Biden emboldens establishment Democrats with ballot box wins
Almost seven months into the Biden administration, establishment Democrats are feeling emboldened — and winning races around the country.
The trend marks a sharp contrast to just a few years ago, when liberal firebrands found stunning success taking on more traditional candidates, including incumbent lawmakers, in a wave that invigorated the activist left while enraging party conventionalists wary that internal divisions would weaken the brand.
Those debates, though, occurred in a vastly different political environment: Donald Trump was president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was under fire for failing to defeat him and liberals were hammering the party brass for siding with the establishment candidate over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the liberal rebel whose spirited fight for economic justice won legions of fans from coast to coast.
Fast-forward to 2021: Joe Biden, another establishment candidate who ran on a promise to bring bipartisanship back to Washington, is in the White House. And his victory over Trump has deflated the frequent liberal argument that Democrats lose elections because they don’t fight hard enough for progressive ideals.
Following in Biden’s mold, a number of Democrats have won primary contests in recent months by running moderate campaigns against more liberal — or just more iconoclastic — opponents.
Those dynamics have appeared in Louisiana, where Troy Carter defeated Karen Carter Peterson in an April special election to replace former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D). Both candidates were state senators, but Carter was more moderate and won the support of prominent figures in the Congressional Black Caucus.
The trend has also emerged in Virginia, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — a longtime Democratic operator allied with the Clinton camp — prevailed in a crowded field against more liberal opponents in the gubernatorial primary.
It surfaced again last month in the New York City mayoral primary, where Eric Adams, a former police captain, defeated a more progressive field with a tough-on-crime message that might have found a tougher reception just a year ago, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. Adams has since advised House Democrats to campaign on a similar law enforcement position — an unveiled shot at the liberals pushing to defund the police.
The intraparty battle took center stage again this week in Ohio, where Shontel Brown, a Democratic operative who vowed to work closely with party leaders in Washington, easily defeated Nina Turner, a progressive activist who’d promised no such thing.
And on Friday, centrist Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who’s been watching establishment candidates win primary after primary this year, jumped into the Senate race to replace retiring Republican Pat Toomey. Lamb, a Marine and former prosecutor from western Pennsylvania, joins a crowded field that includes a pair of progressives, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
For party leaders on Capitol Hill, the defeat of potential rabble-rousers is a welcome new trend.
“In the post-Trump era, the anti-establishment line of attack is lame — when President Biden and Democratic legislators are delivering millions of good-paying jobs, the fastest-growing economy in 40 years and a massive child tax cut,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told The New York Times last week.
Whether the establishment’s victory streak extends through the cycle remains to be seen. But it’s guaranteed to be tested, as at least four Democratic veterans — Reps. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Danny Davis (Ill.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.) — are all facing primary challenges from the left. All four are endorsed by Justice Democrats, the activist group that helped propel Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Marie Newman (D-Ill.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) to victory in recent years over sitting veteran lawmakers.
But as establishment Democratic candidates rack up the wins on the primary circuit, progressives in Congress have notched some huge policy victories and continue to pull Biden and his agenda to the left.
Sanders and Biden have teamed up on a sweeping $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” plan that would expand child tax credits, fund pre-kindergarten and community college, and broaden Medicare to include dental and vision coverage.
And just last week, a group of liberal agitators led by Bush, a first-term firebrand and member of the progressive “Squad,” forced Biden’s hand on an expired eviction moratorium.
Initially, the administration declared itself powerless to extend the moratorium beyond July 31, citing a Supreme Court ruling in June saying it was unconstitutional. Then Bush, who had once been homeless herself, staged a sit-in, sleeping on the Capitol steps for four nights. The protest attracted support from other liberal lawmakers, activists, Democratic leaders in Congress — and the national news media.
Biden quickly caved and announced a new 60-day moratorium on evictions in most of the country, likely sparing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans from being put out on the street.
Taking a victory lap, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) hailed Bush for forcing the issue, and the administration for “listening to the clarion call” of the outraged left.
“This is an enormous victory,” Jayapal said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), though she initially clashed with liberals over tactics, also praised Bush for bringing public awareness to the plight of renters — and pressuring Biden to take action when Congress did not.
“In order for public sentiment to prevail, people have to know,” Pelosi told reporters Friday. “That was a way for people to know.”
But while some liberal tactics have united the party, others risk dividing it. Basking in the national spotlight this past week, Bush was asked whether it was hypocritical to spend $70,000 in campaign funds on private security while backing the “defund the police” movement. Bush replied that she wouldn’t be able to fight to keep millions of Americans in their homes if she was dead and then doubled down on her calls to shift funds away from law enforcement.
“So suck it up, and defunding the police has to happen. We need to defund the police and put that money into social safety nets,” Bush told CBS in a video clip that made vulnerable centrists shudder and is guaranteed to be used in GOP campaign ads this cycle.
“If I have actual police officers who have threatened my life … tell me that I don’t need security.”
Defunding the police is the very issue that had divided House Democrats after their election drubbing just nine months ago, when the party saw 14 of their vulnerable incumbents go down to defeat. On a caucus call back then, centrist Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) lashed out at progressive colleagues for identifying as democratic socialists and embracing calls to defund the police.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. … We lost good members because of that,” Spanberger said on the call, according to The Washington Post. “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success … we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022.”