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Democrats’ familiar debate: Left or center?

Posted on August 2, 2021

OpinionColumns

Gary Pearce

Gary Pearce

The headline raised the dreaded “c-word” that deeply divides Democrats — centrist: “Jackson projects centrist platform in NC campaign for Senate.”

Jackson is state Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte. The story was by Will Wright in The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, who wrote:

“(Jackson’s) primary message is rooted in the idea that he can restore a sense of professionalism and honesty to Washington that some feel has been lost. He couples that message with policy points that most moderate Democrats support: passing new voting rights legislation; ending gerrymandering; and supporting the right of workers to form unions.

“But it is unclear if moderate campaigns will lead the Democrats to success in the upcoming midterms.”

Also unclear is whether Jackson embraces the “centrist” and “moderate” labels. But the story shows that centrist vs. progressive will be one frame for the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 2022.

The same divide marked Democrats’ 2020 presidential race. Centrist Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders, a “democratic socialist.”

A recent New York Times analysis of data from the Pew Research Center concluded that Biden’s “apparent strength among traditionally moderate or even conservative constituencies, and especially men, is emerging as one of the hallmarks of his victory” in November.

Those groups included married men and veteran households — “probably not the demographic groups that Democrats assumed would carry the party to victory,” the Times noted.

Trump won married men in 2020 by 54-44%, a 20-point decline from his 62-32% victory in 2016. He won veteran households by 55-43%, down 14 points from 61-35% in 2016.

The Times said: “The data suggests that the progressive vision of winning a presidential election simply by mobilizing strong support from Democratic constituencies simply did not materialize for Mr. Biden.”

Looking at the same Pew data in a different way, The Washington Post concluded that independents and suburban voters swung the election to Biden: “Pew’s figures show Trump winning independents by a single point in 2016…. Biden then won them by nine points.

“The battle for suburban voters, long the key geographic battleground in presidential elections, went decisively for Biden, by Pew’s findings. Trump won them by two points in 2016. Biden carried them by 11 points in 2020.”

The data has disquieting news for Democrats: Trump gained among Black and Hispanic voters. Biden won both groups, but Trump got 12% of the votes of Blacks under 50 (compared to 4% of Blacks 50 and older). In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Hispanics by 38 points. Biden carried them by 21 points, according to Pew’s findings.

Race and gender also will define the Democratic Senate race here. Jeff Jackson is white; two other leading candidates are Black women, former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and former state Sen. Erica Smith.

Some Democrats believe the key to victory will be to register and mobilize new, progressive-minded voters — most of them young, Black and Hispanic. Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham lost the 2020 Senate race by fewer than 100,000 votes, even after his personal scandal.

But does that strategy jibe with the reality of President Biden’s victory in 2020, in both the race for the nomination and the November election? Moderate voters swung both contests to a candidate who some progressive Democrats viewed as out of date and out of step.

It’s a familiar Democratic debate: go left or go down the middle? It will get a new hearing in North Carolina in 2022.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-84 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com. 

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