How mainstream Democrats are flexing their muscle in 2021

The first five months of President Joe Biden’s term show the moderate wing of the Democratic Party still has a lot of juice left.

We see that in the Senate, where moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are standing in the way of major filibuster reform.

But it’s not just in Congress.

Democrats have or seem poised to choose moderates over more progressive opponents in some key primaries, which shouldn’t be surprising — Democrats throughout the nation are not looking to take the Party in a more liberal direction.

A lesson we’ve learned over and over again is that Democratic voters are more moderate than commonly assumed. In our CNN/SSRS poll taken in late April, 55% of Democratic voters (including independents who lean Democratic) said they were moderate. Only 25% called themselves very liberal. Even combining the very liberal with somewhat liberal gets you to just 43%.

These numbers haven’t changed in the last two years, so it does not seem Democratic voters are becoming more liberal in the last two years.

Democrats on the whole seem fairly pleased with where the Party is. The vast majority (80%) say the Party is going in the right direction compared to 9% who believe it is going in the wrong direction in Quinnipiac University’s latest poll. There are more than twice as many (22%) dissatisfied in the GOP with the direction that their Party is going.

The truth is that Democrats don’t want the Party to head in a more liberal direction. A Gallup poll taken at the beginning of the year found that 34% believe the Party should become more liberal, 34% said it should be more moderate and 31% argued it should stay the same. Previous polling that didn’t give the option of staying the same showed “more moderate” beat out “more liberal.”

Again, this differs from the Republican Party, where members are considerably more likely to say they want the Party to move to the right (40%) than move to the middle (26%).

Indeed, Biden won the 2020 primary betting on the fact that Democrats were different than Republicans in how they chose a candidate. It’s a bet he won.

This year, it’s a bet a lot of Democrats are winning in state and local primaries.

A few weeks ago, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe easily won the Democratic nomination for the state’s governorship. He took 62% of the vote, while no other candidate reached even 20%. Lee Carter, a self-described socialist, won less than 3%.

McAuliffe is a former head of the Democratic National Committee and had been called an “establishment corporate” Democrat by the Virginia Justice Democrats. Of course, McAuliffe had the advantage of name recognition and of formerly being governor.

Still, throughout Virginia’s other primaries, progressive challenges often fell short. As The Washington Post pointed out, a number of more liberal delegates in the state’s lower legislative body were defeated last Tuesday.

This isn’t just a Virginia story. Gov. Phil Murphy, a mainstream Democrat, didn’t even face a primary challenge in New Jersey on Tuesday. The latest polling has him up by more than 20 points in the general election.

The patterns seen in New Jersey and Virginia were apparent earlier this year when Troy Carter beat Karen Carter Peterson in a special election to represent Louisiana’s 2nd district in Congress. Peterson had the backing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC.

Perhaps the greatest test of moderate pushback will be this upcoming week in New York City, the country’s most populated city. Eight years after Bill de Blasio won on a left-wing platform, moderates have been leading in most of New York City’s Democratic primary polling. In fact, of the four candidates in the best position to win, only Maya Wiley (endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is in the more liberal camp of candidates.

If one of the more moderate candidates (Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia or Andrew Yang) emerges victorious, it shouldn’t be surprising.

The Biden brand of Democratic politics is popular within the Party. Through the first months of his administration, Biden has had the highest approval rating for any Democrat within their own Party since polling began.

He has this higher approval, perhaps in part because most Democrats view him as moderate. In fact, more voters see Biden as moderate than they did the last Democratic president, Barack Obama.

The bottom line is that, while the Democratic Party has some prominent left-wing voices, the power within the Party lies closer to the center for now. That makes it very much unlike the Republican Party, where the voice of the more extreme Donald Trump is dominant.

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