Progressives look to flex their muscle in next Congress after primary wins

Progressives look to flex their muscle in next Congress after primary wins
© Getty Images

Progressives are looking to flex their muscle in the House next year after a series of primary wins in safe blue districts teed up a number of liberal freshman for the 117th Congress.

Despite failing to get one of their own on the Democratic presidential ticket, progressives’ successes in House races will likely help a burgeoning left-wing flank in the chamber hold more sway as it advocates for policies including “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and free public college.

“I think what’s likely to happen is the strength of the Progressive Caucus in the U.S. House is going to go up by the presence of these folks both as policy leaders and political movement leaders,” said progressive strategist Neil Sroka. “They’re going to be a major force within the Democratic Caucus, and that’s going to strengthen the Progressive Caucus’s hand within the larger Democratic representation.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Progressives Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres in New York, Cori Bush in Missouri and Marie Newman in Illinois have all secured nominations in heavily Democratic districts, in some cases unseating longtime incumbents. 

Most have the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), and all are expected to join the group, already one of the biggest and most diverse on Capitol Hill. 

Jones, who won an eight-person primary in the race to replace outgoing Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTop House Democrats call for watchdog probe into Pompeo's Jerusalem speech With Biden, advocates sense momentum for lifting abortion funding ban Progressives look to flex their muscle in next Congress after primary wins MORE (D-N.Y.), said the incoming lawmakers will provide the House with more “thought leaders” who will not only advocate for issues important to them but also nudge other members further to the left. 

“My freshman class will provide more thought leaders in the progressive movement in Congress and in our national discourse,” Jones said in an interview, adding that the new lawmakers should “serve as a source of encouragement to members of the caucus who may have been sheepish before this incoming crop of freshman.”

Among the issues the progressives are expected to prioritize are health care and economic inequities, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as police reform.

The likely incoming lawmakers indicated they’re ready to push the envelope in policy discussions within the Democratic caucus, particularly amid predictions Democrats will hold the House majority could potentially flip the Senate and White House.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We have to be willing to withhold our support from legislation that could be better and should be better,” said Jones.

Many of the recent primary victors come from activist backgrounds, and some suggested they could take tactics that others deem disruptive with them to the House to deliver results that benefit their districts. 

“Change has to happen, and sometimes change can’t happen if we just go along to get along,” Bush, a well-known activist in St. Louis, told The Hill. “When we step out and protest, when we do some things that people consider to be a little more radical, do things that are disruptive, disturb peace, then people pay attention.”

“So if we have to disturb some peace, if we have to grab some headlines to bring about some change, the best thing would be, give us the change and we shouldn’t have to get that far,” she added. “Let’s listen and let’s work together. We only protest or we only disrupt because there is a need. So if they fix it first, no discussion.”

Progressives have already demonstrated they are at times willing to take action beyond withholding their votes, with lawmakers appearing at protests within the Capitol Hill complex. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez, Warren pull out of New Yorker Festival amid labor dispute The Hill's 12:30 Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Country reacts to debate night of mudslinging Ocasio-Cortez calls Trump a 'white supremacist' after debate MORE (D-N.Y.), one of the most high-profile progressive lawmakers, famously appeared at a demonstration in Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump signs bill averting shutdown after brief funding lapse On The Money: 'One more serious try' on COVID relief yields progress but no deal | Trump tax bombshell shines light on IRS enforcement | Senate passes bill to avert shutdown hours before deadline 'One more serious try' on COVID-19 relief yields progress but no deal MORE's office to protest for the Green New Deal shortly after her 2018 election.

The CPC said it is excited to work with the likely incoming lawmakers, with Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila Jayapal'One more serious try' on COVID-19 relief yields progress but no deal Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (D-Wash.), the group's co-chair, specifically citing their willingness to “really leveraging the power of a certain bloc of votes.”

“These are folks who have come in running a campaign on progressive ideas against people who were not running on those ideas. And that just gives you a strength of purpose to continue the fight once you’re in Congress,” she said.

Progressives have already raised eyebrows in the House this term, with the CPC threatening to withhold votes on a bill to lower drug prices in December before reaching an agreement on changes with party leadership.

Liberals have also frequently cited polls showing how popular their progressive platforms are, particularly among Democratic voters.

“If you are in a safely Democratic district, there’s no reason for why you should not be supporting Medicare for All,” Jones said, using the universal health care plan as an example of policies he thinks more lawmakers should rally behind.

Still, the new crop of likely incoming lawmakers indicated they’re not entering Congress to spark fights, noting they look forward to working with lawmakers with whom they disagree.

In interviews, the recent primary winners said they’ve had discussions with House leaders including Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerSenate passes spending bill to avert shutdown hours before deadline Top House Democrat: Parties 'much closer' to a COVID deal 'than we've ever been' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Country reacts to debate night of mudslinging MORE (D-Md.) and more and look forward to working with them to advance their legislative agendas.

“Here’s the good news, is that we have this really great balance of seasoned lawmakers, folks who are a few terms in, and this new crop of the freshman class that I will be in should I win my race. And I think that’s a great balance,” said Newman. “And I think we’re all committed to respectful discourse. That’s how you get laws made.”

House leaders responded in kind, saying they look forward to welcoming new progressive voices to the Democratic caucus.

“Our Caucus’ strength is our diversity of ideas and backgrounds. From progressives to moderates, all Democratic Members have a place in our Caucus and deserve to have their voices heard. I look forward to working with the freshmen Members of the 117th Congress to address the issues most critical to the American people,” Hoyer said in a statement. 

But while the progressive nominees say they’re not intending to start any fires should they make it to Capitol Hill, they hope their recent victories have caught the eyes of those already in the House.

Bowman, Bush and Newman all unseated incumbents who had each served at least 15 years in Congress and had caught flak for either being physically absent from their districts or out of touch ideologically with their constituents — and progressives say other lawmakers should take those defeats as a warning.

“I think they should be on notice and ready to either dig in and learn some new things, do things some new ways and use their experience to build upon it,” said Bush, “or voters can say, ‘hey, who else in this district is ready for this work.’”

ADVERTISEMENT

Liberals maintain that their momentum is on the rise despite failing both this year and in 2016 to get a progressive on either the No. 1 or 2 spots on the presidential tickets.

Jones asserted that voters' choices of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump crowd chants 'lock her up' about Omar as president warns of refugees in Minnesota Democrats say Biden survived brutal debate — and that's enough Comey defends FBI Russia probe from GOP criticism MORE and Joe BidenJoe BidenPrivacy, civil rights groups demand transparency from Amazon on election data breaches Facebook takes down Trump campaign ads tying refugees to coronavirus Trump crowd chants 'lock her up' about Omar as president warns of refugees in Minnesota MORE as the White House nominees and their subsequent picks of centrist running mates amounted to more tactical decisions and were not indications of waning enthusiasm for broad, structural changes.

“The overwhelming majority of people who voted for Joe Biden were people who thought he was most electable in like three swing states. That explains why Joe Biden defeated Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats say Biden survived brutal debate — and that's enough The Hill's Morning Report - Fight night: Trump, Biden hurl insults in nasty debate Trump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins MORE, hard stop. It had nothing to do with Joe Biden having better policies that somehow resonated better with Democrats,” Jones said.

The party’s left flank, building off a string of down-ballot successes both in 2018 and 2020, appears ready to continue challenging more moderate incumbents in upcoming cycles. The CPC’s campaign arm was a serious player in Democratic primaries for the first time this cycle, and Jayapal suggested the group could keep up the pace in safe blue districts in the future.

The CPC PAC launched its first-ever independent expenditure program this cycle and has spent over $1.6 million since 2019, using funds to boost Jones in the unwieldy primary in New York's 17th Congressional District and Beth Doglio in the jungle primary in Washington's 10th Congressional District.

“Part of the path for progressive policy does run through blue districts and electing people who are not of the more moderate wing but are ready to take on some of these tough fights. So that’s why the CPC PAC engaged in primary battles this year with independent expenditures,” Jayapal said. “We see these as national priorities for the progressive movement to really engage in some of these blue districts where we can elect somebody who’s able to add to the ranks of pushing the boldest policy possible.”