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Dana Milbank: Reports of a Democratic party rift are overblown

To peruse the coverage of the Democratic primaries of 2018, you’d think there was a battle royale within the Democratic Party: insurgent vs. establishment, Bernie vs. Hillary, progressive vs. moderate, grass roots vs. party bosses.

There’s been mention of a “battle between progressives and moderates” (the Guardian), a Democratic “identity crisis” (Washington Post), a “full-blown Democratic war” (CNN), a “civil war” (Fox News) and a “fight for the future of the Democratic Party” (BuzzFeed).

But if a civil war has been declared, somebody forgot to tell Democratic voters. They are stubbornly refusing to view 2018 through the progressive/moderate, insurgent/establishment lens.

In the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary last Tuesday, the winning candidate was a progressive darling who also had a lot of establishment support. In Kentucky, a former Marine fighter pilot defeated an establishment favorite in a congressional primary.

But in Texas, a House candidate backed by the Sanders-inspired “Our Revolution” and trashed by the establishment Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went down by a lopsided 2-to-1 margin.

In Nebraska a week earlier, a progressive congressional candidate upset a centrist in a House primary. But in Pennsylvania that same night, two congressional candidates backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., lost to candidates with establishment ties.

Those trying to plot these races on the progressive/centrist axis or the insurgent/establishment axis will have trouble discerning a pattern. That’s because those are false choices this year. Those distinctions are not driving voters in 2018.

Overriding all other considerations this year in Democratic voters’ minds (and candidates’ messages) is stopping President Trump and his congressional enablers. Related to that is the other major influence of this primary season: a huge rise in support for female candidates among men and women alike, likely driven by Trump’s misogyny, the #MeToo movement and Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.

In Texas, the Democratic primary runoff in the 7th Congressional District, in suburban Houston, was supposed to be a Democratic donnybrook, according to the media narrative. The DCCC – aka the establishment – took the unusual step of criticizing candidate Laura Moser because party leaders thought she couldn’t win in November. In response, Our Revolution – aka the insurgents – jumped into the race and attempted to portray her opponent, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, as a tool of the establishment.

But when all the ballots were counted, it was no contest. Fletcher got 67 percent to Moser’s 33 percent. Those who followed the media narrative of the campaign will conclude that this was a major victory for the establishment, and for moderates.

They would be dead wrong.

I didn’t write about the race, because my wife is Fletcher’s pollster. But one piece of Fletcher’s polling, printed here with the campaign’s permission, shows how phony the establishment vs. insurgent narrative was: Likely Democratic voters in the district had a highly positive view of the insurgent Sanders: 74 percent favorable, 15 percent unfavorable. But guess what?

Their view of the establishment doyenne Hillary Clinton was virtually identical: 72 percent favorable, 17 percent unfavorable.

If this was supposed to be a Democratic civil war, Democratic voters were noncombatants.

Certainly, there are policy differences among Democrats, and those will come out whenever they are again in a position to govern rather than resist. But Democrats are more ideologically homogenous than they have been historically. The Southern conservatives are long gone, and there is no equivalent to the “New Democrats” of the Bill Clinton era. The party has been pulled to a populist consensus by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and pushed there by the Trump plutocracy, which has showered riches on the wealthy and the corporate.

Some within the party are fomenting division with litmus tests, such as Tom Steyer’s effort to get Democrats to commit to impeaching Trump. But while 71 percent of Democrats want impeachment, according to last month’s Quinnipiac Poll, there’s little evidence that voters are punishing candidates who don’t commit to what would be a futile gesture without a Democratic supermajority in the Senate.

The left-vs.-center and insurgency-vs.-establishment constructs don’t fit this year. Politico reported recently that Our Revolution is in “disarray,” with “no ability to tip a major Democratic election.” Yet two months ago, after only two primaries, Politico reported that “the Bernie wing” had already won “the battle for supremacy” in the party.

Contradictory? Not really. Populists and progressives are the Democratic establishment now. No insurgency needed. The Democratic donnybrook is a phony war.

Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.