SPONSORED:

Progressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats

Progressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats
© Greg Nash - Aaron Schwartz

Progressive candidates are launching primary challenges against incumbents like Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), though many will likely face a steep climb in capturing the same set of circumstances that propelled Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOvernight Energy: Update on Biden administration conservation goals | GOP sees opportunity to knock Biden amid rising gas prices | Push for nationwide electric vehicle charging stations The Memo: The GOP's war is already over — Trump won Ocasio-Cortez, Levin introduce revised bill to provide nationwide electric vehicle charging network MORE (D-N.Y.) to the House last year. 

Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez, has already announced its support for challengers to Cuellar and Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges MORE (D-N.Y.), but has yet to recruit more candidates or spell out how it intends to help support challengers. The group spent only $2.5 million in the 2018 campaign cycle. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, has said that it will not do business with consultants who work with primary challengers, a restriction that has infuriated progressives. 

Strategists also warn that incumbents are more prepared this time around than former 10-term Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) was when he was ousted by Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. Both Engel and Cuellar, for example, easily won reelection in 2018 and are proven, adept fundraisers. 

Moreover, primaries are largely fought on local issues or are shaped by local circumstances, much like how Ocasio-Cortez also benefited from a diversifying district, these strategists warned. 

“We saw a lot of progressive candidates lose in 2018. They did not win,” Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist and senior vice president of issues management at MWWPR, told The Hill. 

“It goes back to the old adage of all politics are local. If you’re a progressive challenger, you need to make sure that your district in the general election will respond to the policies and the policy prescriptions that you are proposing.” 

Challengers to incumbents have historically struggled. Besides Ocasio-Cortez, the only other progressive Democrat to defeat an incumbent last year was Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyBush testifies before Congress about racist treatment Black birthing people face during childbirth, pregnancy Genetic material from 1993 killing revealed years after another man executed for crime, groups say Advocates warn against complacency after Chauvin verdict MORE (D-Mass.), who beat Rep. Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoBottom line Hillicon Valley: Election officials prepare for new Russian interference battle | 'Markeyverse' of online fans helps take down a Kennedy | GOP senators unveil bill to update tech liability protections 'Markeyverse' of online fans helps take down a Kennedy MORE in a heavily blue Boston district. 

Both ran on progressive platforms and proved superb campaigners, but they also benefited from changing demographics that were particularly well-suited to insurgent challenges against older, white lawmakers. 

Any element of surprise will also be missing in 2020, as incumbents are now more likely to take any challenge seriously. 

Engel, currently in his 16th term in the House, is facing two progressive challengers. But he won his 2018 primary handily, defeating three challengers and receiving roughly 74 percent of the vote.  

Meanwhile, Cuellar, now in his eighth term, is being challenged by his former intern, immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros. But his campaign committee had $2.5 million cash on hand as of the end of 2018 — showing the perks of incumbency in raising money. 

Other progressive challengers could be facing even steeper odds to topple incumbents, including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Rural Democrats urge protections from tax increases for family farms Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE’s (D-Calif.) challenger, Shahid Buttar, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July House to consider anti-Asian hate crimes bill, protections for pregnant workers this month Top Democrat: Bill to boost Capitol security likely to advance this month MORE’s (D-Md.) challengers, Briana Urbina and Mckayla Wilkes. 

That is not to say that incumbents will coast by. 

Progressives believe constituents are hungry for fresh policy ideas and new faces in a party that is veering left in key issues like health care or climate change. 

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: Broadband companies funded fake net neutrality comments, investigation finds | Twitter rolls out tip feature | Google to adopt 'hybrid work week' Warren: Trump is 'a danger to democracy' Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on Cheney drama: GOP is an 'anti-democratic cult' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden campaign promises will struggle if Republicans win back Congress Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers MORE (I-Vt.) have both emerged as top contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, campaigning heavily on progressive policies such as “Medicare for All” or free tuition at public colleges. 

“The center of gravity in the country and in the Democratic Party is moving in an economic populist direction, and even without dramatic changes in primaries, we’re seeing a greater willingness from Democratic nominees to challenge power and take on big corporations,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Committee, in an interview with The Hill. 

Research conducted by the Progressive Change Institute, which was also co-founded by Green, found that 65 percent of 2018 House freshmen campaigned on Medicare for All, expanding social security or another Medicare policy action.

Many of this cycle’s batch of progressive primary challengers are also younger, and they give voice to a new generation of Democratic voters eager for bolder and more left-leaning proposals.

“What I’m hearing is, it’s time for a change. That’s an echo throughout my campaigning and throughout my district since we launched a month ago. It’s time for a change. Congressman Engel has been there for 30 years,” educator Jamaal Bowman, who is one of Engel’s primary challengers, said in an interview with The Hill.  

Bowman, 43, is also one of two primary challengers that has been endorsed by Justice Democrats.

Engel's campaign touted the congressman's record in a statement to The Hill, citing his support of progressive policies like the Green New Deal. 
 
"As always, Rep. Engel welcomes a spirited campaign and debate on the issues. Whether it be his longtime support for Medicare For All, his early cosponsorship of the Green New Deal, his lifetime 'F' rating from the NRA, or his staunch support for public schools and unions, he is proud of his progressive record and looks forward to once again bringing that before the voters," the campaign said.
 
Cisneros, the other primary challenger endorsed by Justice Democrats, said she was inspired by Ocasio-Cortez, who was just 28 when she defeated Crowley. 

“When AOC was elected, I was at home. I had just come home from work, and seeing it all over social media and the news, it was really exciting because I saw myself in her,” Cisneros, 26, told The Hill. “Like a lot of people were sending me text messages [saying] like ‘hey look, this is happening.’ ”

Some of the progressive challengers also noted that their bids are necessary to send a message to incumbents about the need to accommodate wider voices within the party — and their districts. 

“A number of people said you’re not going to surprise him,” said Lindsey Boylan, who is one of three Democrats challenging House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse to consider anti-Asian hate crimes bill, protections for pregnant workers this month A historic moment to truly honor mothers Britney Spears to discuss conservatorship in court MORE (D-N.Y.) in the district’s primary. 

“I’m not trying to surprise him. I want him to be ready, and we’re going to push for what constituents of the district need and the future of the district, and fight for it.”

The desire to have a voice in the policy debate has powered progressive groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, which has agitated for stronger action on climate change.

“In order for us to really, I think, shift the political landscape in the way that we need to win things like a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, we have to not just challenge Republicans,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. 

Yet whether having that debate play out in primaries will ultimately help the Democratic Party is in doubt, however.

Democrats took over the House in a wave election in 2018 with a diverse crop of candidates, but many of the key wins were in more moderate suburban areas like Virginia’s 10th District, where Rep. Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonAdministration withdraws Trump-era proposal to loosen protections for transgender homeless people Trump the X-factor in Virginia governor race Xinjiang forced labor complex is growing — President Biden should work with Congress to curb it MORE ousted Republican incumbent Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockLikely Cheney successor appears on Bannon show to tout GOP unity The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE.

That has some strategists worried that progressives could push the party too far to the left or that they could hand Democrats loses should they prevail in their primaries.

“While I do think that some of the progressive candidates are going to be able to win their primaries, I think that they’re going to have a really tough time in the general election, and that’s just something the Democratic Party can’t afford right now,” said Holdsworth from MWWPR.