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Liberals moderates both Dilemma in 75 districts

Issued: 2018-03-15

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, center, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., early Wednesday, March 14, 2018. A razor's edge separated Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone early Wednesday in their closely watched special election in Pennsylvania, where a surprisingly strong bid by first-time candidate Lamb severely tested Donald Trump's sway in a GOP stronghold. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

ATLANTA (AP) -- Pennsylvania's Conor Lamb and Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, the new miracle men of the Democratic Party, offer a clear model for how to run in Republican territory: Focus on economics, not guns, immigration or President Donald Trump.

But that won't be easy when much of the party is whipped into a fervor over those topcs.

As the party barrels into primary season, its biggest success stories star Democratic moderates who've run strong in Trump country. But much of the energy in the party is on the left, where an active base is calling for everything from single-payer health care and a $15-an-hour minimum wage to bans on certain weapons and ammunition. Finding the balance between the base's demands and winning general elections is Democrats' new dilemma as they look to toward to the November midterms.

The challenge will greet Democratic candidates across 75 targeted GOP-held districts that Trump won in 2016, as well as the 10 Democratic senators facing re-election challenges in states Trump won.

To be sure, most of those districts are friendlier to Democrats than Jones' Alabama, which Trump won by nearly 30 percentage points, and Lamb's southwest Pennsylvania House district, where Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points and Lamb maintains a lead of fewer than 700 votes. That race has not been called.

The questions of tone, emphasis and policy nonetheless hang over Democrats' mission to flip the 24 GOP-held seats they need for a House majority and their path to reverse Republicans' 51-49 Senate advantage.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is in line for a second stint as speaker if her party is victorious in November, says the dangers of competing — and sometimes unhappy — factions are overblown. "It's not a question of ideology. We all believe in working families, that's what unifies us," she told The Associated Press. She added, "In order to win, it has to be an economic message."

Republicans acknowledged Lamb's strong performance this week in Pennsylvania as a wakeup call. But they also insist Lamb and Jones, who won his Senate seat last year, were unusual candidates. They competed in special elections where turnout is unpredictable, ran against flawed Republican nominees and, importantly, emerged unscathed from primaries.

Some top Democratic recruits face serious primary battles.

In southern New Jersey's 2nd District, where Republican Frank LoBiando is retiring, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee touts state Sen. Jeff Van Drew as "a bipartisan consensus builder" who wins his majority Republican legislative district easily. Trump won the congressional district by almost 5 points in 2016; LoBiando got 59 percent of the vote.

Yet liberals hammer Van Drew for opposing abortion and voting with the National Rifle Association. They're backing retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood, who supports gun restrictions and abortion rights.

"Progressive activists have to save the party from itself, otherwise we'll be represented by Republicans masquerading as Democrats," Youngblood said on her campaign Facebook account this week. Democratic leaders, she said, "are out of touch with the base of the party."

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