Apparently the Democratic establishment is really excited that Republicans voted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor out of office. That’s fine for the establishment — but maybe it’s time for Democratic voters to take notice that they’re being completely upstaged by Republican voters in the battle against political complacency.
The Dems in Washington are excited because they think Dave Brat’s win over Cantor in the Republican primary in Virginia‘s 7th Congressional District is a sign that Republicans are moving farther to the right, and farther away from mainstream America.
But if you look beyond the spin, you’ll see a motivated and engaged Republican electorate demanding more of their representatives and leaders than are Democratic voters. Didn’t Democrats use to own the “challenge authority” brand? Not anymore.
It’s true that Brat may represent a shift rightward compared to Cantor — even though Cantor tried to paint him as a liberal professor — but really he is more representative of a GOP shift toward populism, and a wariness of a Washington-centric political class that often ignores discontent at home. Well, Republican lawmakers — who were already witnessing some hotly contested races for some of their entrenched colleagues — are now on even greater notice that voters want more from the people they elect.
Compare that to the sluggish electorate here in Connecticut. We have five Democratic representatives in our congressional delegation, none of whom face a serious primary challenge this year. The two senior members of the delegation, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who was elected in 1990, and Rep. John Larson, who was elected in 1998, haven’t had to campaign hard for their seats in years.
While that might be good for Larson and DeLauro, it isn’t good for democracy, and it isn’t good for Connecticut.
This isn’t about pushing parties to the left or right — I’m not advocating here for more liberal lawmakers. What I am advocating for are real, contested elections that force elected officials to be both responsive to and engaged with the electorate.
Winning elections is hard work, especially when a lot of so-called “retail politicking,” i.e. shaking hands and kissing babies, is involved. It forces politicians to focus more on the people they represent — to really look them in the eyes and hear their concerns — and it sharpens their understanding of the big issues of the day.
In single-party districts, competitive primaries are really the only way to keep comfortable lawmakers in check. And as more and more districts are dominated by one party or the other, primaries might be the only place they might face a serious challenge.
That’s true here in Connecticut. As pointed out in an op-ed a few weeks ago, Republicans are having a hard time gaining traction in any of the state’s five districts right now. And while I don’t think we should completely count the state GOP out, democracy can’t thrive when people get too comfortable.
Witness what’s happening in this year’s state gubernatorial race — even though Gov. Dan Malloy isn’t facing a serious primary challenge, he is facing a challenge from the left in the candidacy of Jonathan Pelto, who announced this week that he has created a new political party — the “Education and Democracy Party” — and that he has chosen a running mate and is seeking signatures to petition his way onto November’s ballot.
Republican candidates shouldn’t get too excited and think Pelto’s candidacy will only affect Malloy. Adding another candidate to the mix can shake things up in many different ways.
It’s interesting that Pelto decided to run as a third-party candidate instead of challenging Malloy in the Democratic primary. That may have to do with the lateness of his entry into the race, but it also may have to do with his distrust of the two major parties, a distrust many voters are feeling these days.
That’s why we should celebrate when people run for office, whether in a primary or a general election. And we should mourn when, too often, voters decide to just sit on the sidelines and watch their representatives punch a ticket and take a ride back to Washington.
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.