April 29, 2022

A few days ago I wrote about the Utah Democratic Party's decision not to endorse a Democrat in the state's Senate race this year, in the hope that incumbent Republican senator Mike Lee will be unseated by Evan McMullin, a right-centrist independent who says he won't caucus with the Democrats (or with Republicans) if he's elected. Yesterday I learned from a New York Times story that Democrats don't have a candidate in another Senate race, this one in Alaska, where election laws seem to make it possible for a Democrat to win.

In a year when control of Congress is at stake and the Republican Party is dominated by the reactionary right, [Lisa] Murkowski is attempting something almost unheard-of: running for re-election as a proud G.O.P. moderate willing to defy party orthodoxy.

... under a new set of election rules engineered by her allies, Ms. Murkowski does not have to worry about a head-to-head contest with a more conservative opponent. Instead, she will compete in an Aug. 16 primary open to candidates of any political stripe, followed by a general election in which voters will rank the top four to emerge from the primary to determine a winner.
... there is now no Democrat going up against Ms. Murkowski in the race....

Democratic state senator Elvi Gray-Jackson dropped out of the race a month ago. Dr. Alan Gross, who lost the 2020 Senate race to incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, is running for the state's only House seat, against Sarah Palin and dozens of other candidates. In the Senate race,the filing deadline is June 1, but for now the field includes four Republicans, two independents and a Libertarian.

In the 2020 Senate race, Gross lost -- in a conventional election -- with 41% of the vote. It seems to me that a non-partisan primary followed by a general election involving the top four primary finishers could easily end in a win by someone who got 41% of the vote in a previous statewide election. Yet Gross passed on the race and no other Democrat is in.

I understand why. Murkowski's toughest challenger is Kelly Tshibaka, a Trumpist Republican who has written in support of gay conversion therapy and argued that the Harry Potter and Twilight books are demonic. Murkowski is a centrist who sometimes votes with the Democrats -- although the last big vote on which her decision to cross the aisle was decisive was the 2017 vote to repeal Obamacare, when she joined John McCain, Susan Collins, and Senate Democrats to block repeal. She didn't vote against any of Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominees, and her vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson wasn't needed. She's done nothing to break the roadblocks preventing the enactment of most of President Biden's agenda.

Democrats appear to be afraid that the presence of a Democrat in the race will throw the race to Tshibaka. But how much effective difference would a Tshibaka victory make in the Senate? How many times will the outcome of an important vote depend on Murkowski voting in a way that Tshibaka wouldn't? And isn't there a decent chance that a four-way, ranked-choice vote could split in favor of an appealing Democrat?

Is this how the Democratic Party dies? Taking a dive in a race here and a race there, and then eventually withdrawing from more and more contests?

I can easily imagine the 2024 presidential election approaching with the two most likely Democratic presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, still low in the polls, and the most likely alternative, Pete Buttigieg, not particularly popular either. Imagine that Biden and Donald Trump are running again, and because much of the public doesn't want either one to win, a celebrity third-party candidate -- Mark Cuban or The Rock or Matthew McConaughey -- tests the waters and starts doing well in the polls. Or maybe it's an anti-Trump media favorite -- Liz Cheney, John Kasich, Larry Hogan. Imagine there are polls showing Biden trailing Trump in both a two-way and a three-way race, with the third candidate gaining support. Wouldn't a few pundits start suggesting that Democrats consider sitting out the 2024 presidential election, for the good of the country?

I offer these doomy Eeyore scenarios because I don't see Democrats making efforts to repair the brand -- either their party's or the president's and vice president's. I see a handful of Democrats passionately defending our ideals and attacking the actions of Republicans -- Mallory McMorrow and Jamie Raskin most recently -- but I don't see a party-wide campaign that defines Republicans as the extremists they are. Right now, Democrats are doing the same things over and over again -- struggling to pass bills, limiting their midterm pitch to kitchen-table issues on which they're not really delivering -- while expecting a different result.

Democrats need to make big changes. They need to learn how politics works in the 2020s. Unless they do that, they'll continue being asked to politely step aside in more and more races. Without a course correction, it might not be long before there's hardly any Democratic Party left.

Republished with permission from No More Mister Nice Blog.

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