Colorado's Progressive-Establishment Divide Is Alive and Well

Two years after it began, the internal divide among Democrats may be wider than ever, particularly here in Colorado.

As evidenced by Donald Trump's election and Bernie Sanders's rapid rise two-plus years ago, there is a strong national appetite for outsiders to enter politics, and Colorado, home to a plurality of independent voters, is the beating heart of that sentiment. In a state where Sanders won Colorado's 2016 Democratic primaries by nearly twenty points, progressive energy is still visible across the Centennial State.

Several Colorado Democratic primaries are pitting establishment candidates — often deemed to be longtime party insiders, big-money recipients or both — against progressives, who are often former Bernie supporters with varying degrees of progressive ideals and relatively new to politics.

With the primaries just weeks away (June 28), the intensity of the progressive-establishment divide is on full display, particularly in the increasingly nasty 6th Congressional District Democratic primary. Late last month, a Democratic candidate in the district, Levi Tillemann, released tapes of a meeting with Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House of Representatives, in which Hoyer asks Tillemann to leave the race, saying that "a decision was made early on" by Colorado's congressional delegation that Tillemann's primary opponent, attorney Jason Crow, would be the best candidate to face 6th District incumbent Republican Mike Coffman.

Progressives claim the tapes prove that the primary process is rigged, an accusation many wielded in 2016, when Bernie supporters felt that the primary process that year had been drawn against them.

"If the Democratic Party doesn't right itself, it's going to suffer the same fate as the Republican Party, and it barely has any moral high ground to stand on now," says Mark Williams, a progressive Democratic candidate vying for the 2nd Congressional District, which covers Boulder. "I hear that if you're worried about the well-being of your party that Levi's gone a step too far by releasing [the tapes], but if you're a patriot and you're concerned about the well-being of our country, then that dialogue within parties [should be released]. I want this conversation to matter to people so that they feel that the parties represent them. Those are the stakes that are much more important than saying, 'Oh, I've hurt the party.'"

Many progressive candidates, like Williams, argue that an internal Democratic debate is required and that more than anti-Trump rhetoric will be needed to win general elections this fall.

"Yes, we hate Trump, but like other folks say, if all we say is we hate Trump, Trump likely gets re-elected in 2020, in my mind," he explains. "That's not enough. My question is: What, as a party, are the ideas that we're bringing forward? For me, the energizing ideas behind that are the ideas of a healthy democracy, medicare for all, of just very progressive positions."

Republicans, such as  Coffman campaign spokesman Tyler Sandberg, are taking notice — and advantage — of the internal Democratic strife, hoping that Democratic division keeps some left-leaning voters away from the polls this fall. Sandberg has tweeted about the Tillemann-Crow spat on a near-daily basis since the tapes came out on April 26.

Colorado's primary process is getting a Molotov cocktail thrown at it this year: Independent voters can participate in the June primaries for the first time. That may help tilt the primary needle somewhat back to the center, though there is little polling or sense for how a slew of new voters will impact next month's results.

"I think the [Democratic] rift has intensified since 2016 with Bernie's defeat, with Hillary's then-defeat, with further drift of the party to the left," says independent political analyst Eric Sondermann. "I think political emotions are running higher and harder all around. Even the establishment in the Democratic Party are left of where they were a few years ago. And the progressives are trying to pull the thing further to the left.

"There's the divide in the 6th Congressional District, obviously," he continues. "I think you see this in the attorney general's race. In both cases, if I'm a betting person, which I'm not, I would probably put my money on the establishment candidate, just given their advantages. But I wouldn't put a ton of money. And I don't think the damage will be lasting into November."

Longtime 1st District Representative Diana DeGette faces a well-funded progressive challenger in Saira Rao; the 2nd District race to succeed gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis is shaping up to be a classic establishment-progressive battle; and the race for attorney general and potentially even the governor's race all have candidates from different sides of the Democratic ideological divide.

DeGette says she senses a strong desire for electing Democrats who are willing to negotiate and compromise with the other side — perhaps a soft warning shot against electing mostly outsiders to Capitol Hill.

"My district is a really progressive district, and I have a progressive voting record," DeGette says. "If the Democrats take the majority in November, I'm chief deputy whip and senior on a key committee, and I'm hoping that I can take my bipartisanship and my negotiating skills and really use them with the Democratic leadership to start putting together bipartisan bills from the beginning. It's interesting: When I poll my constituents or when I talk to people, the thing that polls the highest is people say, 'We want a member of Congress who will work in a bipartisan way to get things done.'"