Why Clyburn is flexing his political muscles in this year’s primaries

After decades in Congress and years in House Democratic leadership, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is flexing what he calls his “political tentacles” ahead of what is expected to be a tough election year for Democrats up and down the ballot.

Tuesday marked another — mostly — successful primary night for Clyburn’s endorsed candidates, with incumbent Rep. Donald Payne Jr. fending off a progressive primary challenger in New Jersey’s 10th District and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) advancing to a runoff in Los Angeles’ mayoral race.

Clyburn made trips to Newark and Los Angeles to campaign for the two Democrats, the latest example of him serving as an ambassador of sorts for House Democratic leadership on the campaign trail.

“I talk to people all the time,” Clyburn said in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill. “I spent last weekend in Detroit, Michigan talking to people…and the day before I was in Detroit on Saturday of last week, I was in Newark, New Jersey.”

Clyburn has repeatedly been dubbed a “kingmaker” in politics. He hosts an annual fish fry, known as his “World Famous Fish Fry” in South Carolina, where candidates up and down the ballot gather to speak with voters. This year, candidates like South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Mia McLeod were in attendance. During presidential years, Democrats, like President Biden, are sure to make the pilgrimage to the gathering in the early primary state.

But his biggest splash came in 2020 when he galvanized the Black vote in South Carolina and much of the south to come out and vote for Biden, who had previously suffered losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. The congressman’s involvement has been viewed as a key factor in propelling Biden to the Democratic nomination.

Since then he’s crisscrossed the country to try to maintain Democrats’ narrow House majority.

Clyburn campaigned for Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) in 2021 and again in 2022 when she faced and defeated progressive Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District.

And he made headlines last month when he traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to campaign for Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who at the time was facing a contentious primary challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar defeated Cisneros by just 281 votes in a runoff. Cisneros has called for a recount.

Clyburn and House Democratic leadership’s involvement in the primaries between progressive and establishment candidates has struck a nerve with progressive activists. The Cuellar-Cisneros primary particularly laid those tensions bare.

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hit the party establishment’s backing of Cuellar, who opposes abortion and is considered the most conservative Democrat in the House.

“On the day of a mass shooting and weeks after news of Roe, Democratic Party leadership rallied for a pro-NRA, anti-choice incumbent under investigation in a close primary. Robocalls, fundraisers, all of it,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Cuellar is a rare kind of Democratic lawmaker given his more moderate views on issues like abortion and border security. But Clyburn said lawmakers like Cuellar can be an asset to the party as a whole, especially in a district that is being targeted by Republicans during a cycle in which the national mood appears to be in their favor.

“You don’t allow these differences to define your ability to work together. I work very well with Henry Cuellar,” the majority whip said. “He has experiences that I don’t have. He interacts with people that I don’t particularly interact with, so he brings our discussions an element that I can benefit from, and I guarantee you he benefits from mine as well, which is interesting because I had a cup of coffee with him this morning.”

He added, “Cuellar cannot get elected in my district and I cannot get elected in Cuellar’s district. It’s our job to stay in touch with our constituents, get elected, and then come to this body, sit down around the table, and reconcile whatever differences we bring to the discussion.”

When asked about his secret sauce to galvanizing Democratic voters, Clyburn said it’s all about “maintaining balance” in the democratic process. He referred to the recent visit he has to San Antonio to campaign for Cuellar, as well as his trip to Morehouse College when he met with Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.). Both Cuellar and McBath could face contentious general reelection battles.

“When you’re looking at that balance, Lucy McBath is at one end of the spectrum, Henry Cuellar is on the other end,” he said. “But we as a party, we as a country, will succeed only when we maintain that balance.”

And according to Clyburn, he has worked to do just that with his progressive colleagues, including members of “the Squad.”

Clyburn noted how he and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) have been working closely together on student loan debt relief. He also noted a conversation with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

“This doesn’t get reported on and we don’t have press conferences to say that we just had a conversation and we see moving forward on this issue in the same way, but I get along well with [Omar], I get along very well, and I get along with Ayanna,” he continued. “So this whole notion that there’s a gap between us is just not true.”

Clyburn compared the differences between the party’s establishment and progressive flanks to his own marriage, arguing that both take work.

“We raised three healthy daughters and stayed married for 58 years,” Clyburn said. “We didn’t do that by agreeing on everything. We did that by respecting each other and reconciling where there were differences that existed and learning from each other and moving forward.”

House Democratic leadership is very aware that their members will likely face headwinds going up against Republicans in November given the national mood. Clyburn got a taste of this last year in Virginia where he endorsed former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in his bid to win a second term as governor of the commonwealth. McAuliffe ended up losing to now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R ), which Republicans have said was a signal of an approaching red wave in 2022.

The Democratic winner in Texas’ 28th District will face a formidable opponent in Republican nominee Cassy Garcia. And in Los Angeles, Bass faces a tough opponent in Republican-turned-Democrat Rick Caruso.

“I know that she’s up against a lot of money, as well as some other traditional notions that she has to overcome,” Clyburn said. “I think she did that when she was in the legislature there, rising to become speaker of the House,” he continued. “I think all of that demonstrates her ability to work with people and get things done.”

Caruso has made law and order a centerpiece of his campaign, echoing a campaign message heard from Republicans across the country amid a nationwide rise in violent crime. Critics have said this could leave Bass vulnerable. Clyburn said she has struck the right balance, citing his work with her on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

“She is as tough on these issues as anybody needs to be,” he said. “It is one thing to be tough, it is another thing to be suppressive.”

But Clyburn reiterated his stance against defunding the police, an issue that has divided establishment and progressive Democrats since Floyd’s murder in 2020.

“There is nobody in this country that has spoken out more against ‘defund the police’ than Jim Clyburn has,” he said.

But when it comes to the broader divisions between Democrats, Clyburn said he is hopeful that both sides can come to an understanding. He cited his working relationship with his grandson, who is currently running his reelection campaign in South Carolina’s 6th congressional district.

“I sit down to talk to him all the time, I  had a long talk with him last night, trying to reconcile my experiences with his experiences,” Clyburn said. “And hopefully that will happen with progressives in the party.”

Tags Democratic primaries Donald Payne Jr. James Clyburn James Clyburn Karen Bass Shontel Brown
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