After the 2016 presidential election, which widened the gap between the party’s progressives and moderates, Tom Perez was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee. He regularly had to juggle the demands of left-leaning and centrist sections during his four years as the organization’s leader as Democrats fought to regain control of both Congress and the White House.
Now, as Perez makes his own bid for governor of Maryland and the Democrats he supported in Washington struggle to advance their programme, an unexpected development is taking place: The ideological conflicts that have dominated Democratic primaries for the past four years are waning in the Perez race and others, and voters are looking for candidates who can address issues like inflation, climate change, and a sclerotic political system. Experience and background are therefore becoming more significant.
After gathering his campaign volunteers in front of an early voting location in this Washington suburb, Perez told reporters, “The questions voters are asking now are really based around who is battle-tested to handle, to multitask on these issues.” It comes down to having the ability to both dream and act, to describe a vision that is in line with my principles while also completing tasks.
Ideology is not entirely unimportant. In order to make endorsements and expenditure decisions, elected officials, unions, and well-funded outside groups continue to research candidates’ stances on important topics. Some elections, particularly for deep-blue House seats, are still devolving into progressive vs. moderate wars.
But this state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary shows how ideology has lost ground. Perez, CEO and author Wes Moore, and former state comptroller Peter Franchot are the three candidates in a crowded field who are regarded to have a chance of winning. The contenders have battled more about who is most equipped to lead the state than they have over finer points of policy, despite the fact that Perez and Moore are slight to Franchot’s left.
In one of his advertisements, Perez states, “I’m from the GSD wing of the Democratic Party,” clarifying that “GSD” refers to “Get shit done.” In the advertisement, Perez pledges to concentrate on defending abortion rights, cutting the cost of prescription pharmaceuticals, and increasing voting rights while ignoring more expensive issues like “Medicare for All” or free higher education. Other advertisements refer to his previous roles as the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a local elected figure.
Other Democratic primaries, such as those for the Florida governor’s office, the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin senate races, and the governor’s campaign in Wisconsin, have repeated this emphasis on electability and biography.
That represents a significant shift from four years ago when the contests for governor of Florida, Nevada, and Michigan all featured stark ideological contrasts. Progressive former NAACP leader Ben Jealous and the more centrist Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker fought it out for the Democratic nomination in Maryland. Jealous made bold proposals, including as legalising marijuana and providing community college for free, whereas Baker made more consistent, realistic promises.
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Democratic operatives and candidates noted a wide range of factors that have contributed to the fall in ideological conflicts: Voters are more interested in quick fixes, like lowering gas prices, than long-term goals, like Medicare for All, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the economic setbacks that have accompanied and followed it. Furthermore, the Democratic Party’s seeming unity under President Joe Biden’s leadership, which was mostly supported by two Democratic senators, has made the ideological divides seem surmountable.
When pressed to distinguish himself from the crowded field—there were once 12 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination—Moore quickly resorted to his background. Jealous has endorsed Moore, whose own invocations of “great ideas” and a “bold future” may sound familiar.
“I’m not an official by profession. Moore, making a not-so-subtle reference to Perez and Franchot, said in an interview, “I’m not someone who’s been campaigning for government for the previous 40 years. “I’m someone who has worked in and with communities to bring about significant change for my whole career.”
For the 43-year-old Moore, the emphasis on biography has been a double-edged sword. His impressive background includes Rhodes Scholar, Army combat veteran, Wall Street professional, bestselling book, TV show host, and nonprofit CEO. Oprah Winfrey has endorsed him, and Democrats are speculating that his political career has a very high ceiling. A Winfrey-narrated advertisement concentrates almost entirely on his biography.
Winfrey says in the advertisement, “A life spent uplifting others.” The kind of transformational leader that today’s world needs.
But his opponents have consistently said he has exaggerated his resume, pointing out that he has claimed to be a resident of Baltimore despite having only lived there briefly while a college student and failing to correct interviewers who misquoted him as having gotten a Bronze Star. (Moore has vehemently rejected all accusations of impropriety.)
In contrast to Moore, Perez stated, “I’ve been Senate-confirmed twice.” “I’ve run twice for office. 2016 has seen my evaluation for the vice presidency. I won’t spend the general election campaign defending an action I took or didn’t take in the past.
The 74-year-old Franchot, who has been the comptroller since 2006 and previously served in the legislature for decades, is the candidate who previous voters are most familiar with.
In one of his advertisements, Franchot states directly to the camera, “Experience matters,” before pledging to lead the state through what he claims would be tough budgetary times in the future.
There hasn’t been a lot of public polling done on the contest. The election could be won with less than 30% of the vote due to the large number of undecided voters and the crowded field, which includes former Education Secretary John King and former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler.
About 600,000 voters are expected to cast ballots in this election, with up to half doing so via mail. However, because of a veto from GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, election officials cannot even begin counting mail-in ballots until Thursday, thus it is unlikely that Democrats will find out the outcome until next week.
Perez, who held the position of labour secretary at both the state and federal levels, is relying on the support of numerous unions to win the election. He has received support from numerous Communication Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Service Employees International Union, and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees chapters.
Along with a number of Latino organisations, he also enjoys the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (whom he memorably defeated to become DNC Chair in 2016), and others.
However, Moore has prevailed in a large number of endorsement contests despite having significantly less political experience than his rivals. He is supported by more members of the state legislature than Perez or Franchot, three members of the state’s congressional delegation, and the Maryland State Education Association, whose well-known “apple ballot” influences the voting habits of many suburban voters.
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Maryland was Biden’s to win by 33 percentage points in 2020. The state is politically favourable for Democrats because it has one of the highest college-educated populations in the nation as well as one of the largest Black populations. Hogan, though, is still incredibly well-liked in this region, and Martin O’Malley is the only Democrat to have won a governor’s campaign this century.
Republicans are dealing with a difficult primary of their own, with Kelly Schulz of Hogan’s camp running against Dan Cox of Trump’s camp. Democrats would rather take on Cox, whose unwavering support for Trump is likely to turn away voters who have previously supported both Biden and Hogan.
In terms of governor’s contests, Perez argued, “I don’t think you can legitimately pretend that we have nothing to worry about.”