In key Senate races, Dems buck leftward tilt on issues

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — MJ Hegar, the leading U.S. Senate challenger in Texas, rides a Harley-Davidson in viral videos and has called herself “an ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding Texas Democrat.”

She is not a Democrat who promotes “Medicare for All.” She mentions that during a narrow loss for a House seat last year, her campaign signs appeared in front yards that also had ones for Republicans. And she sees unintended consequences with White House candidates who say they’ll decriminalize border crossings.

The concern, Hegar says, is “tying the hands of law enforcement.”

It doesn’t take a biker jacket to show that Democratic candidates in some key states in the 2020 Senate race aren’t going along as much of the party’s presidential field takes a hard liberal turn. Big gaps already are apparent in races in Texas, Iowa and Arizona. The latest discordant voice is Amy McGrath of Kentucky, a former Marine combat aviator running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recalled wincing while watching a sprint to the left unfold during the first Democratic debates on TV.

President Donald Trump has sought to exploit the ideological rift between Democrats — and fire up his own base — by assailing four liberal women of color in Congress who call themselves “the squad,” suggesting they get out of the country as he leans on issues of race in his reelection bid.

Policy differences always exist inside the major parties, but to some voters the Democratic agenda could soon seem like a hopeless argument with itself. More than in years past, progressives are insisting that winning in a polarized political environment requires ambitious ideas, not hedged compromises.

Even in moderate or conservative states, “having the candidate who is campaigning on exciting ideas is the biggest thing that will elevate them,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Washington-based Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for president.

In Texas, party leaders say they are confident in Air Force veteran Hegar taking on Republican incumbent John Cornyn, but they also are not discouraging progressives from challenging her. The field organizer for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss campaign for U.S. Senate last year is now trying to draft Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, the leader of a progressive Latino group called the Jolt Initiative.

In Arizona, progressives were deflated when Rep. Ruben Gallego, a liberal member of Congress, decided not to run against Republican Sen. Martha McSally and cleared the way for retired astronaut Mark Kelly, a moderate. And in Iowa, Theresa Greenfield has won early endorsements that include the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but that has not deterred liberal rivals from entering the race.

Democrats need to gain at least three seats next year to capture the Senate majority, and the map is an uphill climb. GOP seats are at stake in 22 states, but Trump carried 20. The argument is over whether the better approach is bold liberalism or cautious centrism.

In some contested states, if the leftward presidential tilt continues, the party’s nominee and Senate candidates could wind up contradicting on almost every major issue, from immigration and race to health care and education. Democratic consultants say that’s not a problem now: most voters at this stage are only broadly listening to whether candidates are on the same team.