CONWAY, Ark. — To many Democratic leaders, the path to power in Washington looks like Clarke Tucker.
And even when addressing an audience of Democratic Party regulars, he does not attack President Donald Trump by name.
In short, he comes across as a moderate — and exactly the kind of candidate who leading Democrats believe the party should field in Republican-leaning districts to bolster the majority they hope to win in the House in November.
But that strategy frustrates the party’s liberal supporters, who feel the wind at the Democrats’ back and worry about using it to crowd their House caucus with members who may feel inclined to buck the party leadership and stray from its policy agenda.
Though much of the Democratic energy nationally is coming from the party’s left, Tucker appears to be running well ahead of a clutch of more liberal rivals in the May 22 primary for a seat in central Arkansas.
“There’s, in my view, an overly simplistic characterization of Democrats now into one of two camps: either centrist and unenthusiastic or liberal and passionate,” Tucker, a state legislator, said in an interview after he spoke at a Faulkner County Democratic Women lunch on May 7. “I have a lot of passion about the issues that I really care about. At the same time, I realize that making any progress is better than making no progress at all.”
His broad, incremental approach can feel unsatisfying to more confrontational Democrats. Even more aggravating for them is the support Tucker has received from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, which anointed him as its preferred candidate to challenge the district’s Republican incumbent, French Hill.
“Is it really worth the win to keep pushing back against the people you’re supposed to be serving?” said Paul Spencer, one of Tucker’s primary opponents. “The party used to stand for something. At some point, you’ve got to stand up, and you’ve got to move the party in the right direction.”
In a string of important races across the country, national Democrats have been embracing recruits near the political center, hoping they will give the party the chance to compete in states like Utah and Kansas where a liberal Democrat might stand little chance of winning. About a dozen crucial House races this fall are likely to feature Democratic nominees who are positioned markedly closer to the middle than the national party’s activist base — more than enough to determine control of the House.
The party scored an early upset with such a candidate, Conor Lamb, in a Pennsylvania special election in March. Lamb, a veteran, opposed Pelosi, single-payer health care and most new gun regulations, but with a populist economic message captured a district Trump carried easily in 2016.
Democratic voters have largely been going along in the primaries held so far in these districts, which are often in rural areas. In Illinois the voters chose Brendan Kelly, a prosecutor with a mend-it, don’t-end-it message on the Affordable Care Act, to take on a conservative Republican in a rural district. And on Tuesday, Democrats in several states that Trump carried in 2016 selected ideological mavericks to carry their banner in difficult House races.
One was in Indiana, where Mel Hall, a businessman and former minister who has made political donations to Republicans, dispatched rivals on the left who called him an unreliable Democrat.
Another was in West Virginia, where Richard Ojeda, a fiery populist running for an open seat in the southern part of the state, has boasted of having voted for Trump in 2016.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a first-term Democrat who wrested his closely divided district from a hard-line Republican in 2016, said his party should strongly back moderate candidates who have the potential to compete in areas that often prove politically grim for Democrats. Gottheimer, who is backed by the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged liberal Democrats to accept some ideological dissension in the party’s ranks in order to achieve a congressional majority.
“If we’re going to win some of the places we can win, in redder parts of the country, it’s with people who may not be aligned on certain issues with some other Democrats,” Gottheimer said.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups on the left object that recruiting a generation of less-than-liberal Democrats might cripple the party’s ability to enact sweeping policy changes in Washington. If Democrats capture the House in November by only a narrow margin — perhaps half a dozen seats or fewer — a small cluster of stubborn centrists could wield enormous influence.
Liberal resistance to that scenario may become a more serious obstacle for moderate Democrats later in primary season, when bluer-tinged states select candidates. For example, in California, which votes next month, Democrats are waging fierce left-versus-center primary fights in many of the 14 Republican-held districts. And in many contested suburban districts, Democrats appear likely to nominate candidates well to the left of center.
Gottheimer acknowledged “tension within the ranks in the party” over whom to back in high-profile House races. He said he had spoken personally with centrist candidates in his own state and in Minnesota, California and elsewhere to urge them on. He paraphrased his message: “You can win, and you’ll be welcome in the caucus and in the party.”
The House Democrats’ campaign committee has not hesitated to back relatively moderate candidates, even in less red areas, when the group concludes that a less strident nominee would give the party its best chance of winning. The committee has backed centrist state legislators for Congress in upstate New York and southern New Jersey, and anointed Gil Cisneros, a former Republican and military veteran, in Orange County, California.
In central Arkansas, its seal of approval went to Tucker.
His district, the 2nd, stretching from the small towns of Saline County through Little Rock and toward the strawberry stands around Bald Knob, has tilted toward Republicans in recent years, but it is not inherently safe territory: A Democrat held the seat as recently as 2010, and Trump won only a bare majority there in 2016.
The incumbent, Hill, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, is increasingly seen as vulnerable, particularly against Tucker, whose personal struggle with cancer has come to define his campaign. Even so, Arkansas Republicans say they have confidence in Hill’s well-financed campaign.
“Any time you have Democrats almost singularly focused on that race, then that is naturally going to generate a more competitive race,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican seeking re-election, said over breakfast at the state Capitol. “It’s something to watch, but I do believe the potential for an upset is overblown.”
Poll results suggest that Tucker, 37, may advance to the general election without a runoff. The Democratic maneuvers in the race reflect a sometimes-grudging consensus among many donors and strategists that a more liberal candidate would falter in Arkansas.
Tucker said he wanted “to appeal to different kinds of people,” from his party’s most progressive voices to disgruntled Republicans, and he defended his record in the state Legislature, which he portrayed as both proudly Democratic and bipartisan.
“It’s important to recognize that when you say, ‘Oh, here’s a candidate who could win,’ it’s not about being moderate enough to attract moderates,” he said. “It’s about being visionary and innovative and passionate enough to excite people, to get them out and vote as well.”
His rival Spencer, a high school teacher, chafed at the national party’s intervention in the primary: “I’ve taught the Constitution for 20 years. I never saw any place in that document that said I had to ask permission of the party elite if I could run for public office.”
Spencer, whose campaign office in North Little Rock is filled with young workers and a decidedly grass-roots, upstart sensibility, insisted that a liberal platform would fare well among Arkansans if given the chance.
For plenty of Democrats, though, that seems too big a gamble. They say that in a place like Arkansas, their party must play a long game, and not expect voters to swing all the way from Republicanism to a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren-style liberal platform in a single election.
“Maybe we can get to that later, but you don’t build Rome in a day,” said Marion Baker, a 93-year-old stalwart of Democratic politics in Arkansas. “When you do a little thing, and it works, and people see that you do what you say you’ll do, then they’ll go along.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.