In the wake of stunning losses across the country in 2016, Democrats are debating whether their path back to power runs through renewed appeals to their core voters or winning back those who have abandoned the party in recent years.
The debate is at times invoking racial and class divides that have increasingly come to dominate American politics, and defined the Democratic Party’s failings in 2016.
On one hand, minority voters who propelled Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE to the White House turned out at far lower rates last year. On the other, working class white voters who had historically voted Democratic have been fleeing to the GOP for years.
In California, the race to replace retiring Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is a three-way affair that has recently centered on a proposal to create a single-payer health care system — dividing the three leading contenders in a fight that they say is about class.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, has embraced a proposal passed by the California Senate last year that is criticized as “snake oil” by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), who suggests it is designed more to earn headlines than to affect change.
State Treasurer John Chiang (D), the third top candidate, has also been skeptical.
Both Villaraigosa and Newsom have used the fight to accuse each other of representing elite limousine liberals while leaving working class Californians behind.
In Georgia, the two Democrats running to replace term-limited Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) illustrate another part of the party’s divide. The contenders, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both say their party has lost its way, though for very different reasons.
Abrams, the state House minority leader, has focused her appeal on minority voters she says are ignored by Democratic partisans until just weeks before Election Day.
“The Democratic Party has to reaffirm and actually invest in the voices that are consistently a part of our victories,” Abrams said in an interview. “We cannot modify our message and modify our principles to try to appeal to a different community.”
Evans, a former state representative who hails from the mountains near the Tennessee-Georgia border, says her party has not reached out to more rural voters, who long voted Democratic before aligning with the Republican Party in recent years.
“We have, as a party, unfortunately started talking about why the other side is bad and not focused on what it is we’re going to do, what are we going to do for families,” Evans told The Hill. “The path to victory in Georgia is with a little bit of everyone, and I don’t think that folks are all that different, whether they live in downtown Atlanta or whether they live in the mountains of Georgia where I’m from or whether they’re on the coast.”
The contest also has a racial undercurrent: Abrams is African-American, and Evans is white. At a gathering of progressives organized by the Daily Kos blog earlier this year, a number of black protestors demonstrated during Evans’s speech, a confrontation that has opened a rift between the two Democrats.
Prominent African-American leaders like Rep. John Lewis (D) and the Rev. Joseph Lowery back Abrams; former Gov. Roy Barnes, the last Democrat to win the executive mansion, backs Evans.
In California, the death of the single-payer bill in the state Assembly, over concerns that it did not contain appropriate funding mechanisms, sparked a massive political battle between the state nurse’s union — which backed Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign in 2016 — and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D).
While Sanders has introduced legislation to create a single-payer system at the federal level, Newsom says his state shouldn’t wait.
“There’s no reason to wait around on universal health care and single-payer in California,” Newsom told the California Nurses Association last month. “You have my firm and absolute commitment as your next governor that I will lead the effort to get it done.”
Villaraigosa’s camp sees their candidate’s differences with Newsom as representing a broader debate. They say the focus should be on the Affordable Care Act, which many poor and lower middle class people in California now depend upon.
“The debate between Newsom and Villaraigosa reflects the broader debate about the priorities of the party,” said Luis Vizcaino, a Villaraigosa spokesman. “Villaraigosa’s strongest supporters are middle-class, working-class, and even poor Californians who will suffer the most if the [Affordable Care Act] is repealed. Newsom is appealing to the Tesla drivers — the coastal progressive elites who can afford an ideological battle with less consequence.”
Newsom’s camp offers no apologies for his advocacy for what they see as more revolutionary policy.
Villaraigosa “took L.A. to the verge of bankruptcy because he was busy promoting himself and cashing in with courtside Laker tickets and other illegal gifts,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for Newsom’s campaign. “Voters know it takes courage to make meaningful change and they like that Newsom has delivered historic results on ambitious goals.”
Chiang has portrayed himself as more in Brown’s mold, the cautious steward of California’s fiscal health. Chiang supports the concept of a single-payer system, but he has raised questions about funding and cost containment.
A spokeswoman for Chiang’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
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The differences on policy are relatively minor — just as some argue they were in last year’s presidential primary between Sanders and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE.
“The Democratic Party has gotten a lot more united over the last generation,” said Thad Kousser, who studies state and local politics at the University of California-San Diego. “There’s no split on abortion. There’s very few splits on gun control. There are very few splits on the environment.”
The minor differences on policy reflect a party that is much more homogenous ideologically than it has been in decades past.
“What defines a progressive? Is it the social issues, is it the economic issues? In the Democratic Party, it’s rarely clear cut,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. “Look at Clinton and Sanders. Bernie was the progressive candidate, but there wasn’t a whole lot of policy differences between them.”
At the same time, there’s a more substantive divide on what political approach will work in the Trump era.
“These are skirmishes being fought on a very narrow battlefield. This is not the DLC Democrat versus the Labor Democrat. Nobody’s fighting over something as big as welfare reform,” Kousser said. “You have candidates who really aren’t that different in positions, but they’re trying to strike major differences in tone.”