Progressives to target Dem reps in 2020 primary fights

Greg Nash

Progressive groups are set to back primary challenges against conservative Democrats in 2020, as they look to expand their wing’s footprint in Congress by taking out incumbents they see as out of tune with the current state of the party.

Justice Democrats, a progressive group that helped propel Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in her primary upset last year, has its eyes set on a number of more moderate House lawmakers in safe blue districts, with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) as the first target.

Plus, some national groups appear to be gearing up again to take on Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), who narrowly won a competitive primary in 2018 against a candidate backed by progressive and abortion rights groups.


The primary challenges come as progressive Democrats push for more influence in the new House majority and as they look to shape the party’s politics in 2020, having been emboldened after Democratic voters rejected a few entrenched incumbents last year.

But other Democrats bemoan that progressives are targeting their own — especially in the lead-up to a presidential election in 2020 — and say the party should stand as a big tent of different ideologies.

Justice Democrats have argued that Cuellar, a former chairman of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, votes with President Trump about 69 percent of the time, and have labeled him a “fake Democrat” even as the Texas congressman has been vocally speaking out against Trump’s push to fund a border wall.

The congressman represents a deep-blue Laredo-based district along the border, and  he frustrated some Democrats last year when he fundraised for GOP Rep. John Carter, a fellow Texan and friend who faced a tough race. Carter narrowly defeated Democratic veteran MJ Hegar by nearly 3 points in 2018.

As Justice Democrats search for challengers through grass-roots efforts, the group has also opened up its website for people to nominate potential candidates to run against Cuellar.

“Many activist and working-class families are disappointed that he’s ignored their concerns and are excited to help find a candidate to run as a progressive that champions the working-class and immigrant community,” said Danny Diaz, an organizer who lives in Cuellar’s district.

Cuellar campaign manager Colin Strother told The Hill that the congressman takes every campaign seriously and will continue to do so in his 2020 reelection race.


“They don’t know the district as we do. We feel that the congressman votes in a manner that fits his district. We’re happy to compare our record to anyone else who wants to run,” Strother said.  

“We don’t get frequently challenged for good reason. He’s really good at his job,” he added. “If others feel that’s not the case, they can test the waters and see what they get out of it.”

Cuellar has said the polling in his district shows that his constituents are “more moderate, conservative Democrats.”

“What happened to the Democratic Party being a tent?” Cuellar asked reporters last week, according to Roll Call. “I think the goal is to expand Democrats and not go after Democrats.”

Cuellar, who unseated former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) by a razor-thin margin in the 2004 primary, has previously faced primary challenges. He defeated Rodriguez in a 2006 rematch, and in the 2016 primary easily defeated a Republican-turned-Democrat who previously ran against him.

Whoever challenges Cuellar in 2020 will be going up against a well-funded lawmaker. 

As of November, Cuellar has nearly $2.6 million cash on hand.

Meanwhile, Lipinski, another conservative Democrat who has co-chaired the Blue Dog Coalition and Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, is likely to face a primary challenge in 2020 after surviving a close one last year. He has represented his deep-blue suburban Chicago seat since 2005.

Critics have taken issue with Lipinski’s stances on immigration, LGBT issues and reproductive rights.

He was one of only six House Democrats who voted in 2013 for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. He also voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Lipinski, Cuellar and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) voted with Republicans in 2017 in support of making permanent the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion services.

Lipinski ended up not speaking at the March for Life in 2018, but will address this year’s rally on Friday.

The Illinois congressman’s primary drew major attention as the Democratic Party was grappling with an internal debate over whether the party should only support candidates and members who back abortion rights.

Lipinski survived his closest primary challenge against marketing consultant and first-time candidate Marie Newman, defeating her by less than 3 points in the 2018 primary. He then cruised to victory in November.

NARAL Pro-Choice America was one of the main groups working to defeat Lipinski in 2018. The group worked with other progressive groups and unions on an ad campaign that opposed him.

This year, NARAL will be meeting with candidates who are interested in challenging Lipinski in the March 2020 primary, according to a spokeswoman for the group.

“There is a lot of interest on the ground and from organizations,” the spokeswoman said, adding that NARAL “continue[s] to have a vested interest in electing a pro-choice candidate to this seat.”

So far, no candidate has declared a run against Lipinski, though Newman said days after her primary defeat that she wouldn’t rule out another challenge. Newman told The Hill that she’s still considering a 2020 campaign against Lipinski.

But she’ll need to build up her campaign account since she ended September with less than $1,000 in the bank, well below the nearly half a million dollars Lipinski reported. Lipinski’s district is part of Chicago’s expensive media market.

Lipinski said he’s running for an eighth term but is currently focused on issues such as affordable health care and college, improved infrastructure and more job opportunities in the new Democratic majority.

“I would be surprised if Marie Newman runs again after her angry, mean-spirited speech on TV on election night. Especially in the age of Donald Trump, a lot of Democrats were turned off by that,” Lipinski said in a statement.

Democrats who are eager to take out incumbents are likely to face some hurdles since the House Democrats’ campaign arm won’t back primary challengers over incumbents.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), the new chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said she’ll be supporting “Democrats who are in the House,” according to a recent interview with Politico.

While some Illinois Democrats threw their support behind Newman in 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood by Lipinski, though moderate Democrats complained that ex-DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) took too long to endorse Lipinski’s reelection last cycle.

Another potential obstacle this time around is that primary challengers in the House will be competing for airtime and attention during what’s likely to be a crowded contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

“The primary season is off to a slower start than 2018 in Illinois given the [Gov. JB] Pritzker administration transition and the focus on the race for president. But a complicating factor in 2020 is the chair of the DCCC hails from Illinois,” an Illinois Democratic strategist told The Hill.

“Speaker Pelosi supported Lipinski last time and absent some clear, overwhelming data that he will lose, the expectation around here is that the caucus will frown upon primary challenges.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Cheri Bustos Collin Peterson conservative democrats Daniel Lipinski Donald Trump John Carter Nancy Pelosi primary challenge progressives
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