Internal split rankles House Dems looking for 2018 wins

Pelosi: 'Democrats will stand our ground'
Pelosi: 'Democrats will stand our ground'

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Story highlights

  • House Democrats need to win at least 24 seats to win back control of the chamber
  • The caucuses' retreat this week highlighted the divide between liberals and moderates

(CNN)House Democrats put on a unified show in public this week at their annual retreat, but behind the scenes members of the party were still trying to find a way to bridge their own divides ahead of a 2018 election that could put them back in control of the House or deeper in the hole than before.

Nothing illustrated the split between moderates and liberals better than a single presentation at the House Democrats' retreat Wednesday.
Third Way vice president Jim Kessler delivered a county-by-county breakdown of Republican versus Democratic voters and argued, in part, that President Donald Trump won by breaking with Republican orthodoxy, according to lawmakers who attended the closed-door briefing.
And depending on who you asked at their retreat in Baltimore, Kessler's presentation was either largely torn down as missing the wave or lauded as the only way back to power for an ailing party.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a first-term liberal Democrat representing parts of Silicon Valley, said he confronted Kessler in the briefing and argued that he was missing a critical "moment" -- marked by outrage and events like the rallying behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren this week.
"I asked him in front of everyone about his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where he called Warren's economic populism 'falling off a cliff,'" Khanna said. "And I made two points: I said 'First, no one under 40 reads the Wall Street Journal in our party and, second, the future of this party is with the economic populist message.' And I think there was not really any real answer to speaking to where the energy is in the party. I think there was just a disconnect."
But other Democrats in the room said Kessler's briefing on where Democrats need to go was well-received, even inspiring "audible gasps" at times as the rapt of lawmakers reviewed his findings.
"He had a chart that showed how American counties had changed this election since the last one -- a couple of little blue arrows going this way and a massive sea of red arrows going the other way and the entire caucus went 'Ah!' You could hear gasps in the audience," said Rep. Jim Himes, a leader of the New Democrats -- the centrist wing of the party.
At the center of the divide is a fight for the party that will decide how House Democrats attempt to win the 24 seats in two years they would need to win back the House.
The Democrats have already done some very public soul-searching, marked by Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan's challenge of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi for control of the House Democrats, just weeks after the gut-wrenching election.
And they also commissioned a special report from a Democrat in a critical swing district, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who presented some of his findings to House Democrats Thursday afternoon (although the full autopsy of 2016 is not expected until next month.)
Maloney, along with Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told lawmakers Thursday that a serious overhaul was coming -- starting with firing some of their pollsters who whiffed on rural districts in 2016 and the potential removal of their long-time media buyer, in charge of placing their political ads.
But even with the promise of an overhaul, the Third Way presentation Wednesday was a bitter reminder that the party is still between the left and the center.
The morning after the Third Way briefing ended, Pelosi regaled reporters with stories from her native Baltimore and offered up Italian cookies from Vaccaro's, a storied local bakery in her old neighborhood.
Then she beat back reports of strife from within her own caucus -- saying that rumors of a protest inside the briefing were unfounded.
"I didn't notice that. I mean members walk out for a variety of reasons --some relate to personal hygiene, some relate to 'I've got to call my mother, I've got all my daughter.' People just walk out. You're telling me something I don't know. I do not know that anybody walked out of the room."
Even before the retreat had started, liberal groups including Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy For America -- with deep ties to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders -- were accusing House Democrats of shutting them out.
Veteran liberal lawmakers said they didn't bother attending the briefing because they knew what they were going to hear.
"Those of us that feel that one of the reasons that we're not in the majority is because we haven't been as distinct, we haven't made the differences as distinct," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chair of House Democrats' Progressive Caucus. "This preaching is kind of outdated for the times and to continue to preach something that is really a GOP-light idea I think is counter to what the intention of this gathering is."