NOEL KING, HOST:
Democrats are having an identity crisis. Last week, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat New York Democrat Joe Crowley in a major upset. Ocasio-Cortez ran on a bold, progressive platform. And so now there is a lot of talk about the Democratic Party drifting to the left. But is that what's actually happening? NPR's congressional reporters Kelsey Snell and Scott Detrow have spent the past couple months talking to dozens of candidates, campaign managers and Democrats in Congress to try to make sense of this year's primary season. They're with me now in studio. Kelsey, Scott, hello.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right. So let's start with this big upset in New York. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a self-described Democratic socialist. Is this a sign that Democrats are taking a hard left turn?
SNELL: Well, most of the elected Democrats that we've talked to say it's a sign that Democrats are taking a hard left turn in some areas and areas in particular like New York. So she won in a part of New York that has been a hotbed for liberals for some time. It's parts of Queens and parts of the Bronx where she was able to really organize people who are upset with President Trump's policies, particularly on immigration. Now, there are plenty of people like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who say this is not necessarily representative of where the party as a whole is going. It's representative of where just these kinds of districts where you have a lot of engaged voters are moving. So Pelosi addressed this several times last week.
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NANCY PELOSI: Everything is at stake in our country. People all see the urgency of it. They want to take responsibility for it. That gives us an opportunity to win. So I just say, just win, baby.
SNELL: Basically, she's saying she's happy to raise money for whoever the candidates are just as long as more Democrats are elected.
KING: Scott, what types of Democratic candidates are winning primaries in the main battleground districts?
DETROW: Yeah. In the main districts that are really the centerpiece of the battle for control of the House of Representatives this year, they're, by definition, Republican-held districts. That's where Democrats are fighting, and a lot of these districts are a little bit of a Democratic reach. By and large, the candidates emerging from primaries in these districts are the ones backed by national leaders. And by and large, these are more moderate lawmakers. There is a thought that the way that Democrats win these districts is to appeal to a sense of governing, to appeal to a sense of centrism, trying to be the type of Democrat that just enough independent voters or maybe Republicans dissatisfied with Trump could vote for.
Now, that idea has gotten a lot of pushback from the progressive corners of the party who say you need to excite Democrats. You can't try to go halfway to meet Republicans because, in the end, you're not going to get many Republicans. But if Democrats look back at the big successes of the last year or so, they see a trend here. They see Doug Jones winning an upset Senate race in Alabama. They see Conor Lamb winning a House race in a district that went for Trump by about 20 points. They see Ralph Northam winning the Virginia governor's race by and large on a boring moderate centrist platform. Joe Trippi helped run Doug Jones' Alabama campaign, and he says his theory is that voters just want some sort of calm in all this chaos.
JOE TRIPPI: When you get that confrontational tone, what you do is you help drive people to their corners. Look; these districts are gerrymandered, or they're red states like Alabama. If you drive people to their corners, then you're going to lose.
DETROW: So that's the argument that he and many other Democrats are making, that in the competitive districts Democrats need to win, it's better to have that centrist approach than saying here's really hard-line progressive stuff that I'm pushing for.
KING: But how do you reconcile that with all of the energy that the progressives are seeing? Or does it just seem as though the progressives are seeing a bunch of energy because you've got these really interesting, now-high-profile candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
DETROW: That's the hard part of running a midterm campaign - right? - because you have 435 different races in districts, by and large, many of which look nothing like the Bronx and Queens. Certainly, there is this national push to the left in the Democratic Party. That's real. It's happening. I think you'll see it really play out in the 2020 Democratic primaries for president a lot more than it's playing out in these midterm campaigns.
KING: All right. So, Kelsey, let's say things go wonderfully for the Democrats, and they win back control of the House. How are they going to govern when you've got centrists and progressives all coming to Washington together?
SNELL: Well, that is the main question that Democrats really don't know how to answer yet because they are talking to all of these candidates who are coming in with really energetic feelings about why they were elected, feeling like they have mandates here and that they need to show up in Washington and prove to voters that they're able to make good on that. But when you talk to some of the people who are in leadership, particularly in the House, they say that what happens when you get to Washington is plans kind of change, and you kind of adjust to the actual confines of what is able to get passed. I talked to Cedric Richmond. He is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he basically said he thought that people would come to Congress and be ready to pass whatever they could.
CEDRIC RICHMOND: An internal fight doesn't get us to governing. And I think the majority of Democrats - the overwhelming majority - understand the importance of governing as opposed to being the resistance.
SNELL: Now, that may not actually be the case right at the start. But I talked to a lot of Democratic aides and a lot of staffers who said that there's something of a meat grinder that happens in Washington, particularly when Democrats, even if they win back control of the House, they won't have the presidency. They won't be able to pass things that then automatically become law. So there is a certain amount of having to work together and be a different kind of a resistance, a group resisting against Trump or, you know, pushing their own separate policies, that'll need to happen.
KING: Well, some Republicans, though, have suggested that Democrats might see a split the way the Republicans did with the - between the Tea Party and the mainstream centrist Republicans. Do you think that's likely to happen in the next term?
SNELL: Most Democrats I talked to say there is no such thing as the Tea Party of the left. They say that they are really comfortable being a party with diverse ideas and opinions because that's what they've done for the entirety of their party.
KING: Let's talk about this notion of all Democrats being on the same page because we are hearing a lot about frustration with Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, including some candidates who say they will not support her for leader. How does this tension within the party impact her chances of staying leader or being speaker of the House next year?
DETROW: I think, first of all, I would say Nancy Pelosi would love to have this problem. When she's asked about all of these candidates saying they wouldn't vote for her as leader next year, she says that's fine. Do whatever you need to do to win. She quotes the former Raiders coach Al Davis saying, just win, baby. That's how she thinks about this. But, yeah, you are seeing more and more of these candidates winning primaries saying - separating themselves from Nancy Pelosi, saying they wouldn't vote for her as leader. And I think that could continue to be a real thing, especially as Democrats all across the country agree that it's time for the party to have some new faces.
KING: NPR's congressional reporter Scott Detrow and Kelsey Snell, thank you guys so much.
DETROW: Thank you.
SNELL: Thank you.
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