Democrats win in Kentucky, Virginia, but Tom Perez is looking to 2020

Why We Wrote This

At a Monitor Breakfast for reporters, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez took a victory lap after Tuesday’s election results. But next year’s presidential race could challenge Democrats’ unity.

Timmy Broderick/The Christian Science Monitor
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, praised party unity and candidate quality for Tuesday’s results at The Monitor Breakfast.

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On the heels of an apparent gubernatorial win in deep-red Kentucky and the capture of both legislative chambers in Virginia, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez was praising party unity.

“Our unity is our greatest strength as a party, and it’s Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” Mr. Perez said at the Monitor Breakfast Wednesday. 

But the big unity test awaits. Forces pushing and pulling on party cohesion are testing the Democrats in ways that have been building for years but could reach full flower next year. 

For now, Democrats are united in one key way. Last week, all but two of 234 House Democrats voted to approve the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

But beating Mr. Trump next November could well be difficult, especially if the Democrats nominate a candidate deemed too left-wing. Already, intraparty debates over key policies – on health care, immigration, the Green New Deal, foreign policy – threaten to fracture the party and damage its chances. 

“Behind the scenes there’s this low-grade civil war going on,” says Democratic strategist Jim Manley.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was all smiles Wednesday morning when he sat down for a Monitor Breakfast with reporters.

Democrat Andy Beshear of Kentucky looked set to beat the state’s unpopular Republican governor, Matt Bevin, by more than 5,000 votes – an upset victory, if it holds, in a state that voted for President Donald Trump by 30 percentage points. At press time, Governor Bevin had yet to concede, and a review of the Tuesday vote was underway. 

Democrats also turned Virginia blue, winning majorities in both legislative chambers and giving Gov. Ralph Northam unified party control of the state for the first time since 1993. 

Mr. Perez praised party unity and candidate quality for Tuesday’s results, as well as last year’s midterms, and played down the Republican sweep in Mississippi and all other statewide races in Kentucky.

“Our unity is our greatest strength as a party, and it’s Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” Mr. Perez said. 

But the big unity test awaits: the 2020 election and the crowded, ideologically diverse Democratic field. Forces pushing and pulling on party cohesion are testing the Democrats in ways that have been building for years but could reach full flower next year. 

For now, Democrats are united in one key way. Last week, all but two of 234 House Democrats voted to approve the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Almost all Democratic senators, in the event of an impeachment trial, are expected to vote to convict – though as it appears now, Mr. Trump is highly unlikely to be removed from office prematurely. 

“Presumably, sometime within the next six months, the Democrats will have agreed on a nominee, and they have a lot of incentive to unite behind that nominee,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “They are highly motivated to unseat Donald Trump.” 

Beating Mr. Trump next November could well be difficult, especially if the Democrats nominate a candidate who many members deem too left-wing. The intraparty debate over key policies – on health care, immigration, the Green New Deal, foreign policy – could fracture the party at a time when it needs unity most. 

Mr. Perez asserts that the big, diverse Democratic presidential field is a plus, that debate is healthy, and that the candidates have agreed to support the eventual nominee. 

“Every candidate running for president understands that this is not about them,” Mr. Perez said. “This is about our democracy at a critical inflection point. And that is why I asked every candidate not only to pledge to support the nominee, but to pledge to actively campaign for the nominee.”

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who had raised suspicions that she might run as an independent, took that pledge “enthusiastically,” Mr. Perez said. “She told us, ‘I am not running as a third-party candidate.’”

Mr. Perez also says all the candidates have agreed to deploy top aides to help the eventual nominee and, perhaps most important, share their voter data. That final point – sharing data – is something Bernie Sanders didn’t do when he lost the 2016 Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. 

Some Democrats are concerned that a nominee who is too left-wing – or a self-identified democratic socialist, as with Senator Sanders – could damage the party’s chances across the board. 

“Behind the scenes there’s this low-grade civil war going on,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, what do his folks do? If Elizabeth Warren gets the nomination, how much angst does that cause to Democrats?” 

Mr. Manley points specifically to the debate over health care policy, and Senator Warren’s proposal to institute Medicare For All, which would eliminate private insurance and cost $20.5 trillion over 10 years. 

“Obviously, Republicans will have a field day, but it could also be a disaster for down-ballot Democrats,” Mr. Manley says. 

Republicans who oppose Mr. Trump are also concerned about the Democrats’ ability to weather the coming 2020 storm. 

“They need a strategy to beat Trump,” says Rick Tyler, former aide to top Republicans and a Trump critic. “The strategy isn’t getting into the mud with Trump or complaining about who he is and how he acts.”

Mr. Perez doesn’t believe in unilateral disarmament when it comes to fighting Mr. Trump. “I’m not going to go to a knife fight with a spoon,” he said. But he also says he subscribes to Michelle Obama’s maxim, “When they go low, we go high.” 

“My variant on that is when they go low, we go vote,” he said. “When they go lower, we make sure that everyone around us can vote who’s eligible to vote.”

Mr. Perez pointed to Mr. Beshear of Kentucky, currently the state’s attorney general, as a model for how to go up against a Trump-like candidate and come out on top. “Read what he said last night,” Mr. Perez said. “He wants to take care of the least of Kentuckians, and he has a proven track record of doing that.” 

Another challenge for Mr. Perez is fundraising. The DNC has fallen far short of the Republican National Committee on that score, but Mr. Perez insisted the party is doing fine. On the question of whether the DNC would greenlight a corporate-funded super PAC to help the party, he suggested not. 

“We have been very clear that we don’t take money from organizations that are inconsistent with our values,” he said. 

Allies of former Vice President Joe Biden recently filed paperwork to set up a super PAC that would be funded by wealthy individuals and corporate donations, with the Biden campaign’s blessing. 

“Every candidate has to run the campaign that he or she believes is best for them,” Mr. Perez said. 

In New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary on Feb. 11, voters expressed concern about party unity. 

In the debates, “they’re eating their own young,” says Fred Ferris, a voter from Saco, Maine, who came to Rochester, New Hampshire, to hear Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar speak.

Mr. Ferris says he will vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is – a common sentiment in New Hampshire. 

There’s also a practice among seasoned political operatives in New Hampshire of reaching out to losing candidates as well as their staffers and supporters, in the name of party unity. 

“We will be the people who will soothe egos,” says one operative, who did not want to be named. “We all live in the same towns. Those are our neighbors that might be disappointed.”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report from Rochester, New Hampshire.

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