The Fight Inside the Democratic Party Is Playing Out in a Slew of House Primaries in Texas and California on Super Tuesday

The outcomes could signal whether the energy behind Bernie Sanders movement is contagious, or contained by the omnipresence of the presidential campaign.

Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

For the past several weeks, Super Tuesday has loomed as a specter for the Democratic establishment, with leading figures in the party pointing to the March 3 primaries as the deadline for halting the momentum of a potential runaway candidate in Bernie Sanders.

So far, the establishment has made no progress in consolidating its forces against Sanders, who has only continued to rise in the polls. The double-digit win in Nevada has given him momentum, though polls have him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in South Carolina today. Still, Sanders is well positioned in most Super Tuesday states, from which he could emerge the presumptive nominee.

A slew of House races around the country, meanwhile, could put an exclamation point on the surge of progressive energy — or they could mark a bright spot in a dark moment for the establishment, if it manages to beat back the outspent challengers. The two states at the epicenter of these fights are Texas and California (Massachusetts, another Super Tuesday state, doesn’t have its congressional primaries until September). The outcomes could signal whether the energy behind Sanders’s movement is contagious, or contained by the omnipresence of the presidential campaign.


25th District: Heidi Sloan vs. Julie Oliver

In Texas’s 25th District, two women are facing off in the hopes of challenging their district’s Republican incumbent, Rep. Roger Williams, a 70-year-old car dealer who has been in office since 2013. The Democratic primary on Tuesday is between 47-year-old Julie Oliver, who ran for Congress in 2018, and 34-year-old Heidi Sloan, an activist with the Austin chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

The district isn’t considered competitive by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee standards. It’s a largely rural, red district, which went for Donald Trump in 2016 by 14.8 points. (Trump won Texas by 9 points.) But Oliver narrowed that gap in her 2018 run, coming just 8.7 points behind Williams. She’s hoping another two years of campaigning can push her over the edge. Oliver is endorsed by groups like the Working Families Party, Moms Demand Action, and the Wimberley Indivisible chapter.

Sloan’s campaign knocked on 80,000 doors in six months and plans to reach 100,000 doors by the primary.

Sloan is one of just three congressional candidates this cycle backed by the national DSA, and she also has progressive endorsements from the Sunrise Movement, the People’s Policy Project, and the Austin Central Labor Council. The Texas AFT and the Texas AFL-CIO gave dual endorsements to both Oliver and Sloan.

Sloan is hoping to win her race with a record-smashing canvassing effort. Over the course of six months, her campaign knocked on 80,000 doors and plans to reach 100,000 doors by the primary. Sloan has worked as a preschool teacher for students with disabilities and more recently as a farmer with formerly homeless people. She got involved in community organizing with the Austin DSA chapter after the 2016 election. Oliver is an attorney with two decades of experience in health care finance.

Both candidates are running on a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and an end to mass incarceration. Oliver’s campaign is rejecting all political action committee money, while Sloan is rejecting all corporate donations and contributions from developers. Neither has raised much money, though Oliver has raised $386,000 compared to Sloan’s $176,000.

28th District: Jessica Cisneros vs. Henry Cuellar

In one of the biggest tests for the progressive movement, 26-year-old Jessica Cisneros is facing off in Texas’s 28th District against Henry Cuellar, a 15-year House incumbent and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. Cisneros, who is running on Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and proudly defending reproductive rights against her anti-abortion opponent, is armed with an unusually successful fundraising haul for a first-time candidate and high-profile liberal and labor endorsements, including the Texas AFL-CIO, SEIU, EMILY’s List, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In the fourth quarter of 2019, Cisneros out-raised Cuellar $513,000 to $431,000, and — as The Intercept previously reported — progressive groups and unions announced that they’d be running an independent expenditure of at least $350,000 in the last two weeks of the race on canvassing, ads, and phone-banking to get Cisneros over the finish line. Supporters are also pointing to an ongoing lawsuit filed by Cuellar’s ex-chief of staff, accusing the congressman of firing her because she was pregnant.

But Cuellar has tools of his own in the campaign arsenal. In late February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Laredo to campaign for him. “We want this to be not only a victory, but a resounding victory for Henry Cuellar,” the powerful Democratic leader said. Cuellar also has plenty of money on hand and is receiving some outside help from the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the American Banking Association, and a dark-money group called American Workers for Progress, which spent over $700,000 on a health care ad in January. He’s even the first Democrat in Congress to receive financial support from the Super PAC founded and funded by billionaire Charles Koch, which spent $34,000.

3rd District: Lulu Seikaly vs. Sean McCaffity

In Texas’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers a suburban area north of Dallas and a large swath of Collin County, two Democratic candidates are facing off for the opportunity to take on their district’s Republican representative, Van Taylor, who won his seat in 2018 by 10 points. The Democratic contest is between Lulu Seikaly, an attorney specializing in employment and labor law, and Sean McCaffity, a trial attorney who specializes in commercial litigation. Both entered the race in October. By mid-February, Seikaly had raised $173,031 and McCaffity had raised $308,240. (A third Democrat, Tanner Do, is also running, but has only raised about $18,000 in almost a year of campaigning.)

An upset by Seikaly would signal that a new brand of candidates are becoming viable in Texas, even as the two candidates, on paper, are similar.

The seat has been GOP-controlled for years, but the district has been trending leftward as it has grown more diverse. The district went 64-34 for Mitt Romney in 2012, 55-41 for Trump in 2016, and Sen. Ted Cruz only won by 51-48 in 2018. The district is also the most highly educated one in the country currently held by a Republican — the kind of suburban district that has been trending Democratic across the country.

Seikaly is the daughter of parents who fled Lebanon’s civil war and is running to be Texas’s first Arab American congresswoman. As is not infrequently the case in swing districts, neither candidate embraces Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, and both are campaigning against privatization of public schools, a more humane immigration policy, and gun control. Seikaly, encouraged to run by Texas progressive activist Lillian Salerno, a 2018 congressional candidate, is largely running outside of the party apparatus, and an upset by her would signal that a new brand of candidates are becoming viable in Texas, even as the platforms of the two candidates, on paper, are similar.

While Taylor tries to pitch himself as a less ideological conservative who is more willing to engage with Democrats across the aisle, his opponents note that he has still voted in line with Trump 96 percent of the time.

24th District: Kim Olson vs. Candace Valenzuela

A suburban district spanning Dallas and Fort Worth pits Kim Olson — a retired Air Force colonel cut from establishment cloth — against Candace Valenzuela.

Olson has raised a substantial sum online with the battle-tested I-was-a-female-bomber route that has worked well for other Democratic candidates. Olson’s biggest obstacle — and likely the reason she doesn’t have the backing of the DCCC — is that she was charged with war profiteering in Iraq. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006: “Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.”

Olson struck a plea deal, copping to two lesser charges relating to conflicts of interest and obtaining outside employment without permission and was allowed to retire with an honorable discharge. Still, it makes it hard to see how that record gets past the electorate in a general election, despite Olson’s effort to get ahead of it in her opening ad: “Our government couldn’t even pay the security detail protecting Americans. The warrior in me did what I had to do to get the security team paid and save lives.”

EMILY’s List — which very rarely endorses in a race between two pro-abortion women, and even more rarely endorses the progressive of the two — has gotten behind Candace Valenzuela.

EMILY’s List — which very rarely endorses in a race between two pro-abortion women, and even more rarely endorses the progressive of the two — has gotten behind Candace Valenzuela, a local school board member whose experience with homelessness growing up informs her politics. This is a sign that D.C. Democrats are distancing themselves from Olson, despite her establishment-friendly profile — and it soothed some of the anger at EMILY’s List from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for having endorsed against Cuellar when it got behind Cisneros. (Valenzuela’s race is a high priority for the CHC, which sees an opportunity to expand its ranks in the 24th District.) Valenzuela is not running as a full-on Justice Democrat, but is plainly allied with that wing of the party.

A third Democrat, Jan McDowell, is running for the second time. In 2018, she came within 4 points of unseating incumbent Kenny Marchant with a threadbare campaign, but has raised just $73,000 in the 2020 cycle so far — to Valenzuela’s $442,000 and Olson’s $967,000. That likely means a runoff, if none of them can get above 50 percent. Marchant, part of the GOP stampede out the door known as “Texit,” isn’t running for reelection, creating an open primary on the Republican side.

10th District: Mike Siegel vs. Shannon Hutcheson

In 2018, the 10th Congressional District — which stretches from the Austin suburbs to the Houston suburbs — was written off by the DCCC, having gone to incumbent Michael McCaul in 2016 by 19 points. But civil rights attorney Mike Siegel, running as an unapologetic progressive populist, closed it to within 5 points.

That brought in a handful of new challengers this cycle, including Shannon Hutcheson, the clear Washington favorite. Hutcheson has been dogged in the primary by her corporate law work, particularly her defense of a prison guard accused of assaulting migrants, among other controversial cases. She voted in the 2010 Republican primary, the year of the tea party backlash to President Barack Obama, and has the strong support of her husband’s law firm, which is connected to the Texas GOP machinery.

In many ways, the 10th District is a rematch of many of the primary contests of 2018, which pitted the left against the establishment and were mostly won by the establishment. But this race also includes a wild card. While the Houston Chronicle and Austin Chronicle endorsed Siegel, who has a volunteer army that’s been in the field for months, the Austin American Statesman got behind Pritesh Gandhi, a doctor who is running to the left of Hutcheson but to the right of Siegel. A hybrid Super PAC backing Gandhi is spending big attacking Hutcheson. A runoff is likely; the question is whether Siegel will make it.


California 16: Esmeralda Soria vs. Jim Costa

In California’s 16th District, Rep. Jim Costa, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House and a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, is facing the first serious primary challenge in his eight-term career in Congress. Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria, a daughter of Mexican immigrant farmworkers, is challenging Costa from the left. Her platform rejects corporate PAC money and includes Medicare for All. Although the 37-year-old hopeful isn’t particularly radical, her politics are more aligned with the solidly blue district than Costa’s, who has voted along with Trump’s agenda nearly half the time.

His record includes votes — alongside his mostly Republican colleagues — to erode environmental regulations, defend U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and stall action on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. And before entering Congress, as a state senator he led the effort to ban most kinds of rent control in California.

Jim Costa, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, is facing the first serious primary challenge in his eight-term career in Congress.

Despite not having raised as much money as the eight-term incumbent, Soria successfully blocked Costa from winning the California Democratic Party’s early endorsement at a party convention last November, receiving 46 percent of the vote to his 49 percent. California’s top-two primary system means that the candidates who receive the most votes will make it to the general election in November, regardless of their party affiliation. In 2014, Costa, who has only ever had to fend off Republicans, almost lost his safe seat to an obscure, underfunded GOP challenger.

Democrat Kim Williams, a former history professor and U.S. diplomat, is also running in the primary but has struggled to gain traction. Williams is to the left of Soria, identifying closer to Sanders’s politics — but has only been able to raise about $49,825 in campaign funds. The influential progressive group Courage California has lined up behind Soria.

With the primary election just weeks away, Costa’s reelection campaign began airing two different attack ads, including one that was changed to remove photos of Soria and her fiancé in response to community backlash. “Esmeralda received $96,000 in pay, perks, and benefits … gave herself a 23 percent pay raise on the City Council,” the original ad read. “Soria’s fiancé is also her business partner. Soria’s fiancé received millions.”

53th District: Sara Jacobs vs. Georgette Gómez

Last spring, Democratic Rep. Susan Davis, who held the congressional seat for California’s 53rd District since 2003, abruptly announced she’d be retiring. Now over a dozen Democratic candidates are vying for her spot in the San Diego County district, though the contest is really between Sara Jacobs, a 31-year-old former Obama State Department official, and Georgette Gómez, the president of the San Diego City Council.

Jacobs’s campaign is being bankrolled by her billionaire grandfather, Irwin Jacobs, who co-founded Qualcomm. As of mid-February, Jacobs had raised over $2 million and spent over $1,799,755, and a Super PAC formed in January to back her has spent over $1 million on TV and digital ads since February 5. According to Federal Election Commission disclosures, Jacobs’s grandparents are the Super PAC’s only two donors.

Gómez, who has raised $657,970 and spent $537,676, has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party, a number of prominent unions and progressive organizations, as well as Sanders, and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan.

Despite not being endorsed by the party, in February the Jacobs campaign distributed mailers and door hangers that said Jacobs was “endorsed by California Democrats” with a donkey logo. Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chair of the San Diego Democratic Party, blasted Jacobs in a press conference for trying to mislead donors about who the party was rallying behind. In fact, the state party had endorsed Gómez. (The Jacobs campaign defended the mailer and pointed to endorsements by California’s Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and Reps. Katie Porter, Eric Swalwell, and Harley Rouda as evidence that the language was fair.)

Despite not being endorsed by the party, the Jacobs campaign distributed mailers and door hangers that said Jacobs was “endorsed by California Democrats” with a donkey logo.

Jacobs’s 2018 campaign had been dogged, meanwhile, by reports that she wildly inflated her resume. She lost that California primary to progressive Mike Levin, who went on to win the general election and flip a red seat. Jacobs is running in a different district this time.

A poll released in early February by the San Diego Union-Tribune/10News showed Jacobs with a strong first-place lead, and with a Republican candidate, Chris Stoddard, polling second. In California the top two vote-getters face off in the general election. But Gómez may benefit from some extra support in the final month of the race. On February 21, Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Gómez, making her one the first seven progressive candidates across the country to be supported with her new PAC.

Another challenger, veteran Jose Caballero, competed against Gómez to become the progressive alternative to Jacobs, but progressives have largely consolidated around the more widely known Gómez.

12th District: Shahid Buttar vs. Nancy Pelosi

Constitutional lawyer and civil liberties activist Shahid Buttar is running a long-shot bid against Pelosi. Another progressive, Agatha Bacelar, is also running but hasn’t picked up momentum.

Before Pelosi pulled the trigger on impeachment, Buttar was gathering steam, and since then, the presidential election has sucked much of the oxygen from the race. Buttar’s goal is to finish second, ahead of the closest Republican, to make it into the general election against Pelosi. In 2018, he fell 1,000 votes short.

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