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Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path

Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path
© iStock, The Hill illustration

A wave of young activists preparing to take on some of the Democratic Party’s most senior members of Congress are taking their inspiration from an unlikely pair of populist politicians: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Memo: Outrage rises among liberals over Israel Battle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers Overnight Energy: Update on Biden administration conservation goals | GOP sees opportunity to knock Biden amid rising gas prices | Push for nationwide electric vehicle charging stations MORE (D-N.Y.) and President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE.

In a dozen or more deeply Democratic districts across the country, those activists say they want to emulate Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off a stunning upset by defeating a member of her party’s senior leadership last year. And many say they were moved to challenge entrenched incumbents because of the Democratic majority’s inaction against what they see as Trump’s abuse of power.

The rush of interest in what are likely to be long-shot challenges to entrenched incumbents is a reflection of three new rules that govern modern Democratic political campaigns: Candidates who can build small-dollar momentum are no longer dependent on big institutional money that tends to flow to incumbents. The plethora of media and social media platforms affords new chances to get a message out. And — as Ocasio-Cortez showed — there’s no longer any point to waiting one’s turn.

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“Our democracy is at stake. It’s slowly dying before our eyes,” said Alex Morse, the Democratic mayor of Holyoke, Mass., who on Monday launched a bid to challenge House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealGAO report finds maternal mortality rates higher in rural, underserved areas On 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 MORE (D-Mass.). “I think Congressman Neal is acting as if it’s business as usual in Washington. I want to uphold the Constitution and hold the president accountable.”

Neal, who began his first term in Congress weeks before Morse was born, is just one of the committee chairmen likely to face a challenge next year. 

House Judiciary Committee 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.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman 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.) have both drawn top challengers; Justice Democrats, the liberal group that backed Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, has endorsed Engel’s challenger, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman (D).

Justice Democrats have also backed Cori Bush, a nurse and community activist who is challenging Rep. Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayLiberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Progressives target Manchin, Sinema with new PAC MORE (D-Mo.), an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Clay has already clashed with Ocasio-Cortez and her allies over the race.

“We’re not going to shy away from pushing establishment Democrats or even our own Justice Democrats to rise to the occasion of this moment,” said Alexandra Rojas, who heads Justice Democrats.

And several progressive groups have lined up behind two candidates challenging the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus. In Illinois, marketing consultant Marie Newman is mounting a second bid against Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiHouse votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women Five things we learned from this year's primaries Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates MORE after losing by about 2,100 votes in 2018. In Texas, attorney Jessica Cisneros will challenge Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), who angered activists by raising money for a Republican colleague in 2018.

“AOC really proved the concept that in these changing times, when everyday people run for office and other everyday people vote, it’s possible to knock off an entrenched incumbent that everybody said was unbeatable,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

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The primary challenges come as Democrats make preparations to defend their new majority in Congress. Some Democrats worry that the money and energy spent on those challenges will come at the cost of the broader effort to keep the House.

“The amount of energy focused on primarying strong progressive Democratic incumbents … is beyond counterproductive — it’s selfish, destructive and plays right into Donald Trump’s hands,” said one veteran strategist who works closely with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who asked not to be named. “It took almost a decade to regain a Democratic majority. Instead of tearing our party apart, we should be uniting against the real enemies.”

Other senior Democrats think the churn is a natural evolution for a party that is increasingly reliant on younger and more diverse voters.

“The younger generation is taking over this party,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose anti-war presidential campaign in 2004 marked its own sea change in Democratic politics. “The core base of the Democratic Party is people of color, women and people under 35. They’re going to want leaders to look like them.”

Primary challenges are rarely successful. Since 2000, only 15 Democrats in Congress have lost bids for re-nomination. Tellingly, 11 of the 15 Democrats who beat sitting members of Congress were candidates of color, and all were younger than the members they beat.

“The Democratic caucus has generally gotten significantly older. We have a caucus, at least on the leadership side, that is very much stuck in the past. They’re still fighting the fights of 30 years ago,” said Charles Chamberlain, who chairs Democracy for America, a liberal group that grew out of Dean’s presidential campaign. “No one is untouchable. No one is safe from being challenged by a constituency.”

House Republicans underwent their own generational shift after the George W. Bush administration, and especially in 2010 with the rise of the Tea Party movement. Democrats reject comparisons of the current movement to the Tea Party, though most acknowledge that change is afoot.

“It’s a changing of the guard, and sometimes that generates a little more friction and conflict than is ideal,” said Markos Moulitsas, the progressive activist who founded the DailyKos blog. “It’s natural for a party to reflect its base, and the days where everyone but white men were expected to play a loyal supporting role are over.”

In some cases, putting pressure on a long-serving incumbent can be a win in its own right, even if that incumbent wins reelection. Sarah Smith, who challenged Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithDebate over ICBMs: Will 'defund our defenses' be next? Infrastructure should include the right investment in people Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill MORE (D-Wash.) in 2018, said she is not likely to run in 2020 because Adam Smith had embraced some of her campaign platform.

“We’re actually moving representatives towards the left, where they need to be right now. We’re moving them towards ‘Medicare for All,’ we’re moving them towards the Green New Deal,” Sarah Smith said. “My representative seems to have woken up a lot, and he seems to have moved on policy.”

Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was the second Washington state Democrat to call for impeachment inquiries into Trump, after Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalNurses union lobbies Congress on health care bills during National Nurses Week White House raises refugee cap to 62,500 The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' MORE, a close ally of the Justice Democrats.

“This is the renewal of the party,” Dean said. “Most of these challengers are going to lose, and some of them won’t, and that’s not a bad thing.”