Primarying Tim Holden: Why Not?

Rich has a good post up arguing that Democrats shouldn’t primary Tim Holden in the new 17th District. There are a number of persuasive points here, but my bottom line is that Blue Dog Democrats should always face primaries. In my view, a primary is almost always preferable to no primary, because it makes for more competitive politics. We need more choices in the political market, not fewer. If Tim Holden is really the best fit for the district, he’ll win. If Democratic primary voters like his opponent better, he’ll lose. But in every election, I think people should have a clear choice in the primary and again in the general.

The problem with the Democratic Party in the Obama era is that the leadership acts like they’re more afraid of losing general elections to Republicans than losing primaries to progressives.

Almost everything the party did wrong the past 3 years can be attributed to Democrats in Congress failing to get to the left of Obama. On issue after issue, Obama’s pre-compromised position became the left anchor of the debate, and then things got steadily shittier as they got closer to passage. I am getting real tired of that!

I want a House that gets out on Obama’s left in his second term and makes his campaign positions look like the moderate centrist positions.

The only way that can happen is to make sure every Dem seat is held by the most progressive candidate who can win in that district. And the only way to do that is with more primaries. If Rich thinks that a Blue Dog like Holden is the most liberal guy that can get elected in the new 17th, I don’t necessarily disagree, but we should find out with a competitive primary in 2014.


  1. It’s all about the PVI. If you’re in a D+8 district and you’ve got a Tim Holden, you need an immediate primary. If you’re in an R+3 district and you’ve got a Tim Holden, you should be pretty freaking happy. Blue Dogs are obviously frustrating, but even most of them vote the Democratic line 90% of the time — and that’s way better than a progressive beating the Blue Dog in the primary, then losing the seat to a Republican that votes for progressive issues 0% of the time. Also, even if the incumbent Blue Dog pulls it out in the primary, they’d obviously have to run left to compete for the Democratic votes, which would be great in the long run if they won the general, but scary if it’s going to be a close race anyway against a Republican. Could mean the difference.

    Obviously, this is all person-by-person and district-by-district, but I think always-having-a-primary logic is a bit flawed.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I still don’t think ideological effects matter nearly as much as people think. More often I think elections boil down to what low-info swing voters think about “The Democrats” or “The Republicans” in that particular year, rather than the actual issue positions candidates have taken. Even if somebody runs as a conservative Democrat, the Republican candidate’s going to run ads saying they support all the more unpopular left wing positions, and the percentage of swing voters willing to Google whether or not it’s true is going to be vanishingly small. I think Dem politicians need to be more cynical about how much voters are really paying attention to their platform and just do what they really believe.

      The real source of my frustration here is that I’m hearing too many left wing Dems saying they’re not going to vote because Democrats aren’t doing what they want. To me, this represents a failure on the part of Democratic activists to use primaries enough. Primaries work. If you successfully primary enough Dems, they will be more worried about primaries, and start voting more left wing. But every time you bring up primaries on the Dem side, all these people want to pop up to wring their hands about it. I think it’s bullshit. Yeah we’ll break some eggs and lose some general elections over the years but so what? This is what it takes to push American politics to the left over the long-term, and we should start doing it.

      • But the big difference is that people who vote regularly Democratic that say they’re not going to vote almost always do. Things get heated towards the end, and they do it — almost 100% of the time for the Democrat. When regular voters are undecided, though, they do *not* break to the left.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          What positions though? Abortion? LGBT issues? I could see those still mattering in some districts. But there’s no evidence that supporting action on climate change, for instance, hurts Democratic candidates. Or we’re never going to have another health care fight as big as the one in 2010. There’ll be contentious Medicare stuff, but nothing where Republicans are saying the Democrat wants to upend 20% of the economy. As it stands, the main issue I see dividing Blue Dogs and real Democrats is jobs. Blue Dogs want to join Republicans in cutting spending, and real Democrats don’t. So I really don’t see what the advantage of electing a Blue Dog instead of a Republican is supposed to be. Yes, you’ll get a different Speaker and that matters a lot. But I want Democrats who are going to be there on the jobs votes and don’t want to reduce the deficit at all in the years between 2011-2015.

          • A Democrat for single-payer or strict gun-control laws would get destroyed in an R+X district, likely by those positions alone.

            It’s still about having somebody that will vote with Democrats 90+% of the time versus somebody who will vote with Democrats 0% of the time — no matter how much I hate Blue Dogs; they weaken and compromise down things that I don’t want them to, but they don’t outright kill it.

          • Jon Geeting says:

            I don’t think anybody’s going to be running on that stuff in 2012. Dems know they’ve lost the 2nd amendment fight, and who is still talking about single-payer besides Kucinich and Sanders? The only way I see that coming up again is if the Supreme Court shoots down the ACA, in which case the only option left to universal health care supporters will be single-payer. What I want to see Dem primary challengers running on in 2012 is more job creation, more infrastructure, and not giving any quarter on the (correct!) point that cutting the deficit now means higher unemployment. I don’t think that message would cost anybody significant support from swing voters.

  2. A primary challange makes for a better general election candidate. It forces a candidate to engage voters and flesh out their postions.
    Holden’s new district went 57% for Obama in ’08. He needs to re-evaluate. A primary challange from the left should shake him up a bit, even if he is victorious in the end.

    • I agree that it usually makes the candidate better, but it doesn’t necessarily make them more electable in a General. Pending on the district, they move left in the primary, then they’re stuck with positions that are easier to exploit come the general. And specifically to Holden, there’s more to look at than 57 percent for Obama in the new district — don’t forget that in the (old) 15th Congressional District (which was D+2), Dent ended up with more overall votes than Obama did.

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