Inside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats

Inside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats
© Courtesy of Jessica Cisneros

Progressive activists hunting for opportunities to reshape the House Democratic Caucus are searching for winnable districts where they can take advantage of an evolving electorate to shift the party to the left.

A year after Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTlaib says Trump 'scared' of 'Squad' The Memo: Dangers loom for Trump on immigration Students retreating from politics as campuses become progressive playgrounds MORE (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyTlaib says Trump 'scared' of 'Squad' Former GOP Rep. Jason Lewis says he'll challenge Tina Smith in Minnesota Poll: Voters split on whether it's acceptable for Israel to deny Omar, Tlaib visas MORE (D-Mass.) upset longtime incumbents, a handful of progressive organizations are targeting districts where voters are highly educated, highly liberal and more diverse than average.

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Those voters, the activists believe, are changing the way they think about politics. Where they were once satisfied with a member of Congress bringing federal funding back to their districts, they are now more interested in members of Congress who reflect their ideological outlook.

“We have a Democratic base that I think has gone from prioritizing a materialistic style of politics to an ideological style of politics,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive group targeting some of the entrenched incumbents. “Where do we have places where Democratic voters have moved from being material satisficers to ideological satisficers?”

That evolution was on display in New York and Massachusetts, McElwee said, where then-Reps. Joseph Crowley (D) and Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoInside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats Progressive mayor launches primary challenge to top Ways and Means Democrat Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm MORE (D) built careers on bringing home the bacon. But Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley made a more explicitly ideological case to voters based on liberal priorities such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.

For now, progressive groups are identifying potential challengers who can both raise money to compete with entrenched incumbents and capture a cresting wave to beat them in a primary.

“When we look at districts, it’s part art and part science. The art part is paramount. We’re not in this just to go against incumbents, we’re in this to elect champions,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director and co-founder of Justice Democrats.

The science part will come closer to the primary. Rojas said her group is preparing a field plan on behalf of Jessica Cisneros, an attorney challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). 

Where the field plan in New York involved densely packed apartment buildings, the Texas version will involve gas cards for volunteers roaming through Cuellar’s far more rural district.

“This time, we really want to focus in on races where we think we can really turn the needle,” Rojas said.

The evolving outlook of the primary electorate mirrors a change in the mechanics of a modern Democratic political campaign. 

Candidates who build their own network of small-dollar donors now compete on a more level playing field with the incumbents who are able to pull in maximum donations from the wealthy and politically connected; so far this year, small-dollar donors have made up a larger fraction of money earned by Democratic presidential candidates than money from big donors.

“Grass-roots donors giving smaller donations online are no longer just a side thought. They are the center of any successful fundraising strategy,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, another group backing liberal primary challengers. “AOC [Ocasio-Cortez] proved the concept for grass-roots donors that it pays to invest in primary challenges to out-of-touch incumbents.”

In New York, it helped, too, that Ocasio-Cortez won an extremely low-turnout primary. Fewer than 30,000 people voted in the 2018 Democratic primary, in which Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley by about 4,000 votes.

Now, Democratic groups are on the hunt for other contests that are likely to be sleepy, low-turnout affairs. Among their chief targets are Rep. Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeInside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats Hillicon Valley: DOJ opens tech antitrust probe | Facebook, Amazon set lobbying records | Barr attacks encryption as security risk | NSA to create new cybersecurity arm House lawmakers to introduce bill banning facial recognition tech in public housing MORE (D-N.Y.), who won her nomination with 16,000 votes out of about 30,000 cast in the 2018 primary; Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelNadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Trump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (D-N.Y.), who took 22,000 out of 30,000 votes; and Rep. David ScottDavid Albert ScottInside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Harris hops past Biden in early race for Black Caucus support MORE (D-Ga.), who won 56,000 votes in a primary in which he was unopposed.

Counterintuitively, high-turnout elections can hurt a progressive challenger’s chances. In states like Washington and California, where the top-two vote-getters advance to the higher-turnout general election regardless of party affiliation, challenges to incumbents in 2018 sputtered.

“In a general election, you tend to think about mobilization and persuasion. In a primary, mobilization is persuasion,” McElwee said. “Fundamentally, the AOC-Crowley race would have been a different race if you had [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo on the ballot.”

Some progressive activists cite high turnout for what may have been their biggest disappointment in 2018, a bid to unseat Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperEPA ordered to set stronger smog standards America is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes MORE (D-Del.). Carper’s challenger, an Air Force veteran and progressive activist, reached the vote totals her campaign set at its outset — but higher-than-expected turnout broke for Carper, and he won by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

The members of Congress who face challenges this year may take a page out of Carper’s playbook, trying to harness Democratic enthusiasm to boost primary turnout and overcome progressive rivals.

“We’re thinking a lot about the fact that incumbents know that these challenges are coming and can do a lot more to prepare for them,” McElwee said.