5 House Dems likely to attract primary challengers

5 House Dems likely to attract primary challengers
© The Hill photo illustration

Democrats are looking to put a number of their own incumbents in the crosshairs in 2020 as competing party factions vie for influence in the new House majority.

Progressive groups are gearing up early in the 2020 cycle to field challengers against conservative Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas) and Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiDemocrats unveil impeachment procedures The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Booker endorses Lipinski challenger MORE (Ill.). And incumbents like Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardPanel devolves over new Russian accusation about Tulsi The Hill's Morning Report - Diplomats kick off public evidence about Trump, Ukraine Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE (D-Hawaii), who’s running for president, have already attracted credible challengers.

But primary challengers only knocked off two Democratic incumbents last cycle, illustrating the difficulties of defeating entrenched lawmakers with name recognition and deep pockets. Plus, the House Democrats’ campaign arm has stressed it will unconditionally support all incumbents.

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Here are the five Democratic lawmakers who are facing — or could soon face — a primary challenge in 2020:

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas)

Cuellar, a seven-term congressman from one of Texas’s few solid Democratic districts, easily won reelection in 2018.

But his reputation as a conservative Democrat — he’s one of the party’s few members who have voted for anti-abortion rights legislation, and he helped raise money for Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families America's workers and small business owners need the SECURE Act Cornyn faces toughest race yet in changing Texas MORE (R-Texas) last year — has rankled many progressives, who say that it’s time for Cuellar to go.

Justice Democrats, a grass-roots group that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOn The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings Overnight Energy: Perry replacement faces Ukraine questions at hearing | Dem chair demands answers over land agency's relocation | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders unveil 0B Green New Deal public housing plan Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez drum up support for Green New Deal public housing plan MORE (D-N.Y.) in her stunning primary victory over former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) last year, began actively encouraging potential candidates to mount primary challenges against Cuellar.

The group formed a “primary Cuellar fund” in an effort to assure would-be challengers that there would be some sort of financial backing if they jump into the race.

Colin Strother, the Texas congressman’s campaign manager, told The Hill that Cuellar was taking his reelection bid seriously.

“They don’t know the district as we do,” he said. “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.”

“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.”

Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchBrindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Overnight Defense: Dems release first impeachment probe transcripts | White House officials refuse to testify Monday | US, Iran mark 40th anniversary of hostage crisis White House officials refusing to testify Monday MORE (Mass.)

Lynch faced two primary challengers in 2018 and handily defeated both. Now one of them, Brianna Wu, is gunning for a rematch in 2020.

Wu, a video game developer who lost to Lynch by 48 points last year, announced her second bid for Massachusetts’s 8th District in November and is already staffing up ahead of next year’s elections.

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She’s hired Paul Casali, a New York-based consultant, as her press secretary — a departure from her 2018 campaign, which lacked a chief spokesperson and operated with skeletal staffing — and is already soliciting campaign donations through ActBlue, the Democratic Party’s online fundraising portal.

Wu has so far positioned herself to the left of Lynch, endorsing progressive proposals like “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal, a massive economic stimulus package that seeks to transform the country’s energy supply.

Still, it likely won’t be easy to oust Lynch. He carried 71 percent of the vote in last year’s primary and ended his general election bid with $1.45 million in cash on hand. That’s far more than the roughly $135,000 Wu raked in during her campaign.

“[Lynch’s] philosophy has always been the best way to run for reelection is to do your job well,” said Scott Ferson, an adviser to Lynch’s campaign.

”He enjoyed seeing Brianna Wu on the campaign trail and looks forward to seeing her again.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii)

Shortly after Gabbard announced she’d mount a long-shot run for president in 2020, the Hawaii Democrat drew a primary challenge from state Sen. Kai Kahele.

Gabbard has endeared herself in some progressive circles, especially when she stepped down from her role at the Democratic National Committee and endorsed Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California On The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings MORE (I-Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

But she faced harsh backlash from both sides of the aisle when she met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2017. When asked about it recently, she said she had no regrets about the meeting.

And she also faced scrutiny over her previous work for an anti-LGTBQ organization as well as her past record on those issues while serving in the Hawaii state legislature. Gabbard issued a lengthy apology for her past comments on LGBTQ issues.

Kahele, a veteran who served in the Hawaii Air National Guard, has already earned some fast support, including from liberal news site Daily Kos, which called him a “solid progressive.”

Gabbard, who was first elected in 2012 as the first Hindu member of Congress, has easily overcome Democratic primary challengers in the past. Still, she has yet to confirm whether she’s running for reelection in 2020.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Gabbard recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I haven’t heard from Sen. Kahele, but whatever he decides to do, I wish him well.”

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (Ill.)

Lipinski has become a frequent target for progressives in recent years.

His critics have taken issue with Lipinski’s stances on immigration, LGBTQ issues and reproductive rights. Lipinski was one of only six House Democrats who voted in 2013 for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

Lipinski faced his toughest primary challenge to date in 2018, defeating marketing consultant and first-time candidate Marie Newman by less than 3 points. Lipinski easily won in November in his suburban Chicago district.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, which was one of the heavyweights behind Lipinski’s 2018 primary challenge, told The Hill earlier this month that they’re already meeting with Democrats who are interested in taking on Lipinski in 2020.

Lipinski hasn’t gotten a formal challenge yet, but Newman told The Hill in mid-January that she’s considering a rematch in 2020. He has confirmed that he’s running for an eighth term.

But this time around, Lipinski will have the early support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has vowed to back all incumbents. He has also argued that his positions and values align with his constituents, who he has served since 2005.

“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 TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE, a lot of Democrats were turned off by that,” Lipinski said in a recent statement to The Hill.

Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonThe Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing We still owe LGBT veterans for their patriotism and service It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number MORE (Mass.)

Moulton, a rising star and Marine Corps veteran, has been a key player seeking to increase the number of Democratic veterans in Congress. He swept into Congress in 2014 after easily defeating an entrenched Democratic lawmaker in Massachusetts’s 6th District.

But Moulton irked some Democrats back at home when he initially withheld support for Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Jordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' USMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say MORE (D-Calif.) reclaiming the Speaker’s gavel after Democrats took back the House in 2018. Moulton eventually backed Pelosi for Speaker after a deal was struck on term limits for leadership positions. 

At one of Moulton’s town halls last year, some constituents organized pro-Pelosi protesters and reportedly told The Boston Globe that they’re looking to help support a primary opponent.

Former state Sen. Barbara L’Italien (D) suggested an interest in running against Moulton and has criticized him for challenging House leadership, according to NBC10Boston. L’Italien is fresh off an unsuccessful bid in the open-seat race for Massachusetts’s 3rd District, where she placed third in the primary.

But Moulton has also sparked speculation about a presidential run in 2020. He’s slated to visit first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire on Feb. 2 to speak at the Bedford Democratic Committee. He hasn’t formally indicated any 2020 White House plans.

Still, unseating Moulton would be a difficult feat, and a number of Democrats have reportedly ruled out running against him, including Rufus Gifford, who also ran in the 3rd District’s open-seat race in 2018, as well as Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.