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Democrats continue makeover of party

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Associated Press

WASHINGTON

The Democratic makeover is in full swing.

With just a few primaries remaining before the decisive midterm elections in November, voters have dramatically reshaped the Democratic Party to become younger, more diverse and unquestionably liberal.

The latest turn came Tuesday in Massachusetts, where Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, 44, trounced 10-term congressman Mike Capuano, 66, in a Democratic primary. It reprised a June primary upset in which self-proclaimed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, toppled New York congressman Joe Crowley, one of the House Democrats’ top leaders. They join minority candidates like Democratic gubernatorial nominees Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida and a host of younger white candidates – including dozens of women and a gaggle of veterans – who are offering voters an antidote to President Donald Trump.

“We are at a crossroads,” Pressley declared during a party unity rally Wednesday. “This can be our darkest hour or it can be our finest.”

Outsider candidates are taking on establishment-aligned Democratic incumbents in the final primaries of the season over the coming week in states such as Delaware and Rhode Island.

Victories by candidates such as Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez have generated substantial grassroots energy. But they’ve also raised questions about whether the party will be able to compete in broad swaths of the country, a potential vulnerability Republicans are eager to exploit. There’s also debate over what a younger, more diverse class of lawmakers might mean for the fate of congressional leaders such as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and potential 2020 presidential candidates who are older and white, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

“2020 is going to be about who voters want best to stand up to Trump and to take on Trump,” said Ben Tulchin, who worked as a pollster for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016. “You’re going to have to have an authentically progressive message and to be able to communicate that.”

For now, Democratic leaders are embracing the enthusiasm of their base – even as it’s unclear where it will lead.

“The energy and momentum and the strength is clearly on our side,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There’s nothing more unifying than winning back the House of Representatives and restoring checks and balances.”

Democrats’ leftward lurch looks different contest to contest. Capuano and Crowley are reliable liberals, but Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez often go further, with full-throated calls for single-payer government health insurance and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Coming from heavily Democratic districts, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez won’t determine whether Democrats pick up the 23 new seats necessary for a House majority. But they will affect the makeup of the Democratic caucus and what its priorities might be on issues from health care and immigration to potential impeachment proceedings against Trump once a special counsel investigation presents its findings.