Ignoring widespread agreement on core issues, media suggested wins by "conservative Democrats" will cause intraparty strife

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN & DENNIS YEDWAB

Media figures have attributed Democratic gains in the House and Senate in the midterm elections to the number of wins by conservative or moderate Democratic challengers and have suggested that because the party's victory in the House was purportedly "built on the back of more centrist candidates," the incoming Democratic majority will be sharply divided. However, a Media Matters for America survey of the policy positions of 27 victorious House candidates found that they all agree on a core set of issues, including raising the minimum wage and protecting Social Security.

In the wake of the November 7 midterm elections, numerous media figures have attributed the Democratic gains in the House and Senate to the number of wins by conservative or moderate Democratic challengers. Moreover, the media have suggested that because the party's victory in the House was purportedly "built on the back of more centrist candidates," the incoming Democratic majority will be sharply divided. But a Media Matters for America survey of the policy positions of 27 Democratic House candidates -- those who, as of the morning of November 8, had defeated Republican incumbents or been elected to open seats previously held by Republicans -- found that they all agree on a core set of issues, including raising the minimum wage and protecting Social Security. Further, this incoming crop of Democrats largely agrees on the most contentious social issues of the day: All but two of the 27 challengers support embryonic stem cell research and only five describe themselves as "pro-life" on the issue of abortion.

The effort on the part of conservative media figures to cast a Democratic takeover in Congress as a victory for conservatism began days before the election. Referring to several competitive Senate candidates, including that of Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, Robert Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, and Jim Webb in Virginia on the October 30 edition of CNN's Larry King Live, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham said, "[A]ll these Democrats are running fairly conservative campaigns." As New York Observer national correspondent Joe Conason noted in a November 6 column, Ingraham appeared to argue that "the defeat of Republican candidates would somehow represent a triumph of her ideology." Indeed, Ingraham even stated that "Ronald Reagan is up there smiling down on us right now saying that, all things considered, conservatism isn't doing so bad."

On the November 6 edition of CNN Newsroom, conservative radio talk show host and CNN political analyst William Bennett echoed Ingraham, asserting that "Democrats have an advantage" because they have recruited candidates in competitive districts "who, except for the 'D,' you would think are conservative Republicans." Bennett went on to predict Democrats would retake the House "with the benefit of some Republican impersonations."

On November 7, Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives with a gain of at least 27 seats. Following news of the Democratic takeover, an array of media figures advanced the theory put forth by Ingraham and Bennett that this result was due to the number of conservative Democratic challengers. Following are several examples:

  • On the November 8 edition of CBS' The Early Show, CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer asserted: "These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats. They are not like some of the liberal firebrands that are in the House right now." He further stated: "The problem that [House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi [CA] is going to have is not so much with the Republican White House, but with her own party."
  • On the November 8 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that, because it "could not win this election being liberals," the Democratic Party "nominated a bunch of moderate and conservative Democrats for the express purpose of electing a far-left Democrat [sic] leadership." He added: "[L]iberalism didn't win anything yesterday; Republicanism lost. Conservatism was nowhere to be found other than on the Democrat [sic] side of the aisle."
  • As blogger Matthew Yglesias noted, in a November 8 post on National Review Online's weblog The Corner, CNBC host Larry Kudlow wrote, "Look at blue dog conservative Dem victories, and look at Northeast liberal GOP defeats. The changeover in the House may well be a conservative victory, not a liberal one."
  • In a November 8 Washington Post front-page article, staff writers Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei reported that "the Democrats' victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts." They further asserted that the party's "politics will be shaped by the resurgence of 'Blue Dog' Democrats, who come mainly from the South and from rural districts in the Midwest and often vote like Republicans" and that "Democratic divisions could complicate Pelosi's plans."

Elsewhere, media figures echoed Schieffer and the Post's suggestion that the election of these centrist Democrats could "complicate" Pelosi's job if she is elected speaker:

  • During MSNBC's election night coverage, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory reported that "Nancy Pelosi, Republicans will argue, is also not going to have a liberal coalition of Democrats in the House." Gregory added that she is going to have to "contend" with some "right-of-center Democrats who are winning in red areas around the country" and who "may be more supportive of the administration's point of view."
  • In a November 8 Associated Press article, staff writer Laurie Kellman reported: "The Democrats' grip on power has its limits, beginning from within their own caucus. Some of the House's longest-serving liberals will be in charge of key committees, putting them at odds, in some respects, with Pelosi and several Democrats elected Tuesday who are ideologically more conservative and could help tug the party to the center."
  • On the November 8 edition of CNN's American Morning, co-host Miles O'Brien said that the Democrats now have "Nancy Pelosi, very liberal, at the top, and then a lot of conservatives, those so-called 'Blue Dog' Democrats, that won here." He then asked John Mercurio, senior editor of National Journal's The Hotline, "Is it going to be difficult to corral that group?" Mercurio replied: "[Y]ou just put your finger on what I think is going to be the most unique and specific challenge she's going to have going into the Congress."

But the policy positions taken by those Democrats who picked up Republican-held seats on November 7 show that they largely agree on a set of issues central to the Democratic platform. Following are the findings of a Media Matters examination of the positions staked out by the 27 Democratic challengers on their campaign websites, in news reports, and in candidate questionnaires:

  • All 27 candidates support raising the minimum wage.
  • All 27 candidates advocate changing course in Iraq.
  • All 27 candidates oppose efforts to privatize Social Security.
  • Only two of the 27 candidates do not support embryonic stem cell research.
  • Only five of the 27 candidates describe themselves as "pro-life."

From the October 30 edition of CNN's Larry King Live:

INGRAHAM: Well, I think one thing we're seeing, Larry, is that the Democrats who are in these interesting races, whether it's Casey in Pennsylvania or Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, or even James Webb in Virginia, all these Democrats are running fairly conservative campaigns. I mean, we had Harold Ford Jr. talking about how "I'm the guy who loves Jesus and loves guns," last weekend. You have Casey who is pro-life and Webb, former Reagan administration official.

So, the Democrats who I think are perhaps on the verge of doing something amazing for the Democrat [sic] Party, are actually, you know, looking fairly conservative -- and, I don't know what that says about the future of the Democrat [sic] Party -- but, as a conservative, I think Ronald Reagan is up there smiling down on us right now saying that, all things considered, conservatism isn't doing so bad.

From the November 6 edition of CNN Newsroom:

BENNETT: If you look at the CNN poll, if you read some of these papers, listen to some of this, you would think, "It's not a wave, but a tsunami, and we don't -- we don't stand a chance." What I think is: The Democrats have an advantage; a lot of circumstances; a lot of -- they've run a lot of good campaigns. They have a number of people running in some of these House races who, except for the "D," you would think are conservative Republicans. These are in many of the important districts.

HEIDI COLLINS (co-host): Yeah.

BENNETT: And the poll -- and the polls are favoring. What do I think? I think if the Democrats get the House back, they will do so with the benefit of some Republican impersonations.

From the 11 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC's November 7 special election night coverage:

GREGORY: Republicans have already been saying today, "Look, there's some areas where they can get along. How about immigration reform?" The president's more likely to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill along the lines of what he wants with a Democratic House, rather than a Republican House. Yes, that's the case, because his own party was so far apart with -- from him on the issue of immigration.

Nancy Pelosi, Republicans will argue, is also not going to have a liberal coalition of Democrats in the House. She's going to have some right, right-of-center Democrats who are winning in red areas around the country to contend with, as well. They may be more supportive of the administration's point of view.

From the November 8 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

HANNAH STORM (co-host): What about Nancy Pelosi? What sort of challenges does she face?

SCHIEFFER: You know, I'll tell you.

STORM: She's leading a majority.

SCHIEFFER: I'll tell you, Hannah. The problem that Nancy Pelosi is going to have is not so much with the Republican White House, but with her own party. These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats. They are not like some of the liberal firebrands that are in -- in the House right now. So, she's got to bring those two groups together, make them be a cohesive force, or else what you're going to see is a Republican president reaching out to the conservative Democrats and forming coalitions. That's what Eisenhower did. That's what often happens when you have a president of one party and a Congress controlled by the other party.

From the November 8 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: In point of fact, that still is -- it's a pretty narrow margin as far as doing business, and especially when you consider many of the Democrats who won were conservative Democrats.

MERCURIO: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: The Democratic Party has Nancy Pelosi, very liberal, at the top, and then a lot of conservatives, those so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats, that won here. Is it going to be difficult to corral that group?

MERCURIO: I think that is exactly -- you just put your finger on what I think is going to be the most unique and specific challenge she's going to have going into this Congress. She needs to address the fact that the American public has repudiated the status quo, the Republicans, the Iraq war, a lot of other Bush administration policies. So, she needs to respond to that, but she also -- which you have to do in a sort of partisan way -- but she also has to reach across the aisle with what could be a Republican Senate and deal with these conservative Democrats. So, I really think Nancy Pelosi has a very complicated job ahead of her.

From the November 8 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: [Hoover Institute senior fellow] Thomas Sowell put this very well. He said the latest example of election fraud is actually what the Democrats did; they nominated a bunch of moderate and conservative Democrats for the express purpose of electing a far-left Democrat [sic] leadership.

The Democrats, if you're looking for good [inaudible], Democrats could not win this election being liberals. They could not have won the House being liberals, maybe in some parts of the country, but I mean, all these -- all the Democrats flexing their muscles and feeling good about this have to admit here that liberalism didn't win anything yesterday; Republicanism lost. Conservatism was nowhere to be found other than on the Democrat [sic] side of the aisle.

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