“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Will Rogers
Longtime resident Democrats of California’s Congressional District 10 are haunted. They wake up in the dead of night with nightmares of losing once again to incumbent Republican Jeff Denham.
But it’s not Denham who haunts them most, not by a long shot. No, Democrats who want to win—just win—fear their own. They fear Democrats who think anyone who raises money is corrupt. They especially fear Democrats who favor impossible litmus tests for candidates, or who impugn the characters of candidates whose views aren’t precisely congruent with their own.
They fear Democrats who demonize candidates who show signs of being, having been, or having associated with, “establishment Democrats”—loosely defined as anyone who might have voted for Hillary Clinton. They fear Democrats who would rather lose to a Donald Trump enabler than compromise.
Most of all, Democrats who want to win fear Democrats who believe “establishment Democrats” are no different from Republicans. According to this view, a Hillary Clinton win would have been no different from a Donald Trump win. Yes, according to these Democrats, Hillary Clinton would have backed Roy Moore for Alabama Senator, advocated off-shore oil drilling, appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and staffed the White House with money-laundering cronies of Russian oligarchs.
But these fears are just part of the matrix of horrors Democrats who want to win in CA-10 face both day and night. Among these other fears, Democrats who want to win fear the crowded primary will produce a candidate who can’t beat Jeff Denham instead of a candidate who can.
This fear is not altogether unlikely. The problem with this year’s congested primary is all the candidates are well-qualified in the abstract sense. That is, all are outstanding citizens with superb qualifications. Not all, however, are equally qualified to defeat Jeff Denham.
Consider, for example, Michael Eggman. A late entry into the race, Eggman became an immediate favorite to win the primary even though he announced after a series of debates and months after TJ Cox, Virginia Madueno, Josh Harder, Dotty Nygard, Sue Zwahlen, and Mike Barkley. Eggman’s strength comes from name recognition and experience; he’s already run twice against Jeff Denham, and in 2016 came with three percentage points of winning.
But those three percentage points are what trouble Democrats who worry. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Stanislaus County by two percent, despite a significant boycott by Berniecrats who refused to support her. Stanislaus County comprises much of the area of CA-10.
Democrats who worry fear that if Michael Eggman couldn’t beat Jeff Denham in 2016, why should they believe he can win in 2018? Even though 2018 is supposed to be the year of the anti-Trump blue wave, longtime residents of CA-10 know that Donald Trump remains popular with district Republicans, and that despite protests to the contrary, all local Republicans are Trump Republicans.
The assumption that Republicans will desert the party in droves because of the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump is wishful thinking. Trump may be an embarrassment, but his policies have been backed enthusiastically by the Republican congress, and there’s no reason to believe his CA-10 base of evangelicals, Second Amendment zealots, angry laborers, and wealthy donors will bolt the party to vote for a Democrat.
And if there are fears that Michael Eggman can’t beat Denham, CA-10 Democrats are positively horrified at the prospect of Michael Barkley emerging as the winner of the Democratic primary.
Their fear has nothing to do with Barkley’s qualifications. Rather, Barkley’s long history of losing primaries to candidates like Michael Eggman suggests that if he can’t even beat another Democrat, he’s unlikely to beat Denham.
In fact, were it not for the crowded primary field, Michael Barkley would almost certainly be a non-factor in the coming election. But the crowded primary has actually encouraged all the candidates to believe they have a chance simply because they realize it will take a smaller vote count than usual to win, Barkley included.
And because the primary field has so many excellent candidates, the focus on winning the primary has distracted from a more thorough review of what it will take to beat Jeff Denham. And make no mistake, it will take more than identifying as a Democrat to beat Congressman Denham, especially in an off-year election.
Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, the candidate who beats Denham will have to have money—lots of money. The candidate who beats Denham will have to have excellent speaking ability, superb management skills, and the energy and stamina to prevail in a long, hard campaign. Most of all, the candidate who beats Denham will have to get out the vote by inspiring and uniting Democrats, including establishment Democrats, Berniecrats, young voters, minority voters, and registered Independents.
Those of us who fear another Denham win know why he should be favored. Republicans win because they go to the polls. Republicans win because Democrats fight among themselves, pout and stay home when they can’t have exactly what they want, and too often bear defeat as a proud emblem of moral purity.
This election year, above all others, Democrats in CA-10 must decide to elect a Democrat. They must rise above their exalted notions about their preferred candidate’s perfect worthiness and get pragmatic enough to realize that when we hand election after election over to Republicans we not only put the nation in ever greater jeopardy, we also drive our own party further rightwards.
CA-10 Democrats must think hard and now about who among their primary candidates is most likely to get out the vote. This is not a question about who would be a better representative than Jeff Denham—they all would. It’s not a question about who appeals to any one issue or sector of the Democratic demographic; it’s a question about the survival of the Democratic Party in CA-10, because if we don’t win in 2018, we might never win.
Democrats must realize now they need each other and a leader who brings them together in the common cause of restoring government of, by, and for the people. Most of all, we need to recognize that a good Democrat in congress is far better than our notion of a perfect Democrat who loses to Jeff Denham.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.