WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Centrist Democrats were wiped out in the 2014 elections and in their absence emerged a resurgent liberal movement, embodied most recently by the surprisingly competitive presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But the suddenly ascendant left — its populist overtones becoming part of the mainstream Democratic pitch — is worrying Democrats who want to compete on Republican-leaning turf. The party lost every competitive gubernatorial and Senate race in the South last year. And Democrats didn’t fare much better in the heartland.
Now, as Bernie Sanders’ surge foreshadows a new burst of progressivism, moderate Democrats are looking to their counterparts in Washington with a plea: Don’t freeze us out.
“The national Democratic Party’s brand makes it challenging for Democrats in red states oftentimes and I hope that going forward, the leaders at the national level will be mindful of that and they will understand that they can’t govern the country without Democrats being able to win races in red states,” said Paul Davis, who narrowly failed to unseat Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback last year.
Davis and his ilk were partly victims of a historically dismal year for Democrats, who saw their gubernatorial ranks fall to 18. Their candidates were weighed down by perceptions that President Barack Obama was too liberal. Now, Democrats in red states are worried that the party’s shift toward an even more polarizing, populist tone could turn off the swing voters they need to mount a comeback in 2015 and 2016, when a handful of GOP-tilted states with Democratic governors are on the ballot.
“It’s important that the Democratic party be ‘big-tent,’” said Vincent Sheheen, who lost last year to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “So if the result of that kind of rhetoric is an antagonism toward or a hostility toward the moderate elements of the Democratic Party then yeah, it’s big trouble and big problems.”
“We’ll never take back Congress unless we can win in the South. We’ll never take back governorships unless we can win in the South,” he added.