primaries, she endorsed and contributed to seven female candidates. Each one emerged victorious. And who did they face in their primaries? Candidates with the full backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, also from New York and regarded as the head of the Democratic Party. In the Texas 29th District, Gillibrand endorsed Sylvia Garcia. Schumer endorsed Tahir Javed, a major Democratic donor and health care executive. Garcia won 63 percent of the district vote.  Needless to say, Gillibrand flexed her political muscle, and won outright. Gillibrand 1, party establishment 0.

Gillibrand’s Off the Sidelines PAC (Political Action Committee) backs more than 50 female candidates across the country, raising her national profile. In Illinois, that included Marie Newman, challenger to Representative Dan Lipinski of the 3rd District. Lipinski is known for his anti-abortion views, placing him directly in the sights of progressives. Last Tuesday, however, the Democratic machine proved victorious. Marie Newman lost. But the dynamism of Gillibrand’s PAC combined with EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood ensured it was by a razor-thin 2,000 votes.  In fact, the sheer scale of progressive activism forced SBA List — a group that backs anti-abortion candidates a — to come out in full force for Lipinski. The group used 70 volunteers to target 17,000 voters, knocking on over 26,000 doors.  The scorecard changed. Now it’s dead even at 1-1.

The next round of primaries is in May. The battle for Democratic leadership will continue in West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas. If the party continues down the road of corporatism and backs more executives, donors and line-towing candidates, there is no beating President Trump in 2020. Forget about 2024. The energy of the voters is in progressive movements. The money and power of the politics are in traditional Democrats. But if Gillibrand expands her PAC further, and racks up more victories, that could change. Imagine the political capital she would garner by linking with groups that came out to bat for Newman in Illinois. Spearheading such a formidable coalition would pose a serious threat to Schumer. And Gillibrand is not alone. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, of Massachusetts and California, respectively, are embracing the call for change as well. But given Gillibrand’s history of punching above her weight and winning fights she picks, she is well-placed to politically advance the progressive cause. Make no mistake, this battle is just beginning.


Shankara Narayana is a contributor for The Daily Campus. They can be reached via email at shankara.narayana@uconn.edu .
 

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