The Big Lie Democratic Centrists Are Telling About 2018

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during the first Democratic Party debate.

Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report tweeted it in response to Nancy Pelosi’s attack on The Squad. John Hickenlooper unloaded a flatly false version of it during the first night of this week’s Democratic debates. David Axelrod stated this falsehood as fact on CNN before the start of the second night of debates. Nate Silver tweeted a version of the big centrist lie about 2018 yesterday morning with “CERTAINLY” included as if telling the big lie in all caps somehow made it more true.

Here’s Silver’s tweet in full:

Hickenlooper said flatly that no one running on these ideas had flipped a district from Republican to Democrat in the 2018 Congressional election. The entire debate up to that point had been about Medicare-for-All.

The truth is, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) decided to turf candidates running on further left ideas in every single competitive race they could. Steny Hoyer was caught in an audio recording with a candidate acknowledging this as he tried to get Levi Tillemann, who had served in the Obama Administration in the Energy Department, to quit the primary race in Colorado’s 6th.  The DCCC went so far as to launder opposition research publicly against Laura Moser in Texas in getting its more moderate candidate through, one of at least three Texas races they explicitly meddled in to prevent left leaning candidates from running in the 2018 general election.

When the dust had settled on primary season, eighty-eight of the most one hundred competitive races, per my 2018 projection as published here at CounterPunch, were being contested by moderates rather than more left or progressive candidates. I determined the twelve that should count as progressive or left candidates based explicitly on their support, or not, especially for Medicare-for-All, but also by items like running on reducing the military budget (very rare) or abolishing ICE, or free tuition for university. Candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, of course, were counted as left or progressive. Democrats won or were competitive within 10% in 86 of the Top 100 races I identified, a list that was very similar though not identical in composition to races identified as competitive or potentially so by Cook Political, FiveThirtyEight, and other forecasters.

The main eleven left or progressive candidates, by such standards, were Richard Ojeda (WV-3), Kyle Horton (NC-7), Leslie Cockburn (VA-5), Kara Eastman (NE-2), Randy Bryce (WI-1), Kim Schrier (WA-8), Katie Hill (CA-25), Katie Porter (CA-45), Ammar Campa-Najjar (CA-50), Jared Golden (ME-2), and J.D. Scholten (IA-4). My projection also included a dark horse pick of Jess King in (PA-11).

As with all such lists, the borderlines can be a little fuzzy. When analyzing how they did versus expected results, should we count races that I thought would be competitive, but no one else did (like PA-11) and turned out not to be? What about Mississippi’s 3rd, which some thought might turn out competitive and I included, but was a GOP blowout? California’s 21st? Widely written off as uncompetitive because of the Democrats’ terrible, carpetbagging candidate versus a well-beloved, more moderate Republican who speaks Spanish in a majority Hispanic district, the Democrat turned out to win it by a hair.

We’ll present results shortly, with and without all edge cases included. The bottom line, however, is that the twelve or thirteen (counting CA-21) progressives performed the same as the 100 candidates as a whole versus expectations. Democrats picked up 40 seats overall, and four of those flips, giving the lie to Hickenlooper’s statement, were by Schrier, Porter, Golden, and Hill, all of whom supported and continue to support Medicare-for-All. In that race in CA-21, which I first included, then excluded from my 100 Most Competitive forecast, T.J. Cox, the Democrat, eventually did flip the seat. Cox supported a single-payer, Medicare-for-All program during the debates ahead of the election.

In other words, Democrats picked up forty seats while running only 12% or 13% progressive or left candidates in the most competitive races, and five of those forty, or 12.5% were picked up by candidates who supported Medicare-for-All and other standard left positions. What’s more, some of these contests (WV-3, WI-1) were only potentially competitive to begin with because progressive candidates generated excitement from the base that otherwise would likely have been lacking in heavily Republican districts.

There’s a more in-depth way of asking how candidates did as well. I calculated a baseline expectation without polling for all 100 of those races. The baseline was 60% determined by FiveThirtyEight’s CANTOR model as included in its overall 2018 projection. The other 40% of the baseline was determined by a conglomeration of state level and district level partisan voting index (PVI) figures (using Cook Political’s PVI), a projected advantage for incumbents by party, state and national generic congressional ballot averages, and directly accounting for the results of the district in 2016.

Overall, the 100 Democrats running in these races outperformed the model’s baseline expectation by 5.2 or 5.3% depending on whether or not the edge cases mentioned above are counted. Given the small number of progressives that made it through to the general, the inclusion of edge cases (CA-21, PA-11) or not makes a big difference ranging from a 4.4% over performance versus the model’s baseline expectation to a 5.3% over performance versus expectation (when CA-21 and PA-11 are excluded).

Including the edge cases means progressives did very slightly worse overall than all the Top 100 candidates. Excluding those edge cases means they performed exactly the same by this measurement.

Claiming that progressives did not do well in 2018 swing races is like a school-yard bully stealing the lunch of the same kid day after most days and then mocking that kid for being underweight.

As is, however, Medicare-for-All candidates punched exactly their weight in flipping districts. Taken together with comparison to expected results versus baseline projections for the top-100 candidates, it’s a total wash. Progressive or Left candidates in 2018 did equally as well as more moderate, DCCC-hyped candidates. Wasserman, Hickenlooper, Axelrod, Silver and others can continue to dishonesty push the lie that this isn’t so all they want. The hard and fast numbers, in this case using data from Silver and Wasserman’s own outfits, does not back-up the claim.

As of publication time, Wasserman, Axelrod, Silver, and the Hickenlooper campaign have not responded to a request to support their claims with data or to contest my characterization of candidates and data.

Doug Johnson Hatlem writes on polling, elections data, and politics. For questions, comments, or to inquire about syndicating this weekly column for the 2020 cycle in your outlet, he can be contacted on Twitter @djjohnso (DMs open) or at (subject line #10at10 Election Column).