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Democrats Strategize For Midterms


Democrats are celebrating this week after Conor Lamb's apparent victory over Republican Rick Saccone in a Pennsylvania congressional district that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016. Democratic leaders say that proves the party can be a big tent for centrists and progressives. But many already wonder if that strategy can survive long-term. NPR's congressional reporter Kelsey Snell joins us now. Kelsey, thanks so much for being with us.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Democrats have more candidates than they've ever had before. It's a midterm year, so they don't have to worry about a presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. Why can't they just run their own races?

SNELL: Well, Democratic leaders say they absolutely can, and that's what they're going to do, and that's going to be their not-so-secret formula to take control of the House this year. They're for the first time in a really long time managing races where they get to fine tune and make sure that the candidates fit the district where they'd be representing in a way that they haven't in a really long time.

I just got back from Illinois, where they have a primary next week, and a centrist more like Lamb could lose out to a progressive. It's a safe district for Democrats, but the incumbent is Dan Lipinski. He is one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in the country, and he voted against issues like Obamacare. So I was out there talking to a lot of voters, and even some of his own supporters say having a primary is a good thing because Democrats are, for the first time in a long time, debating a lot of issues. So here's Mary Ann Quinlan (ph). She's a substitute teacher and a volunteer for Lipinski's challenger, Marie Newman.

MARY ANN QUINLAN: We have not had a choice - a real choice - at least in 14 years. So that's - not having a choice makes everybody feel limited, so that's just not healthy.

SIMON: Republicans, and even some centrist Democrats, say that the party runs the risks of being split between two wings, kind of as the Tea Party did to the Republicans.

SNELL: Right. And Democrats I talk to say that's a false question because Democrats have always had a strong and vocal progressive wing, and that just happens to be a bigger part of the party right now. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked about this at a press conference recently. She gave a long answer that was summed up by saying, welcome to the Democratic Party. And here's how she described it.


NANCY PELOSI: It's what we're used to. It's our strength. We're not a rubber stamp. And that's just the way it is. We will never be a rubber stamp.

SNELL: She went on to say that those tensions are kind of essential to the decision making she's overseen, at least since she's been part of leadership since 2003. But it's also been their downfall at times. The dynamics that help Democrats get elected in off years can sometimes make it really difficult to govern or to have strong leadership at the top or unify around a single candidate a few years later when they need to pick somebody for president.

SIMON: Democrats have a lot of movements in the party now - the Resist movement, immigration advocates, gun control advocates, people who just have a distaste for President Trump. Where does the party go from here?

SNELL: It's important to look at two main constituents here, and that's women and black voters. I talked to Emily Cain, and she's the executive director of EMILY's List. They're a group that works to elect pro-choice women candidates. She told me she thinks 2018 is just the start of really big things to come, in particular when it comes to women in the party. Here's what she said.

EMILY CAIN: 2018 is not just a moment. 2018 is the start of a sea change because while we have already launched more than 60 women in campaigns for Congress across the country, there's another 60 or a hundred behind them getting ready to run in 2020 or 2022.

SNELL: So that's who's on the ballot. But when you look at who Democrats need to actually show up and vote on Election Day, one key group is black women. They helped deliver a victory for Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama, and they were a key part of getting President Obama elected. This week, we spoke to one African-American political scientist who said she was concerned that the energy of the Resist movement could cause party leaders to ignore the need to address the needs of African-American voters and other minorities within the party.

SIMON: NPR's congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, thanks so much.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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