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-CortezWhy Democrats must confront extreme left wing incitement to violence The Hill Interview: Jerry Brown on climate disasters, COVID-19 and Biden's 'Rooseveltian moment' House Democrats postpone vote on marijuana decriminalization bill MORE (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleySan Francisco considers changing local voting age to 16 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 (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 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 (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 ClarkeThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Top tech executives testify in blockbuster antitrust hearing Hillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.'s account The Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations 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 EngelThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep Coons beats back progressive Senate primary challenger in Delaware Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-N.Y.), who took 22,000 out of 30,000 votes; and Rep. David ScottDavid Albert ScottThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden marks 4th anniversary of Pulse nightclub shooting Georgia Rep. David Scott wins primary, avoiding runoff after final tally Georgia Rep. David Scott heads to runoff 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 CarperDemocrat asks for probe of EPA's use of politically appointed lawyers Overnight Energy: Study links coronavirus mortality to air pollution exposure | Low-income, minority households pay more for utilities: report OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push resolution to battle climate change, sluggish economy and racial injustice | Senators reach compromise on greenhouse gas amendment stalling energy bill | Trump courts Florida voters with offshore drilling moratorium 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.