With each congressional primary contest, it becomes clearer that the “moderates” in the Democratic Party on the retreat.
In 1969 William Lacy Clay, Jr. first moved to Washington, DC at age thirteen. His father, the newly elected Congressman Bill Clay, would represent Missouri’s 1st District in St. Louis and the young Lacy would grow up in nearby Silver Spring, MD. Eventually in 2001 the younger Clay would replace his father, having previously been the Assistant Doorkeeper of the US House of Representatives, and then a member of both Missouri state legislative bodies. On August 4 however Clay’s fifty year association with Washington ended when he was stunned in the primary election by progressive challenger Cori Bush.
Some might ask what Clay did to earn the ire of the left. He was consistently pro-abortion earning a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, supported a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, and has an F rating from the NRA. But in the 21st century a legacy liberal just won’t do for the fringe left. While they are both black and were vying to represent an economically depressed district roiled by racial violence including the 2014 Ferguson riots, Clay and his opponent are otherwise completely different.
Cori Bush, while not a firebrand in the style of Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, is a far-left progressive Black Lives Matter activist who has previously run for US Senate in 2016 and for Clay’s seat in 2018, when she lost by roughly 17% of the vote. But regardless of her politics, Bush’s background as a Christian preacher who founded her own church and registered nurse who attended St. Louis public schools is more relatable than Clay who basically was groomed for public office. Bush briefly attended Harris-Stowe State University, a tiny historically black college, before transferring to Lutheran School of Nursing in order to earn her RN diploma. Clay on the other hand was a political science major at the University of Maryland and earned a paralegal certification. While he attended Howard Law School, he never completed his degree or passed the bar. He didn’t need to as like any dynasty candidate his surname is his main qualification. So on August 4 the people of metro St. Louis voted him out ending over a half century of Clays in Congress.
The ousting of Clay is part of a slow but increasingly robust process working its way through the Democratic Party, in particular its congressional caucuses. In the 2000s among those that vied for the party’s presidential nomination were such types as senators Chris Dodd, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman as well as retired Gen. Wesley Clark. But thanks to organizations like Justice Democrats, which gave needed visibility to progressive candidates like Bush and Tlaib, that type of lineup is long dead and gone. Even Hillary Clinton, the most recent presidential nominee would find herself too tied to the corporate establishment if she were hypothetically to run in such a congressional race. Bush’s victory is just the latest in a rash of progressives toppling centrist incumbents that started during the 2018 midterm elections.
- In New York’s 14th district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dethroned ten term incumbent Joseph Crowley.
- Ayanna Pressley defeated fellow progressive Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’s 7th district.
- Ilhan Omar won Keith Ellison’s open 5th district in Minnesota.
- Tlaib triumphed in a crowded field to succeed the disgraced fifty year incumbent John Conyers who was forced to step down in Michigan’s 13th district.
These four constitute the four-member all female “Squad” that is much heralded by the political media as the fresh face of politics, but there has always been a hard left progressive element within the Democratic congressional caucus led by the likes of Rep. Barbara Lee (CA), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (CA). What is different here is that safe districts occupied by senior establishment figures like Crowley are being cannibalized by the progressive insurgents. This year joining him in the retirement line are Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL, defeated by Marie Newman), Rep. Eliot Engel (NY, defeated by Jamaal Bowman) and now Lacy Clay. In all of the districts in question the Democrats have not had significant GOP or other competition for decades, meaning that all of the new radical members can be expected to easily walk to victory in their November races and join Nancy Pelosi in the House.
The Justice Democrat strategy creates a notable dilemma for Pelosi and the party’s corporate backed leadership. On the one hand, the new progressives are not growing the party in Congress, because they tend to win races only in seats that are solid blue. In 2018 they ran candidates in four Senate races, failing in each of them to earn more than 40% in the Democratic primary. But so far two senior caucus members have been sent into retirement by progressive insurgents, Crowley who was the Democratic caucus chair and Engel who was chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In September Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) the head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, faces a strong primary challenge in his district from Justice Democrat Alex Morse.
Nancy waits for Rashida
One might ask, “Why does this actually matter to the Democrats?” This issue is paramount for any congressional leader. Pelosi’s own position could be in jeopardy as not long ago in 2015 John Boehner was ousted from the speaker position by Republican Tea Party members who had formed the Freedom Caucus. The members chosen to chair committees typically come from “safe” districts, so by forcing stalwarts like Neal out the progressives force Pelosi to potentially have to rely on those representing swing districts that could be vulnerable to GOP opponents. At 80 years old, Pelosi is nearing the end of her career as speaker of the House and Democratic leader, meaning that her successor will have to grapple with a caucus that is younger and more radical. If the Democrats retain control of the House in November, regardless of who becomes president, and have a thinner majority than the current 34 it could become tedious for the speaker to corral votes for key Democrat bills. Unless they acquiesce to the progressives which is by no means a given, the Democrats would potentially have to reach across the aisle and recruit support from GOP representatives.
But what happens should the Democrats lose the House? A mutiny against Pelosi and her would-be successor James Clyburn (D-SC) could ensue, and a radical such as Pramila Jayapal or Barbara Lee may grab the baton. The radical edge of the Democrats is not limited to just the Justice Democrats as 95 Democratic representatives are members of the Progressive Caucus including 22 members from California alone. Some of these have traditionally had Pelosi’s back, but if their colleagues continue to get booted for supporting her that could change. The loss of the House could lead to a further lurch to the left for the Democrats if there is a power vacuum left behind should Pelosi step down. However, if the party experiences a total election wipe-out in November there is the possibility of a centrist drift. This is what happened in the UK Labour Party when leader Jeremy Corbyn stepped down following its disastrous December 2019 result and was replaced by the relatively mild Sir Keir Starmer.
The cash front
For the 2020 cycle the group has scaled back its goals, only supporting candidates in fifteen house races including ones already held, generally focusing on ones that are more realistic to win in primaries. Two of their candidates in Ohio and Texas came up short, as did Senate candidate Betsy Sweet of Maine, but otherwise Justice Democrats can already call the year a success. Ilhan Omar faced a well-funded challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux who promised to represent the district rather than engage in activism. PACs also lined up to pour in money for Omar and Melton-Meaux, with organized labour stepping in for Omar while pro-Israel groups supported her opponent. Omar still triumphed winning 57.4% of the vote, notably increasing her primary vote from 2018, by 30,000. Despite her clashing with the rest of her caucus, alleged ties to Turkey and hostility to Israel, a messy personal history including questionable affairs and accusations of incestuous or fraudulent marriages, and even using campaign funds to pay for a divorce attorney, the 38 year-old Somali immigrant seems to have been rallied around by the progressive groups and her members of her own community. Not even evidence that she paid her former paramour and now husband Tim Mynett hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign consulting fees has swayed the voters. Conservatives and moderate liberals are going have to accept that in some districts Omar’s brand of confrontational politics have genuine appeal.
The influence of outside PACs on these races has had mixed results. In the last weeks of the campaign Americans for Tomorrow’s Future threw in over $160,000 to fight her by highlighting her dealings with her husband’s firm. But this PAC, a pro-Israel group that spent a total of almost $2.5 million against Omar in the failed effort to defeat her, could not connect with local voters. Perhaps one pitfall is that Democratic opponents of Omar are too hesitant to focus on how the far-left Black Lives Matter movement has decimated Minneapolis in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May. Pro-Israel super PACs are among the most willing to fight the Justice Democrat candidates, largely due to the tendency of these candidates to support or tolerate the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. But with few Americans focused on the Middle East at the movement this is unlikely to be a compelling motivation for voters changing their choice.
One negative result for Democrats of the Justice Democrat insurgency could be its effect on the party’s plans to flip the Senate. In this cycle Republicans have to defend 23 seats compared to just twelve for the Democrats. Among the seats they seek to win are Susan Collins’s (Maine), Martha McSally’s (Arizona), Steve Daines’s (Montana), and Thom Tillis’s (North Carolina). But in some of the races previously competitive they have potentially snookered themselves. In West Virginia Paula Jean Swearengin, who was previously endorsed by the Justice Democrats in 2018 and is now endorsed by its sister movement Brand New Congress, was nominated to unseat GOP incumbent Shelley Moore Capito. But with her deep anti-coal agenda Swearengin may be lose by an overwhelming margin. BNC supported candidate Charles Booker also vied for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky in June and came within a few points of beating the establishment Democrat Amy McGrath. The McGrath-Booker fight in the primary benefits McConnell as he can exploit the center-left vs. left division in order to pry voters away in the deeply red state. In neighbouring Tennessee the progressive Robin Kimbrough Hayes came in second but defeated the establishment favourite James Mackler. The winner was Marquita Bradshaw, who was backed by the even further left local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. With the seat held by Doug Jones in Alabama being seen as particularly vulnerable as a GOP pickup, the Democrats would need at least five victories in states currently held by the Republicans in order to regain an outright majority. With America as polarized as ever, is it possible that this key goal of 2020 is already slipping out of Democrats’ hands?
But one Senate race that is sure to determine general trend of the Democratic Party has yet to be fought: the primary election for the seat currently occupied by Ed Markey (D-MA). A far-left standard-bearer for the Green New Deal, the veteran senator is being challenged from the center by Rep. Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the son of a former Massachusetts congressmen and grandson of assassinated US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who himself was a senator from New York. Kennedys have held office since 1884 at various levels of government in six different states and have held cabinet positions and ambassadorships. But Kennedy’s early edge – which was largely derived from having been born into the right family – has evaporated and it is now more than likely that he will be denied the seat seen as a family birthright since two of his great uncles (John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy) held the seats during much of the late 20th century. The winner of this primary will likely easily win office in November as the most likely GOP opponent is the YouTube dissident and scientific entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai, and the Boston Globe is notoriously protective of the Democrat establishment, publishing nauseatingly sycophantic pieces like several articles on Elizabeth Warren’s adopted golden retriever since 2018. Such a result would signal a major break between the “progressive” Democrats of post-2016 and Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and their older “liberal” counterparts of the Clinton and Obama eras. And if this is the way the Democrats are going, could a more formal division of the party be in the offing?