WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Democrats may have scored a significant win this week when Conor Lamb apparently beat the Republican candidate in the traditionally red 18th District in Pennsylvania. Lamb made a successful appeal to voters in the district, pulling in the labor vote, Democrats and Independents while explicitly distancing himself from the party's leadership in Washington.
The fact that Lamb told his constituents he would not support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as his party's leader and won has reignited criticism of the Democratic leadership, with some saying the party needs spring cleaning: out with the old and in with the new.
Democrats have lost the last four elections in the House of Representatives. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, the Democrat who challenged Pelosi for the leadership position in 2016, warned that the party's national brand was "toxic" and that if they wanted to start winning elections, they needed a shake-up at the top.
The Democratic Party has also gotten noticeably long in the tooth. While younger members have been elected in recent years, the average age of the party's congressional leadership is 72. The average age of the GOP congressional leadership is 48.
Pelosi, who will turn 77 later this month, has also been an albatross Republicans have tried to tie around their opponents' necks, to paint them as far-left and out of touch. That's what the national Republican Party tried to do in Pennsylvania, to little effect, as well as in Georgia's unexpectedly close special election.
Pelosi has regularly fought back against the idea of stepping down. When asked about Conor Lamb's win during a Thursday news conference, Pelosi insisted, "I don't think that he ran against me the entire time." Moreover, she said, "We won the race."
Dan Glickman is a former Democratic congressman from Kansas who was something of a political anomaly. He was elected in 1976 in a district that hadn't elected a Democrat in decades.
"Any institution has to renew itself, that's just the way of the game," he said, adding that the party leaders' age is not as important as "how new you think."
With a midterm election coming up in November that looks to favor Democrats, probably not an immediate desire to change the leadership. Of course, that could change after November.
"Their choice is how long should and can they hang around in the role of being leaders in their respective positions and their respective parties," Glickman continued. "And at some point, as the old Kenny Rogers song goes, "You gotta' know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
A NEW GENERATION OF MODERATES?
This year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the party's fundraising arm, outlined a strategy to contest almost every district, including Republican strongholds. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the chairman of the DCCC told NBC News that the party was putting up candidates to challenge all but 12 of the 238 seats currently held by Republicans.
In order to win those seats, Democrats will need to run targeted campaigns focused on the constituency they are trying to serve, Glickman said. Pushing a national agenda focused on social or cultural issues may work in some districts that are traditionally more safe for liberals, but it will likely backfire in the districts that Democrats hope to win.
"For a Democrat to win a lot of these contested seats, they have to appeal to Independents and get some Republicans as well. And the only way to do that is to have a moderate voice," he added.
If it seems like politics is becoming more divided in recent years, it's because it is. A 2017 Pew Research poll found that the partisan divide in the country grew between the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump era. Republicans and Democrats are even more divided on major political issues.
Moreover, in the past four election cycles, Washington has seen many of its moderate members go extinct. When Democrats lost the House in 2010, and gave up more than 50 seats to Republicans, they also lost dozens of their most moderate members. The Blue Dog Democrats went from a caucus of 58 to only 34.
In 2018, with a highly volatile political environment, strategists on both sides of the aisle are seeing signs that the upcoming midterm election could begin a trend where candidates move away from traditional party orthodoxy and the political extremes and more toward the center.
Candidates that are more outside the norm of a traditional liberal or traditional conservative, like Lamb, are doing well in part because voters are no longer looking for the norm, explained Republican strategist Shermichael Singleton. "They no longer want what has been tried and what is considered true, because what is tried and considered true, for a lot of people, has failed. And that's for both sides."
The 2016 election was a case in point for the Republican and Democratic parties, he continued. Both had a "cookie-cutter approach" to selecting a candidate who wouldn't "buck the norms," could gain the support of the party elites, raise money from the traditional base.
"What you're beginning to find it that's just not working anymore," Singleton said. "If that were the case, Trump would not have had a chance of winning the presidency."
Traditionally the Democratic and Republican parties have used have used litmus tests or ideological tests when deciding whether or not to give financial support to a candidate. Those tests typically include social or cultural issues, such as abortion, guns, discrimination or immigration policy.
Erich Reimer, a conservative commentator who used to be a Democratic youth organizer, explained that the litmus tests that have favored "hard-left" candidates may work in some districts, but overall, it is not likely to help them in 2018.
"I think trying to adopt a national brand down to each district no matter how variant, it might make a more coherent Democratic brand. As an electoral strategy, I don't think it will be too effective," he said.
Reimer, who left the party when he saw it moving too far to the left, said that the Democrats are having an internal struggle. "We could see a return to the center for the Democratic Party that's been facing an internal challenge from the hard left for the last few years," he said, referring to the rise of the self-styled Democratic Socialist, Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The ultra-progressive approach might appeal to the base of the party and is often a driving factor in contested primaries, but Glickman says it doesn't appeal to the vast majority of Americans who he believes are centrist, or moderate.
"A moderate is not only in substance, it's in style. And right now our style in politics is hostile, it's vitriolic and I think the public is tiring of that," he explained. "The debate in politics and in Congress, in particular, has been hot, hot, hot and it needs to cool down. Then I think you will get more people finding that builds trust in the political system—and that is true on both sides of the aisle."
According to the University of Virginia Center for Politics, there are at least 22 Republican House seats that are toss-ups in this year's election. In a generic ballot, Democrats had a 9-point lead at the beginning of March. Republicans are also fighting against the historic trend that the party that controls the White House tends to lose seats during the midterm.