Progressive candidates seek comebacks after disappointing year

Progressive candidates who lost recent high-profile congressional campaigns launch national comeback bids to reenergize the left after bruising disappointments in 2021. 

From the Midwest to the Deep South and Pacific Northwest, these insurgent progressives insist they have the right formula to take on the establishment wing of politicians they argue has politically crippled the country during the Biden era.

“We’re going to be flooding the streets,” said a senior campaign adviser for former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D), who recently announced a second primary challenge to Rep. Shontel Brown (D) in the state’s 11th Congressional District. “This will be a very bottom-heavy campaign.” 

Turner is not alone in her grassroots-style approach to a rematch. 

In Texas, attorney and activist Jessica Cisneros is gunning for another shot against recently embattled Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) in the state’s 28th Congressional District after losing to him by less than 4 points in 2020. With Cuellar embroiled in a federal investigation, Cisneros has even more of an opening. 

And in Oregon, Jamie McLeod-Skinner is running just two years after losing in the general election for the 2nd Congressional District in 2018. This time, she’s aiming for the state’s 5th Congressional District, currently held by Rep. Kurt Schrader (D).  

To some in the party, the progressive do-overs feel like an unnecessary rehash of recent events. They argue their organizing muscle would be better spent supporting Democrats who are already comfortably in office — which is even more critical, they say, with control of Congress hanging on just a few seats.  

The climate in Washington is already so polarized that they fear a scattering of challengers to fellow Democrats could further alienate voters who believe the party is falling off the rails and heading for collision in November.  

“For every progressive that may be challenging a ‘moderate,’ what does that say about the resources in the end?” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “What does that say about trying to bring this party together and unifying this party?” 

“The real opponent is on the other side,” he said. 

Progressives believe that’s oversimplifying things. To some failed candidates, their bids come as badges of honor: the closeness of their defeats, the energized momentum from gains progressives have made in the House and, in some cases, the lessons learned from the past are all reasons enough to restart.   

“We always have known that this isn’t a one-time-cycle fight,” said Natalia Salgado, the director of federal affairs for the Working Families Party. “Bernie Sanders getting to the top of the ticket and being seen as a viable candidate versus a longtime party leader that is and was President Biden is a big indication of how far we have come.”  

With all the stagnation on Capitol Hill, where Biden’s legislative agenda has been held hostage, some say, by a few moderates in the Senate and House, more progressives in office could shake things up.   

“The energy right now is for surviving this existential moment for our planet and democracy. That means progressives flipping red seats and winning open seats more than primarying incumbents,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.  

“The giant exception is for people like Henry Cuellar and Kyrsten Sinema, who occupy blue seats and actively block the Democratic agenda, which is why there’s so much energy around Jessica Cisneros’s House campaign and even a 2024 ‘Primary Sinema’ campaign.” 

In Texas’s 28th District, which has been one of Democrats’ biggest targets for the past several seasons, the contest between Cuellar and Cisneros has garnered national attention due to an FBI raid on Cuellar’s home, which is part of a broader investigation between U.S. businessmen and Azerbaijan. The investigation has subsequently drawn more eyes to his district, which many speculate benefits Cisneros.  

Yet Cuellar still appears to have a fundraising advantage. He raised $700,000 during the last quarter of 2021, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Cisneros raised $362,000 during the same period.  

But Cisneros has been making what she believes is a more compelling case to voters, keeping in line with other progressives’ firmness in bucking corporate donations in favor of small dollar contributions. And she’s gotten some top media figures to take notice, including going door-to-door with MSNBC as she literally introduced herself to her would-be constituents.  

Cuellar and Schrader were among the moderate House Democrats who faced blowback during negotiations surrounding Biden’s infrastructure package and a sweeping social spending bill known as Build Back Better. While the two moderate congressmen ultimately voted to pass Build Back Better in the House, progressives have slammed them along with seven other moderate Democrats for voting to pass infrastructure separately from the social spending package.  

“The fight around Build Back Better really clarified who within the Democratic caucus is really a progressive and who is not,” said Joseph Geevarghese, national director of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution. “In the case of Kurt Schrader and Henry Cuellar, the contrast is clear and I think there’s more energy that will be generated as a result.” 

Turner and Brown are in a different spot. The two candidates, both Black women, last faced off in an August special election to fill Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge’s seat. The primary turned into a bitter fight between the party’s establishment and progressive factions. 

Top party figures like House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and progressive icons like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) traveled to the district to campaign with their respective candidates. Brown ultimately defeated Turner by roughly 5 points.  

Now, Turner is throwing it all back into the rematch, proclaiming in a very on-brand launch video last week that “our leaders can’t settle for just enough.”  

The senior adviser helping shape Turner’s messaging strategy pointed to several factors that the campaign believes will work in the progressive firebrand’s favor, including a soon-to-be-announced new congressional map. 

“What we know for certain is that up to a third of the district will be brand new and that it will be greater Cleveland that will be the anchor of the district,” the adviser said.  

“This is going to be a Cleveland district … which is good for Nina.”  

More than 2,000 miles away from Cleveland, in the greater Portland area, McLeod-Skinner is challenging Schrader, with many of her supporters citing Schrader’s initial skepticism over Biden’s social safety net plan. 

The Working Families Party cited Schrader’s role in those negotiations in their endorsement of McLeod-Skinner last week.  

But Democratic strategists maintain that the stalling of Biden’s agenda is not the fault of Democrats in the House, but rather the party’s moderates in the Senate.  

“The reality is the House is doing its work and they’re delivering results for the American people,” Seawright, the Democratic strategist, said. “There’s a clog in the wheel in the United States Senate.”  

Progressives brushed off this notion, citing what they said were the ties between moderates in both chambers.  

“They very actively worked against Build Back Better and I think those of us on the left have the receipts to show it,” the Working Families Party’s Salgado said. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Joe Biden Kurt Schrader Kyrsten Sinema Marcia Fudge Ohio Texas Washington

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