Democrats look to bridge divide as they challenge Trump

While Tuesday’s breathtakingly expensive congressional runoff election in the suburbs of Atlanta pits Democrat Jon Ossoff against Republican Karen Handel, the real battle could be for the future of the Democratic Party.

Democrats of all persuasions have lined up behind the 30-year-old Ossoff, pumping more than $23 million into his campaign for the seat left open when Republican Tom Price resigned in February to become President Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

But for plenty of Democratic progressives, that public support has come with trepidation as they back a candidate who opposes single-payer health care, doesn’t€™t want any increase in tax rates on the wealthy and refuses to link himself to the anti-Trump â€resistance.â€�

In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma facing the party. While Democrats are united in their desire to take back Congress in 2018 and dump Trump in 2020, they have very different ideas of how best to get there.

For RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, there’s no future for the Democratic Party as it now exists.

“The Democrats want to put out a really stale, really tired narrative,â€� said DeMoro, whose unions supported Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the face of the new progressive movement, against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential primary. “They think they’ll stir up voters by being against Trump. … But if the base isn’t inspired, they’re not going to vote.â€�

At last month’s state Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, DeMoro’s union joined other liberal activists in heckling Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, and other mainstream Democrats with chants like “Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate Democrats have got to go.�

Those same progressives backed Kimberly Ellis, a 43-year-old Richmond woman, for the state party’s leadership. Running on a platform of “Giving the Democratic Party back to the people,� Ellis finished 62 votes behind party Vice Chairman Eric Bauman, but has formally challenged the result, alleging irregularities in the election.

The challenge, along with the complaints about the way the party is run, are baffling to many Democrats in California, a deep-blue state where Democrats hold every statewide office and have overwhelming majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate.

“Most voters are very happy in California,� said Bob Mulholland, former political director for the California Democratic Party and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “We don’t need bed wetters. We’ve only got room for people who believe in the party.�

That’s not to say changes aren’t needed nationally, Mulholland added. Since 2009, when Barack Obama became president, Democrats have lost more than 1,000 seats in state legislatures across the nation, giving Republicans control in a record number of states.

In 2009, Democrats had majorities in both houses of 27 state legislatures, compared with 14 for Republicans. Eight years later, those numbers have flipped, with Republicans holding sway in 32 states (plus ostensibly nonpartisan Nebraska), while Democrats now control only 13 states.

It’s a similar story in the country’s statehouses, where there were 28 Democratic governors in 2009, compared with 18 today.

Clearly, the tactics that work in California, New York, and the big cities and urban areas where Democrats still hold power aren’t the key to success in great swathes of the country.

“The current unpopularity of Donald Trump has masked over a party that’s been in free fall below the presidential level,� said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego.

Those legislature numbers alone are reason enough to sweep out the Democratic establishment and move the party in a new direction, DeMoro said.

“A coach with that record would be fired,� she said. “You don’t get to lose like that and not face a change.�

But Democratic voters across the nation haven’t been willing to take that step. In Virginia’s primary for governor last week, for example, Democrats overwhelmingly chose Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who admitted he voted twice for Republican George W. Bush, over former Rep. Tom Perriello, who ran as a Bernie Sanders Democrat. And in an April primary to fill an open Los Angeles congressional seat, two candidates with ties to Sanders finished well behind Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, who won the seat in a runoff this month.

For Democratic leaders, it’s easy to argue that Trump’s election was an outlier. After all, Clinton beat the New York City developer by nearly 3 million votes, and a swing of fewer than 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would have swung the Electoral College her way.

With such a tight race, party leaders can say that for Democrats to win back the presidency, they just have to do what they did, only better and with a different candidate, especially if Trump stays as unpopular as he is now.

Democrats “have been too weak on offense,� Mulholland said. “But we can win (the 2020 presidency) with a governor who is not part of the D.C. establishment,� and who isn’t necessarily the progressive leader that many of Sanders’ supporters are calling for.

The wholesale changes that Sanders and his followers are calling for risk making the political situation even worse for Democrats in Republican-leaning states.

In those states, “Will Mr. and Mrs. Smith vote for a candidate taking nothing but progressive positions?� Mulholland asked.

That’s a question not likely to be answered next year, Kousser said.

To win back Congress, Democrats have to challenge Republicans in red or deeply purple districts, “all places where it would make zero sense to nominate a Berniecrat,� he said. “If you want to win in red territory, you don’t want to start with a Bernie Sanders clone,� which is why there are plenty of military veterans and candidates with strong business backgrounds lining up to take on Republicans in 2018.

It’s a different story in 2020, though.

“The only (fight) that really counts then is for the presidential nomination,� Kousser said.

Whether the feuding wings of the Democratic Party will be able to compromise enough to work together is still an open question, however, especially with their conflicting views of the party’s current health.

Sanders, for example, argued in a New York Times opinion piece last week that too many Democrats “cling to an overly cautious, centrist ideology.�

That has to change, DeMoro told Democrats at the state convention last month, in a speech she billed as a warning.

“Consensus for consensus’ sake is over,â€� she said. “If you dismiss progressive values … don’t assume the activists in California or around this country are going to stay with the Democratic Party,â€� she said.

Working for change in the Democratic Party “has been enormously frustrating,� DeMoro said in an interview, but without change, the party will never be able to attract the young people and alienated voters who were inspired by Sanders and his call for progressive change.

Party leaders “hold us personally in contempt and disdain,� DeMoro said. “But we’re trying to save the party from itself.�

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jwildermuth@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jfwildermuth

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