In normal times, an incumbent member of Congress like Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat, would be breezing along right about now. He definitely wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder.
In his 24th year and the dean of our state’s U.S. House delegation, Smith just won reelection by the widest margin of his impressive career, 48 percentage points. He’s never lost an election at any level, and now has risen in the seniority ranks to head the powerful House Armed Services Committee. His 9th District, running from Tacoma to Bellevue, is already one of the safer blue districts in the nation, and probably is about to get more so.
So why does he already have three candidates mounting campaigns against him? All of them from inside the gates of his own Democratic Party.
“Seattle Democratic Socialists of America has endorsed Stephanie Gallardo in her challenge to pro-war corporate Democrat Adam Smith,” the local Berniecrat group announced earlier this month, providing a taste of just one of the ongoing intraparty uprisings.
The days of “pecking-order politics,” in which party people weren’t supposed to attack fellow party members, let alone try to oust them in a primary election, are definitely long gone.
“Instead of being gaslit into electing candidates who we can then ‘push to the left,’ let’s start electing millennials and Gen Z to office,” Gallardo, a teacher in Tukwila and labor organizer with the state teachers union, wrote on Twitter. “Playing the middle ground works for those in power.”
The right is, of course, having its own uprising. Already three Republicans have filed against incumbent GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, accusing him of being a traitor for voting in January to impeach Donald Trump.
And four Republicans have massed against incumbent GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Battle Ground, for much the same reason.
“She stabbed us in the back!” declared Joe Kent, of the town of Yacolt in Southwest Washington, speaking recently at an “America First” rally in Florida. Kent may be the Trumpiest of the four Herrera Beutler challengers, as he appeared at the rally with the newest Trump channeler herself, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
I don’t know that I’ve seen this much rumble inside the two clubs before, this early in the two-year congressional election cycle. When the dark Pole Star of American politics, Trump, shifted at least temporarily from the center of the sky in January, he sure left a vacuum in his wake.
“I think we are in a political crisis that is pretty analogous to America in the 1840s and ’50s, where slavery created a crisis that the Whigs couldn’t deal with and the Whigs broke up,” said Chris Vance, a former Washington state GOP chairman, who believes the two dominant parties have begun to crack and splinter.
“I think Trump and his neo-fascist new movement is maybe not as salient as slavery, but it is a huge issue in this country. And it’s going to eventually reorder our political system.”
He’s not the only one wondering where all this is headed.
“Are we entering a new political era?” speculated the New Yorker magazine this past week. The article is about how the twin forces of Trumpism and the rising new left — candidates such as those going after Adam Smith — may be combining to bring to an end the half-century “Reagan era” of free trade, lightly managed capitalism and limited government.
Now, before we get too epic-historical, the chance of any incumbents actually losing their jobs in a primary is infinitesimal — especially in our state. Typically, 98% of incumbent members of Congress get renominated, and here it’s even easier because they just have to finish in the primary’s top two to advance to a general election.
Last year, only eight congressional incumbents lost in primaries nationwide, out of more than 400 House and Senate races. The modern record for incumbents getting primaried is 19 — that was in 1992, the famous “Year of the Woman.” That year, a little-known state legislator named Patty Murray from Shoreline took on an incumbent U.S. senator from her own Democratic Party (though he dropped out in a scandal rather than face the voters).
Murray, who is now the Senate’s sixth most senior member, was also told she didn’t have a chance. Politics today has some of that same feel as the Year of the Woman, in that it’s questioning not just policy or values but the makeup of the entire system.
So far, it seems to me the Democrats are keeping it together better as a traditional “big tent.” It’s true the mojo is on the more socialist left, but they did also just rally around the most old school Democrat possible, Joe Biden. Meanwhile the Republicans are acting right now like a singular cult of personality, which never ends well. Especially given the obvious flaws and unsteadiness of this particular personality.
The main animating force for both parties is usually quite simple — it’s beating the other one. But with Trump on the sidelines for now, the parties aren’t fighting with one another so much at the moment. They’re turning within.
Is this an earthquake warning? Not quite. But you can feel some tremors. Just look at Adam Smith.