The midterm elections kick into gear today as Texas voters head to the polls for the first statewide primaries of 2018. In years past, today's races would have mattered little to a national Democratic Party that consistently fails to compete in the state. But this year feels different because, in many ways, the dynamics at play in Texas are emblematic of what is happening -- for better and for worse -- all over the country.
On the one hand, there are genuine reasons for optimism.
Despite the state's heavy Republican tilt, President Donald Trump's low approval rating among Texans has contributed to a huge enthusiasm gap in favor of Democrats. During the early-voting period, Democrats turned out at more than twice the rate they did in 2014, dwarfing Republican turnout and helping establish a new state record for early voting in a non-presidential election. As Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, warned at a recent gathering of Republicans, many Democrats would "crawl over broken glass" to cast a ballot this year.
For his part, Cruz's favorability is underwater, making his re-election far from a safe bet. He faces a legitimate threat from Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is waging a grass-roots campaign and outpacing the right-wing incumbent in fundraising despite O'Rourke's refusal to accept PAC money. O'Rourke has energized progressives by rejecting the failed establishment strategy of running toward the center, instead taking bold stances on a host of issues, including abortion rights, gun control and health care. Recent polling shows O'Rourke trailing Cruz by just single digits.
Looking farther down the ballot, Democrats have pickup opportunities in three House districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Each race has attracted a competitive Democratic field. Reflecting the national trend of progressive women running for office, each race features at least one female candidate with a realistic chance to win the nomination.
These chances for flipping seats aren't unique to Texas. Across the country, including states and districts that Democrats have written off in prior elections, sustained grass-roots energy is boosting the party's prospects. Yet there is also serious cause for concern, as some Democrats seem intent on sapping that energy in an attempt to reassert control of the party.
In late February, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), House Democrats' official campaign arm, infuriated progressives by clumsily inserting itself in the primary in Texas's 7th Congressional District. Although it's not unusual for party committees to pick sides in primaries, the DCCC took the extraordinary step of publishing opposition research against Laura Moser, a progressive, pro-choice woman who has been a leader in the resistance to Trump. In 2017, Moser drew national attention when she created Daily Action, which enables subscribers to receive a text message every morning with a political action to take that day. But the DCCC disingenuously condemned Moser as a "Washington insider," a particularly rich attack considering the source.
The cheap hit revealed how actual Washington insiders often work in the shadows to undermine progressives. The Intercept recently highlighted a number of primary races in which the DCCC and allied groups have taken sides based on wrongheaded views of candidates' viability that largely come down to their ability to raise money. Also disheartening is that there are several cases of Democratic women attempting to thwart strong female candidates whose opponents are less progressive but more connected to donors. There is evidence suggesting that Emily's List, which works to elect pro-choice women, has endorsed candidates (including one of Moser's primary rivals) on the strength not of their progressive values but of their fundraising potential.
Tensions between the party and the progressive movement are threatening to bleed beyond this year's midterms into the 2020 presidential race. Democratic National Committee members met last week to discuss proposed changes recommended by the Unity Reform Commission that was formed in the wake of the 2016 primary to make the nomination process more open, fair and inclusive of insurgent campaigns and their supporters. A vote on the proposals could come as early as this week, but there is a sense among those close to the debate that the party is unlikely to embrace the sweeping reforms that progressives are pushing for.
Obviously, the establishment is accustomed to winning these fights, even if doing so has caused it to lose elections in the past. But when insurgent forces are mobilized and a new progressive infrastructure is beginning to rise, Democrats should not revive a doomed strategy of excessive caution and deference to the permanent consultant class. They may well never win in Texas or other similar places by quashing the passion of those who have been roused in this past year.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.