Progressive Candidates Are Carving a Path to the Senate in 2020 — No Thanks to Chuck Schumer

If Democrats manage to seize the Senate and make Schumer the majority leader, it will be in large part due to the work of an organized left.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on July 11, 2019. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AP Images

It’s hard to imagine things going much worse for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in 2019. As he preps for the election he has long hoped will make him the majority leader, his prized recruits across the country have spurned him. In Texas, Colorado, and Montana, his top choices have (so far) turned down Senate runs in exchange for presidential bids. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams eluded him, her eye still on the governor’s mansion (or possibly the vice presidency). In North Carolina, the popular Democratic attorney general took a pass. In Iowa, Schumer tried to coax former Gov. Tom Vilsack into the race, but that fell through. In Kentucky, Schumer successfully recruited failed House candidate Amy McGrath into the race, and she immediately imploded.

In Maine, Sara Gideon, the statehouse speaker, is running against Susan Collins, but Ady Barkan, the activist who raised some $4 million in pledges for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, deserves as much credit for that as Schumer.

During a roundtable interview in July, Schumer was asked if he had been having trouble with recruiting. “I have,” he conceded.

But along the way, a bevy of new progressive Senate challengers have launched their own highly credible campaigns outside Schumer’s orbit, with others threatening to do so. If Democrats do manage to seize the Senate chamber and make Schumer the majority leader — gaining four seats, or three seats and the presidency — it will be in large part due to the work of an organized left. But before they can help Schumer become majority leader, first they’ll have to get past Schumer and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

In state after state, the fight at the heart of the Democratic Party is playing out: What kind of candidate is most likely to appeal to voters? In most (but not all) states, the preferred establishment candidate is white and leans moderate, while the left is in most cases (though not all) organizing around progressive candidates of color. This is the same battle we saw in the House Democratic primaries in 2018 — one that is also playing out in the 2020 presidential race — and its outcome will shape what kind of party takes power, or doesn’t, in 2021.


Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., participates in a mock swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 3, 2019 in Washington, D.C. McSally holds one of the seats that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hopes he can replace in 2020.

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The one bright spot for Schumer has come in Arizona, where astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, is running for one of 2020’s must-win seats for Democrats. Progressives had hoped that Rep. Ruben Gallego would challenge Kelly for the nomination, but he elected to step aside. Kelly hopes to topple Sen. Martha McSally, who lost in 2018 to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, but was appointed to a different Senate seat after the resignation of Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. That would pull Democrats one vote closer to taking the Senate, but along the way, they’re likely to lose their hold on Alabama, where Doug Jones, who beat Roy Moore in a special election to win his seat, faces a difficult race with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket and an opponent who likely won’t be Roy Moore.

Trading Jones for Kelly would leave the Senate with the same split: 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. In that same roundtable interview, Schumer said he was focused on “eight” Senate races. After Arizona, those are likely to be drawn from Maine, Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, Kentucky, Texas, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Maine, where Collins’s approval rating is nosediving, and Colorado, an increasingly blue state represented by Republican Cory Gardner, are the two easiest — though by no means easy — states to flip. Assuming that they also win Arizona and lose Alabama, that leaves Democrats one seat short of a 50-50 split. Schumer has had a hard time clinching a candidate for that final seat (or two, if Trump wins re-election, allowing Vice President Mike Pence to break ties).

If Democrats manage to seize the Senate and make Chuck Schumer the majority leader, it will be in large part due to the work of an organized left.

When reached in July, Schumer’s office referred questions to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which said in an email, “Strong Democratic candidates are running in key battleground states across the country,” emphasizing the Arizona and Maine races, as well Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, and a Democrat challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, who the committee did not name. (Jaime Harrison is the leading Democratic candidate in South Carolina.)

Further complicating the math is the chance that a Warren or Sanders presidency could cost the party a seat in the chamber. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both come from states where the governor, who has the power to appoint a temporary replacement, is Republican. If they were to win as a ticket, that’s two seats that may become Republican for months, until special elections are held.

Progressives, meanwhile, have begun to put several states firmly on the map.


State Sen. Erica D. Smith.

Photo: Courtesy of the Erica D. Smith campaign.

In North Carolina, state Sen. Erica Smith, a former Boeing engineer, high school math and science teacher, and ordained minister from Fayetteville, would be the first black senator to represent the state. Her platform highlights gun control and access to health care. She’s made climate change and the environment a top priority in her campaign. She supports an assault weapons ban and universal background checks, as well as expanding Medicaid. While she’s proposing progressive reforms to the criminal justice system, and opposes the death penalty as it’s historically been applied, she told The Intercept that “because of escalating instances of domestic terrorism,” capital punishment should be “included in the conversation” when it comes to mass shooters.

The DSCC has not yet endorsed in the 2020 primary, but there is speculation that it may support Cal Cunningham, an attorney, veteran, former state senator — and previous DSCC pick. Cunningham has raised a significant chunk of his $521,757 from donors linked to Schumer. He’s contributed an additional $200,000 of his own money to one of his campaign committees. (Trevor Fuller, a former commissioner for Mecklenburg County, and Eva Lee, a tax attorney from Raleigh, also announced their candidacies early.)

Cunningham, who lost a primary for Senate in 2010, is distinguished by having no distinguishing politics, precisely the type of candidate Washington consultants like to build assembly-line ads around. (You know the kind: two-minute biographical portraits with lots of aerial shots that decry “corruption,” followed by ads with the family in the driveway talking about their state’s values.) Though he has recently strengthened his position on guns, he received an “A” from the National Rifle Association in 2000, and as a state senator in 2002, he voted with 26 other Democrats in support of an NRA-backed bill that made it harder for local governments to sue firearms manufacturers.

A June poll by Emerson College showed Smith, who is currently serving her third term in the state Senate, leading incumbent Thom Tillis by 7 points, with 15 percent of voters undecided. She’s currently running her campaign with only about $25,000 cash on hand. She’s raised about $85,460 in individual contributions. She’s met with the DSCC twice and had several conference calls with the committee since early February, she said, along with three meetings with Emily’s List. She also met with Schumer in June during her vetting process. Talk of the committee leaning toward Cunningham, given his swift endorsement from several Democratic officials in the state, Smith believes, is “rumor … by some members of the establishment who have a preference for a particular candidate,” Smith said. “I’m not gonna take that away from my opponent that he ran in 2010 with the DSCC endorsement, but he did not win. And he’s not held office in 17 years.”

Whoever gets the Democratic nomination is likely to be a contender against the incumbent. Tillis’s approval rating dropped 12 points in the first quarter of this year to 53 percent, according to an April poll, after he waffled on Trump’s move to declare an emergency at the border, opposing it in a Washington Post op-ed in February before eventually voting against a resolution to block the measure. By June, Tillis’s approval rating had plummeted to 33 percent, the lowest of any senator. (Cunningham wasn’t included in the poll.)

And Smith has caught the attention of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which posted a billboard recently warning that she’s “too liberal,” picturing her alongside Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Smith was delighted by the NRSC attack. “It shows who Thom Tillis is worried about,” she tweeted. In an interview, she added, “Isn’t that just cute and adorable? I don’t know what their motivation is. But I definitely know that they’re making calculated decisions because Thom Tillis is underwater in North Carolina. And that’s his own fault.”

The NRSC has also put up billboards targeting Betsy Sweet, who’s targeting Collins, and Stephany Rose Spaulding, who’s running in a field of 12 against Gardner. It’s fairly common for party committees to try to intervene in the opposition’s primary to elevate the candidate who they believe is most likely to lose to them in the general election. Sometimes it works, as when Harry Reid won re-election by boosting the batty Sharron Angle through the Nevada GOP primary in 2010. Other times, it fails miserably. The Hillary Clinton campaign did whatever it could to help Trump claim the GOP nomination for president, convinced that Clinton couldn’t possibly lose to him. The NRSC’s apparent conclusion that Smith is more beatable than Cunningham, then, should be considered but not treated as gospel.


Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez.

Photo: Courtesy of Cristina for Texas

As Democrats look toward Texas, Beto O’Rourke is rebuffing calls from the Houston Chronicle — which endorsed his 2018 run against Sen. Ted Cruz — to drop out of the presidential race and give the Senate another shot. Schumer had long hoped to recruit O’Rourke to make a second run against Sen. John Cornyn, knowing that his online fundraising power would enable him to compete without needing to tap into Schumer’s national network of high-net-worth donors. With O’Rourke running for president, Schumer settled for MJ Hegar, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2018, but rose to stardom with a viral campaign ad called “Doors,” about her effort to overcome gender discrimination to win the ability to drop bombs on people. A libertarian, she voted in the 2016 Republican primary and has historically opposed meaningful gun reform.

As of this week, Hegar is being challenged by Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a longtime Texas organizer whose work helped set the stage for O’Rourke’s campaign and whose staffers were responsible for building O’Rourke’s unique, volunteer-driven field program.

Hegar’s not launching a voter registration drive or otherwise trying to reshape the makeup of the Texas electorate, but rather, like Cunningham in North Carolina, she wants to win over enough Republicans to eke out a victory.


Former Beto O’Rourke Organizers Rally Behind New Texas Senate Candidate

Tzintzún Ramirez’s winning path, on the other hand, relies on changing the contours of who votes, and it will be a test of the work she’s done over the years. Through both the Texas Organizing Project and Jolt, which mobilizes young people to vote, Tzintzún Ramirez has helped add hundreds of thousands of people to Texas’s voter rolls. The state’s shifting demographics — the rising share of Latino voters — is often cited as the driving force behind its fade to blue. But just as important is the depopulation of Texas’s rural areas, the explosion of its cities, and the progressive shift underway in the suburbs.

In Montana, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins is challenging Republican Sen. Steve Daines, a staunch Trump ally who’s grown distant from voters in his state over his five years in the Senate. Collins, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Liberia in 1994, told The Intercept that during his mayoral campaign, he knocked on thousands of doors, and many people told him that they hadn’t had contact with an elected official in years. He plans to scale up this strategy to reach 90 percent of counties in the state before 2020.

Collins announced his senatorial campaign in May, and his campaign committee, A Whole Lot of Folks for Wilmot Collins, raised $90,700 as of June. Collins has spoken out against the administration’s demonization of immigrants and refugees, and has made it a point of both his mayoral and senatorial campaigns to educate voters on what the immigration process in the United States actually looks like. He’s also prioritizing issues of climate change, veterans’ homelessness, health care, and support for first responders, which he says shouldn’t be partisan issues.


Helena, Montana, Mayor Wilmot Collins takes a selfie with his wife Maddie, center, and his sister, Precious, left, on Jan. 31, 2018. Collins, 54, is a Liberian refugee who recently defeated a four-term incumbent to become mayor.

Photo: William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Democrats had hoped that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock might set his sights on the Senate seat, but he has not yet dropped out of the presidential race — nor has he done anything to boost Collins’s campaign.

Daines has a 50 percent approval rating, with 29 percent of voters unhappy with his performance, according to Morning Consult. Daines was also one of the only Republicans in the Senate who buckled down in support of Trump following the president’s racist attacks on Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Reps. Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. In a closed-door meeting, Daines was the only Republican senator to defend the president’s comments. The senator tweeted in support of him as well. That Daines would defend the president was more hurtful to Collins than what Trump actually said, he told The Intercept. Collins, who’s faced his own calls to “go back” to where he came from, thinks that it was more of a campaign stunt than anything else.


He Was Told to Go Back to Africa. Instead, He May Go to the U.S. Senate.

In Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper announced on Thursday that he will drop out of the presidential race, and he will consider a run for Senate in his home state, after months of rejecting calls from fellow Democrats to do so. In February, he had dismissed the possibility, saying that he wasn’t “cut out to be a senator.” But he almost certainly won’t qualify for the next Democratic primary debates and a group of senior aides has moved on, leaving the campaign after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him to run for Senate.

Nearly a dozen Democrats are running to take on Gardner, and many of them are campaigning on popular progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Some of the more serious contenders include Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker; Dan Baer, an Obama-era diplomat and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education; Mike Johnston, a former state senator; and Alice Madden, a former Colorado House majority leader.

Romanoff, who has already raised more than $1 million in campaign contributions, supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, alongside other ambitious climate policies. Johnston, who has at least $2.6 million on hand, is in favor of the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and creating a public option “so anyone can buy into Medicare at an affordable price.” (Hickenlooper, in his presidential campaign, supported “universal health care” but does not support Medicare for All. And he loves the fossil fuel industry enough to drink fracking fluid.)


Amy McGrath address supporters after her loss during her election night event on Nov. 6, 2018 in Richmond, Ky.

Photo: Jason Davis/Getty Images

In Kentucky, Schumer landed McGrath as the Democratic candidate, but her campaign face-planted multiple times in the first week. First, she made the head-scratching claim on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s real problem was that he was obstructing Trump’s agenda. Next, she told a Kentucky reporter that she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, even though she believed Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he had attempted to rape her in high school. After it emerged that she had said a year earlier that Kavanaugh shouldn’t be confirmed, she flipped back to that original position.

Watching from the sidelines was Matt Jones, one of the most popular sports radio hosts in the state — and, strangely, an outspoken progressive. He has been contemplating a bid for Senate, and McConnell’s aides have long had their eyes on him as a genuine threat. Four years earlier, Democrats invited him to Washington for a candidate training, but he decided that he didn’t want to serve in the House of Representatives.

On a podcast this week, Jones walked through his thinking on a run for Senate. The national party, he concluded, didn’t think that Kentucky was actually winnable, whatever they said publicly. Schumer, he realized, figured that McGrath would be able to raise a lot of money and keep McConnell busy, forcing him to spend in Kentucky what he otherwise might spend elsewhere. Once McGrath announced, he said, it was something of a relief, because it took the agonizing, life-changing decision away from him.

“She announces and all the Democratic presidential candidates — or most of them — endorse her, all the congressional people endorse her, all the big donors endorse her, and all of a sudden, she has five and a half million dollars and the theory is, well, that scares everybody else out and now we have our nominee. And that’s how it works. And by the way, that’s how it works in nearly every state,” he said.

“So you’re out?” his podcast co-host asked.

“That’s what I thought,” Jones said. “Then she launches and to put it generously, she blows it. And listen, I like her, this is not a knock on her, but she has become so robotic and become so consulted that I don’t even know what she stands for anymore. And I think that’s what a lot of people felt.”

The process, Jones said, had opened his eyes to how anti-democratic elections had become, and McGrath’s implosion cleared the way for him to run without being associated with the Democratic Party. “It should be about the citizens picking who they like,” he said. “Instead, what happens is Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer pick who they like, and there becomes the senators.”

Now, he said, if he runs, “I could tell both parties to go —”

To win in Kentucky, Jones said, Democrats need to think differently. Just turning out more voters alone won’t be enough — you have to scramble the political calculus. “Trump’s gonna be on the ballot; that makes it hard,” Jones said. “I don’t care how many people show up, 60 percent of the people are voting for Donald Trump. They just are. So the question is, Can you get 10 percent of the people to vote Trump-Jones. That’s your only chance. And I don’t know. I can tell you this: I don’t think you can get people to vote Trump-McGrath.”

Update, August 15, 3:51 p.m.
This piece has been updated to clarify the amount of contributions to Erica Smith’s campaign.

Correction, August 15, 6:34 p.m.
A previous version of this article said that M. J. Hegar voted in the Republican primary in 2010. She voted in the Republican primary in 2016.

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