Progressives are preparing to try to clear out Democrats they say are hampering their ability to remodel the country while their party still controls Congress. 

They see the skeleton Build Back Better (BBB) package and failed voting rights bill as warning signs that a few stubborn lawmakers can — and, if given the chance, will — block and blow up the liberal vision they had dreamed about enacting when President Biden took office. 

When things fell further apart last week, leaving the president and congressional Democrats scrambling for a way to advance their two main priorities, progressives saw a clear fix to all of it: primary challenges ahead of November.  

“We need strong progressives in Congress to have some sort of counterweight and leverage against the conservative, corporate backed Democrats who are an obstacle to delivering results,” said Waleed Shaheed, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, a progressive group that has backed several liberal challengers to Democratic incumbents in recent years. 

“These primaries are where those seats come from, where that leverage comes from,” he said. 

Many on the left are outraged that Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) joined Republicans last week in opposing a rule change to the filibuster and in doing so killed off a voting rights bill. They are equally furious that the same two holdouts, particularly Manchin, sank Biden’s social and climate spending package. 

While both bills have defined Biden’s first year in office, progressives see them as just the start.

They believe the moderate duo in the Senate and many more in the House will vote against their proposals as often as possible in 2022 and 2024, creating further pressure to oust them from within their own ranks before it gets to that point.  

Manchin and Sinema aren’t up for reelection in 2022, but here are five moderate Democrats the left plans to target:  

1) Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) 

Jessica Cisneros’s quest to remove longtime moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) from his position as a key centrist negotiator on Capitol Hill has attracted the most progressive energy this cycle.

Cuellar, a 10-term incumbent currently embroiled in an FBI investigation for alleged improper ties to Azerbaijan, is one of progressives’ biggest potential gets. 

He was seen as a major barrier to left-wing lawmakers’ goal of keeping Biden’s social safety net package linked to the bipartisan infrastructure bill in November, arguing that he and others in similar positions in conservative districts needed an accomplishment to talk up back home. 

Cisneros, a working class Mexican American woman, has a very different vision. 

She gained some prominence for challenging Cuellar for the same seat in Texas’s 28th Congressional District in 2020. And since then, progressives have become more interested in her candidacy. Like many on the left, she is firmly against corporate money in politics, particularly from the fossil fuel industry in the oil-rich state. Cuellar has sustained pushback from liberals over his ties to Big Oil.

While Cisneros is backed by liberal lawmakers, Cuellar, who’s held his seat since 2005, has establishment weight behind his bid, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has remained neutral so far, but supported him last cycle against Cisneros.  

2) Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) 

Rana Abdelhamid is progressives’ biggest chance to create a liberal trifecta in deep blue New York.

Abdelhamid, a 28-year-old Muslim woman, is competing against Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a nearly three decade House veteran, for a shot at the 12th Congressional District of the state where Democrat-on-Democrat action is something of a blood sport. 

In Abdelhamid, top strategists see an opening to recreate the fire they’ve captured cycle after cycle in the state that sent Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman to Congress against their more well-known and well-funded incumbent opponents.  

The millennial progressive told The Hill she hopes that she can draw a contrast between her “establishment” rival “backed by Wall Street and real estate” who, she adds, “has held this seat for as long as I have been alive.”

“We saw how important it is to have real progressives in Congress during the fight for Build Back Better,” Abdelhamid said. “We need leaders who will fight as hard as the people of this district already do.” 

3) Rep. Danny K. Davis (Ill.)

Activists desperate to send another social justice advocate to Capitol Hill have set their sights on Kina Collins, a young, Black gun violence prevention activist with ties to community organizing.  

If Collins’s story sounds familiar, it’s because it is strikingly similar to another progressive recruit from the activist class, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who rose to power and prominence by defeating longtime Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) amid an uproar over racial unrest. 

Operatives see parallels between Bush and Collins, who is taking on Rep. Danny K. Davis, a 13-term lawmaker and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in Illinois’s 7th Congressional District.  

Davis, progressives contend, is too closely tied to corporate money, which they say has long influenced his decision making, whereas Collins relies exclusively on small-dollar donations to fund her insurgent bid.

Illinois’s 7th District “is one of the most unequal districts in the country, yet our representative Danny Davis has stopped showing up in the community, misses votes, and takes money from corporate donors,” Collins said.

Like Abdelhamid, Collins believes the ongoing struggle and public spectacle around passing Democrats’ social spending plan further spotlighted the need for her candidacy and others challenging lawmakers who liberals say are slowing things down. 

“We need progressive fighters,” she said. 

4) Rep. Tim Ryan for Ohio Senate 

Columbus native Morgan Harper, a former adviser for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is challenging moderate Rep. Tim Ryan in the state’s Democratic Senate primary, a race that’s attracting national eyeballs.

Harper’s résumé reads a bit like Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.). A lawyer and policy wonk, but from the Midwest, not Massachusetts.  

She hopes that in Ohio, the state that Democrats have watched turn red over the last several cycles, she’s making the pitch that populist policies like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal are needed to inject optimism and concrete results into struggling areas. 

Ryan, a Youngstown native and early backer of Biden, has long enjoyed the support of the party’s establishment wing. While some Democrats are skeptical that the seat can go to any candidate from their side of the aisle, Harper would have to outcompete the moderate faction’s favorite candidate in 10-term Ryan to have a shot against the eventual Republican nominee. 

5) Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.) 

If there’s an underdog to be had among progressives’ 2022 dream draft, it’s Odessa Kelly. 

The young Nashville native is challenging Rep. Jim Cooper, a 16-term conservative Democrat and member of the Blue Dog Coalition in the House, for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. 

Like other outsiders angling for a way in, Kelly, a mother of two, has the support of Justice Democrats and progressive groups like Indivisible, Brand New Congress, the Working Families Party and a slew of local and community leaders in Tennessee. 

Her platform is unabashedly progressive.  

While fellow organizers see hope in Kelly’s bid against Cooper, some privately acknowledge she has a tougher road ahead than her counterparts. Her district has been recently gerrymandered to lean toward Republican control, making it even harder for some to envision any Democrat clinging to power in the Southern enclave. 

2024 Honorable Mentions:

6) Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)

There’s no shortage of progressives who want Manchin out of Congress and away from politics altogether. But can anyone make that happen?   

The West Virginia senator has been the left’s biggest problem child on Capitol Hill for the entirety of Biden’s administration. From BBB to the federal minimum wage, many progressives are loath to even refer to Manchin as a “moderate,” arguing that he is more of a Republican officeholder than a team member of the Democratic caucus.  

It’s not just the left flank who is mad. As the negotiations around major legislation lagged for months for what he promised were “good faith” talks with the White House and congressional colleagues, many in the party felt he basically delivered a middle finger to the plans to pass an agenda that would address many social and environmental problems before the midterm elections.  

The whole episode was cinematic. And it drastically upped the pressure among aggravated activists at the state and national levels to find someone who could be viable against him.  

That, of course, won’t be easy. Former President Trump swept the state easily in both elections, and Manchin is still deeply popular with his constituents, despite the overall mood among Democrats in Washington souring on him.  

7)  Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.)  

Unlike Manchin, Sinema is a relatively newer target on the left. But she’s quickly caught up to being equally reviled by those who want her out.

What started as a nascent “primary Sinema” movement among some rogue activists has gained steam in recent weeks after the first-term Arizona senator voted against amending the filibuster and effectively halted the debate on passing voting rights legislation.

Beyond the majority of Democrats in Congress, who have become increasingly unhappy with Sinema’s position on the filibuster and refusal to budge after meeting several times directly with Biden, officials in her own state are even more upset.

Members of the Arizona Democratic Party recently voted to censure their own senator after her GOP-aligned vote last week, a move that received praise from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been critical of both Sinema and Manchin in their opposition to changing the procedure.

Activists say they expect a Sinema challenger to emerge ahead of 2024, with some anticipating that Rep. Ruben Gallego could mount an intraparty fight, despite shooting down the idea earlier.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Carolyn Maloney Cori Bush Danny Davis Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Jim Cooper Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Lacy Clay Nancy Pelosi Ruben Gallego Steny Hoyer Tim Ryan
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