The Democratic unity tour – aimed at healing the enormous divides revealed by the 2016 presidential primaries – began recently in Portland. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose insurgent campaign inspired millions across the country, appeared onstage with former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is now serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In Portland and elsewhere, Sanders was greeted much more enthusiastically than the new DNC chair. Given the tension between the DNC and Sanders’ camp during the campaign, that is perhaps no surprise. What is a surprise is that this “unity tour” is taking place at all.

Sanders, after all, is still a registered independent, not a Democrat, although he caucuses with them in the Senate, just like Maine’s Sen. Angus King (who didn’t attend the rally). So, in essence, the chairman of the DNC is touring the country trying to boost party enthusiasm with a guy who still won’t join the party. Moreover, given that Perez was a Cabinet appointee rather than a well-known elected official, it’s a given that Sanders will be the main draw at all of their events. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case if Sanders were touring the country with, say, former President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton: That would be more of a true unity tour.

For Sanders, of course, official acknowledgment of his insurgent campaign is a major coup, whether it helps the Democrats or not. After their own divisive primaries in both 2008 and 2012, the Republican National Committee did not strike a deal with Ron Paul and have him tour the nation on the party’s behalf. Instead, they were able to be successful without his help, taking back Congress in 2010 and the White House six years later.

As for Democrats, they may be hoping that embracing Sanders will head off their own tea party movement inspired by his candidacy, dividing the party even further. Despite all of the Republicans’ success since 2010, they were frequently hampered by intra-party feuding, culminating in the 2016 presidential primaries. That may be why the Democratic tour began in Maine. The state has been a key battleground for the grassroots of both parties, a focal point for both Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders (with some direct overlap between the two camps).

As with the Republicans, the Democrats may find that the 2016 presidential primaries continue to reverberate across the country. One of the key early tests for whether that leads to success or failure for the party as a whole will be here in Maine, where an open gubernatorial seat presents rich opportunities. The question for Democrats will be whether they can avoid a divisive primary here, or if several candidates try to claim the nomination by appealing to different wings of the party.

Of course, they may not actually want to avoid a primary – at least, not altogether. In 2010, Democrats successfully rallied behind 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, dissuading anyone from challenging him in the primary. They even managed to unite most of their party in the general election: Eliot Cutler dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2014. Still, none of that was enough, and in the end Gov. Paul LePage had an easier time winning his second term than he’d had winning his first.

Democrats are desperate to avoid a repeat of that, but it’s hardly a given that they will. The last Democrat to win a majority of the vote in a statewide election was George Mitchell in 1988 – almost 30 years ago – and the last gubernatorial candidate to do so was Joe Brennan in 1982. Democrats have hardly had an overwhelming record of success in statewide elections of late, and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. They’ve lost after nominating liberals and moderates, with or without competitive primaries.

Now Democrats face a new challenge: marrying the party establishment with a restive grassroots that wants a fresh-faced outsider. In the end, that’s what this division is all about. It’s not just an issue of ideology or politics, but one of identity. LePage was able to bridge this gap as a Republican, appealing to most Maine Republicans as well as new grassroots conservatives. The question for Democrats will be whether they will be able to find someone who makes that combination work at least as well as LePage, both nationally and in Maine.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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