SILVER SPRING, Md. ― Tom Perez took over as chair of the Democratic National Committee in the aftermath of a 2016 presidential race that tore open the divide between progressives and moderates within the party. Throughout his four-year tenure leading the organization, he repeatedly had to navigate the demands of left-leaning and centrist factions as Democrats worked to take back both Congress and the White House.
Now, as Perez makes his own run for governor of Maryland and the Democrats he helped elect struggle to pull their agenda across the finish line in Washington, something surprising is happening: In Perez’s race and others, the ideological battles that defined the past four years of Democratic primaries are cooling, with experience and background becoming more important as voters look for candidates who can tackle inflation, climate change and a sclerotic political system.
“The questions voters are asking now are really centered around who is battle-tested to handle, to multitask on these issues,” Perez told reporters after rallying his campaign volunteers outside an early voting site in this Washington suburb. “It’s about who can be both a dreamer and a doer, who can articulate a vision that is consistent with my values but then also get stuff done.”
Ideology is not wholly irrelevant. Elected officials, unions and well-funded outside groups are still studying candidates’ positions on key issues before making endorsements and spending decisions, and some races, especially for deep-blue House seats, are still turning into progressive vs. moderate wars.
But the Democratic gubernatorial primary here illustrates how ideology has faded to the background. Three candidates in a crowded field are thought to have a chance to win: Perez, author and executive Wes Moore and longtime state Comptroller Peter Franchot. Perez and Moore are slightly to Franchot’s left, but the candidates have argued more over who is best prepared to take over the state rather than split hairs over policy details.
“I’m from the GSD wing of the Democratic Party,” Perez declares in one of his ads, explaining that “GSD” stands for “Get shit done.” In the spot, Perez says he’ll focus on protecting abortion and voting rights and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, never mentioning costlier causes like “Medicare for All” or free college. Other ads mention his time running the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and his time as a local elected official.
This focus on biography and electability has replicated itself in other Democratic primaries, including the Florida governor’s race and Senate primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
That’s a sharp change from four years prior, when gubernatorial races in Florida, Nevada and Michigan all took on sharp ideological contrasts. In Maryland, Democrats saw progressive former NAACP head Ben Jealous and the more moderate Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker battle for the nomination. Jealous proposed big ideas ― the legalization of marijuana, free community college ― while Baker promised steadier, more practical leadership.
The decline of ideological clashes has a multitude of causes, Democratic operatives and candidates said: The coronavirus pandemic, and the economic misfortunes that have accompanied and followed it, have voters more focused on short-term fixes, such as gas price relief, than long-term ambitions, like Medicare for All. And the relative unity of the Democratic Party during President Joe Biden’s administration, with essentially two Democratic senators holding up the agenda, has made the ideological gaps seem surmountable.
Jealous has endorsed Moore, whose own invocations of “big ideas” and a “bold future” can sound familiar, but when asked to separate himself from the crowded field ― at one point there were 12 candidates for the Democratic nod ― Moore immediately turned to his background.
“I’m not a career bureaucrat. I’m not someone who’s been running for office for the past 40 years,” Moore said in an interview, not-so-subtly referring to Perez and Franchot. “I’m someone who has spent my entire career working in and with communities to make big changes.”
The focus on biography has been a double-edged sword for the 43-year-old Moore. His varied and glittering résumé ― Rhodes Scholar, Army combat veteran, Wall Street executive, bestselling author, TV show host, nonprofit CEO ― has earned him the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey and whispers among Democrats about his political career’s sky-high ceiling. An ad narrated by Winfrey focuses almost exclusively on his biography.
“A life spent lifting up others,” Winfrey says in the ad. “The type of transformational leader that these times demand.”