Democrats Face Ideological House Primaries

by Stuart Rothenberg March 14, 2012 · 10:55 AM EDT

It’s not at all surprising, given the media’s concentration on the fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party between tea party conservatives and the GOP’s more pragmatic conservative wing, that most journalists have completely ignored the ideological fights within the Democratic Party this year.

But those fights exist, and they could well presage a larger fight within the party at some point in the future, either during a second Obama term or after he leaves office.

A very liberal group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, sounds like a tea party group of the left, given its rhetoric, strategy and tactics. Like many in the tea party, the PCCC sees itself as a protector of its party’s dominant ideology — in this case liberalism — and a judge of who constitutes a “real” Democrat.

The PCCC has declared war on two Democratic primary candidates: businessman Brad Schneider in Illinois’ 10th district and former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chávez in New Mexico’s 1st district. Instead, the group prefers two other Democratic hopefuls, Ilya Sheyman in the Illinois district and state Sen. Eric Griego in New Mexico.

In the Illinois race, the Russian-born Sheyman, who worked as national mobilization director for, has the backing of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and the PCCC. Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation magazine wrote a glowing piece about Sheyman.

The Democratic hopeful said during an interview last year that he was not running just to win the seat but to grow the power of progressives in Congress.

Sheyman, 25, and his allies have attacked primary opponent Schneider for contributing over the years to a handful of Republican candidates (including Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and ex-Minnesota Rep. Mark Kennedy) and even for voting in one GOP primary. (A third Democrat, businessman John Tree, is not expected to be a factor in the contest.)

Schneider, who has been endorsed by former Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald, responds that those contributions were made to pro-Israel candidates in conjunction with his work with the pro-Israel community and that his contributions to Democrats far, far outweigh the handful of GOP contributions. He explains that his one vote in a Republican primary was for a close friend and that he has been active for years in Democratic politics.

The rhetoric in PCCC attacks, not surprising given how activists at both extreme ends of the political spectrum see things, is predictable. One of the group’s emails calls Schneider a “supporter” of “right-wing Republicans,” while another inaccurately portrays Schneider as a “Blue Dog.”

It is hard to find issue differences between the two Illinois Democrats, though there certainly are differences in style and tone.

Schneider, 50, has spent years in business as a consultant and working with the pro-Israel community. Sheyman has been an activist and organizer in Illinois, Vermont and nationally. Schneider believes that his experience and his more easygoing, personable style should give him an advantage in the race, but in a low-turnout race anything is possible.

The winner will face freshman Republican Rep. Robert Dold, who kept the seat in GOP hands when he won Kirk’s former seat. But Illinois Democrats made this district even more Democratic than it has been for the past decade, and that makes the Republicans’ hold on it tenuous.

Republicans, of course, would much prefer to face Sheyman in the fall because they believe they can portray him as more extreme, making the district’s upscale voters uncomfortable with his aggressive style and views. And, they believe, his age and lack of real world experience apart from political activism would benefit Dold in a general election.

Dold ended 2011 with almost $1 million in the bank, and his record and rhetoric on Israel should resonate with the substantial Jewish population in the district.

The Democratic primary will take place March 20.

The PCCC is also active in New Mexico’s 1st district, bashing Chávez as it pushes for Griego. A third Democrat, Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham, is also in the primary, which is scheduled for June 5.

Chávez, who was first elected to the state Senate 25 years ago, served three terms as mayor of the state’s largest city. Soft-spoken and emphasizing his approach as a problem-solver rather than an ideologue, he presents himself as someone who has tried to work with the business community whenever possible.

The former mayor has been endorsed by President Bill Clinton, actor Robert Redford and women’s equality advocate Lilly Ledbetter.

Not surprisingly, Chávez’s relative moderation and decisions to eschew divisive rhetoric has the PCCC apoplectic, calling the former mayor a closet Republican.

Griego served four years on the Albuquerque City Council before winning a seat in the New Mexico state Senate in 2008. He also served as executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, a liberal advocacy group. The legislator ran unsuccessfully against Chávez in the 2005 Albuquerque mayor’s race.

Griego’s website lists endorsements from the two Democrats who chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (Minn.), Daily Kos,,, Democracy for America and the Progressive Democrats of America. But he has also been endorsed by the Sierra Club and League for Conservation Voters.

Griego was one of seven liberal Democratic House candidates (Sheyman was another) who delivered “We Stand with the 99 percent” petitions to the Speaker in October.

The winner of the Democratic primary will try to hold the open seat of Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), who is running for Senate.

The Illinois and New Mexico Democratic primaries offer Democrats interesting choices between mainstream Democrats and their more confrontational primary opponents from the left. The outcomes could provide clues about whether — and how soon — Democrats will have their own version of the tea party to worry about.