'Democrats can use a kick in the pants,' moderate congressman warns as midterm cataclysm looms

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WASHINGTON — The real divide in California has never been between San Francisco in the north and Los Angeles to the south, but rather between the moneyed coast and the hardscrabble inland, where pro-Trump placards abound. Few know that divide as well as Rep. Josh Harder, a native of Turlock, Calif., a town in the state’s Central Valley, where the local brewery is called Dust Bowl.

Harder left Turlock for Stanford, then went to graduate school at Harvard and later returned to California to work in venture capital before coming home and winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, then again in 2020, defeating his Republican opponent by a margin wider than the one by which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Stanislaus County, which makes up much of the district.

Josh Harder.
Josh Harder on election night in 2018 in Modesto, Calif. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

Now, though, Harder is one of several centrist Democrats facing the realities of a midterm election that history indicates will turn the House red. Not only that, the increasing unpopularity of the Biden administration deepens the challenge for moderates like Harder, who needs to win over an electorate that has as much distaste for Squad-style progressivism as it does for MAGA insurrections.

It doesn’t help that California’s redistricting commission has redrawn the boundaries of the district Harder represents, making it more friendly to Republicans.

“I think Democrats can use a kick in the pants,” Harder told Yahoo News in an interview in his Capitol Hill office last week. “The caricature of the Democratic Party that you see on Fox News or Facebook is that, you know, every Democrat wants to fire every police officer and ban every car and airplane. The antidote to that caricature is making the everyday lives of people better, and trying to let reality speak as loud as possible.”

Developments like the rise in prices and outbreaks of organized smash-and-grab looting in cities have both presented Democrats with an opportunity to show they understand the concerns of ordinary Americans. It is also an opportunity they have sometimes seemed intent on squandering, with some liberal columnists insisting inflation is a good thing and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dismissing the viral videos of looting in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles as, well, so much fake news.

Such attitudes have perennially infuriated centrist Democrats. After the GOP clawed back several House seats in the 2020 election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who faces many of the same challenges as Harder, tore into progressives for whom defunding the police became a clarion call that summer — and an albatross come November.

Voters in line to cast ballots.
Voters in Santa Clara County, Calif., wait to vote in the state's recall election on Sept. 14. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We're in Congress. We are professionals,” Spanberger said at the time. “We are supposed to talk about things in the way where we mean what we’re talking about. If we don’t mean we should defund the police, we shouldn’t say that.”

The pandemic has exacerbated such divisions among Democrats while presenting new ones. Progressives see their unified control of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass ambitious reforms. Moderates point out that ordinary Americans are ailing, and to dismiss their concerns is to all but ensure that those ambitions are never realized.

“The Democratic Party should be about making people’s lives better,” Harder told Yahoo News. “Full stop.” Strategists like David Shor, who has attracted intense attention from the Democratic establishment for his warnings against the party’s leftward lurch, have more or less said the same thing, arguing that the more Democrats listen to progressive activists, the more likely they are to drive out the voters who can actually win them elections.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, to be sure, but the Democrats’ struggles to articulate a message that will resonate outside of Berkeley and Bethesda remain, to put it very mildly, a work in progress.

Earlier this month, Democrats were mocked for sharing a graph that showed Biden presiding over a drop in gas prices that amounted to all of 2 cents. Gas prices may be the perfect conundrum for 2021, an issue that pits an increasingly maligned activity — driving — against the persistently uncomfortable reality that people still have to drive. Lecturing motorists about climate change won’t do much good, sound as that lecture may be.

Harder’s constituents most definitely drive, as do most people in the train-deficient, ferry-free breadbasket that is the Central Valley. And while there are plenty of Priuses to be found on the western slope of the Altamont Pass, his district is full of emissions-spewing pickup trucks, which ensure that the rest of the country can enjoy its produce.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Harder asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to lower California’s highest-in-the-nation gas tax, arguing in a letter to Sacramento that the recently passed federal infrastructure bill would provide the very funds that tax is meant to raise.

“State governments, soon to receive billions in federal infrastructure money, shouldn’t fleece drivers to pay for roads and bridges the federal government is already paying to fix,” he wrote in an accompanying op-ed that was published, tellingly, on the Fox Business website.

Harder has not heard back from Newsom, whose office did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. Far from being a climate denier, he wants to see that crisis addressed. But he is also acutely aware that if Democrats can’t do right by their constituents, they will cede power to a party whose leaders doubt that climate change is real.

That means, in his view, confronting uncomfortable realities like the cost of living and homelessness, an issue that is a chronic problem all over California, as the anchors on Fox News are happy to point out near-nightly. Democrats counter by arguing, with good reason, that homelessness has deep social roots, and that the pandemic has only made things worse.

Harder doesn’t think that’s enough. “If you walk down the streets and you see a whole bunch of homeless folks and you see a sign for gas that’s $5 a gallon, you don’t have a lot of confidence that things are actually getting better in your community and in your life,” he told Yahoo News.

In the coming months, both Harder himself and the Democratic establishment will decide how much to invest in his redrawn district. (There has been some suggestion that he might run in another district nearby, one that remains bluer.) For now, he argues that the Central Valley is a kind of bellwether for Democrats.

“If you lose my congressional district, you’re not going to have a majority,” Harder told Yahoo News. “If you win it, almost certainly you will.”