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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-CortezOcasio-Cortez: Facebook, Zuckerberg 'bear partial responsibility' for insurrection Belfast's Troubles echo in today's Washington AOC's Ministry of Truth 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 EngelState Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies How Congress dismissed women's empowerment 2020: A year in photos 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. 

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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 PressleyBelfast's Troubles echo in today's Washington Federal government carries out 13th and final execution under Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE (D-Mass.), who beat Rep. Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoHillicon 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 Inside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats 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 PelosiCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Retired Army general: 'We can't have demonstrators showing up at a state Capitol with damn long guns' Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump MORE’s (D-Calif.) challenger, Shahid Buttar, and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report GOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Pelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate 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 WarrenBiden to tap Rohit Chopra to lead CFPB, Gensler for SEC chair: reports Biden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead Porter loses seat on House panel overseeing financial sector MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate 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 NadlerPelosi names 9 impeachment managers Republicans gauge support for Trump impeachment Clyburn blasts DeVos and Chao for 'running away' from 25th Amendment fight 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 WextonPorter loses seat on House panel overseeing financial sector Democratic lawmakers call for Pence to invoke 25th Amendment, remove Trump from office 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics MORE ousted Republican incumbent Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockFormer GOP congresswoman calls on Republicans to back impeachment 22 retired GOP members of Congress call for Trump's impeachment Former GOP congressman calls for Biden to receive presidential briefings 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.