With 27 GOP-controlled governorships up for election in 2018, national Democrats envision the midterm elections as a chance to rebalance the scales at the state level, where there are currently twice as many Republican governors than Democrats.
But already, party leaders are running into a complication — unresolved issues left over from the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders presidential primary. Far from defeated, Sanders-aligned progressives are nationalizing their fight, showing less patience than ever for Democrats who don’t agree with them. And that’s generating fear and nervousness in the South — in places like Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — where some promising Democratic candidates who are looking at running statewide in 2018 could face resistance from the left.
“Here’s the challenge in many Southern states now: You have a more liberal primary base, because the more moderate voters are less likely to participate in Southern primaries, so it makes it more dicey. That certainly presents an opportunity for candidates who want to make a point rather than win an election — those candidates are less likely to be successful in a general election,” said South Carolina’s last Democratic governor, Jim Hodges. “In Southern states you’re going to need candidates who have more moderate stances to be successful.”
No Sanders-wing candidates have declared their candidacies yet in these Southern races. But the ambitions of Sanders’ post-presidential political operation, Our Revolution — and the wake of the Tom Perez-Keith Ellison proxy battle for the DNC chairmanship — has establishment-oriented Democrats worried about the prospect of grueling primaries or policy litmus tests in a region where the party can least afford to be divided.
“It is critical to recognize that there is a different set of policy issues in the Deep South that are not in play in the coastal areas or the West,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a likely 2018 gubernatorial candidate, pointing to organized labor’s historic economic centrality in parts of the Midwest, and its relative absence in the South, as an example.
“My hope is that Our Revolution — or anyone else — will understand that purity to a progressive ideal does not [necessarily] mean purity in service of the community,” she added.
People close to Sanders’ political arm insist there’s no evidence that the group or its affiliates will try to mount candidate challenges or ideology tests — especially not in the Southern states where the senator was squashed by huge margins in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and where his relationship with local leaders has been strained.
After Sanders lost across the South by wide margins — from North Carolina by 14 points to Mississippi by 66 — in early 2016, party chairs and top regional officials sent him a stern letter asking him to stop minimizing Hillary Clinton’s wins there by characterizing the South as especially conservative. That dismissal of Southern primary results was viewed as a diminishment of the importance of African-American voters, who make up much of the Southern Democratic electorate.
Among Sanders loyalists, though, there’s disbelief and frustration that other Democrats remain wary of their movement, rather than more eager to channel its energy and money.
“The party needs to not see the progressive, Bernie wing of the party as a problem, but rather see it as an asset,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior Sanders advisor. “The fact that, broadly speaking, candidates and operatives in the establishment wing see the Bernie wing — the activist part of the party — as a problem? That’s a problem in and of itself.”
Georgia state Sen. Vincent Fort, the Our Revolution-backed candidate for Atlanta mayor who made waves during primary season for switching from Clinton to Sanders, said the party establishment still fails to understand or believe in the power of Sanders-style grassroots organizing.
“What people have been talking about, they talked about it last year, and the discussion of it this year is increasing, is 2017 and 2018 are part of a whole, that we need a progressive mayor elected in Atlanta in 2017 as a prelude to electing a Democratic governor in 2018,” he said. “We need a progressive Democrat running in 2018, somebody who understands that trying to be Republican-lite is not a way to get elected. … I anticipate this playing out in the primary, I know progressives are going to say, ‘which of the candidates is a real progressive? Which candidate can we depend on to remain progressive?”
With Republicans in near-unified control of every governorship and legislature in the South, the region remains little more than an aspirational target for national Democrats. But the emergence of strong potential gubernatorial candidates like Abrams and former state Sen. Jason Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, in Georgia, and former Nashville mayor Karl Dean in Tennessee, has spurred hopes that a 2018 snapback election framed as a Trump referendum could sweep out some Republicans associated with him.
That’s also the hope in South Carolina, where GOP Gov. Henry McMaster was one of candidate Trump’s loudest early supporters.
“I hope all of these [progressive] groups will go out and help recruit candidates, because the hardest job for any party is recruiting candidates: there’s no mythical candidate tree where you can go and pick candidates. So they can help fill some of the holes we have,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, who is considering a governor run of his own. “I’m looking for who’s going to be my gubernatorial candidate here in South Carolina: I’m looking for someone who can reflect the values of our party and energize our base, but also who can win. So I don’t know if there needs to be a litmus test.”
In several states, establishment efforts to work with Sanders backers are picking up. Georgia Democratic Party chair DuBose Porter noted his vice chair for recruitment was a Sanders supporter. And candidates such as Florida’s Andrew Gillum are openly courting the Sanders wing — the Tallahassee mayor is speaking to his state’s Democratic Progressive Caucus later this month.
“No one should be afraid of folks with differing views or differing stances on policy. We’re all in the same party,” said Tennessee Democratic Party chair Mary Mancini.
These Democrats believe that as Sanders turns his movement toward near-term battles — he was in Mississippi for a unionization drive last weekend — his supporters’ firepower can be directed toward 2018.
“Our Revolution has expressed interest in having a 50-state strategy, and while their depth of field in the South is weaker than in the coastal areas, any group that can generate additional voters is a benefit to candidates in 2018,” said Abrams. “There is a specific group of non-engaged midterm voters who I think were animated by Senator Sanders’ campaign and who could tip the balance, especially in states like Georgia where you’re talking about a narrow window of 200,000 voters.”