Down Goes Clay: Cori Bush Knocks Off Half-Century Dynasty

Cori Bush’s triumph over 19-year incumbent Rep. Lacy Clay in St. Louis, Missouri, is Justice Democrats’ latest upset.

Cori Bush. Photo: Courtesy of Cori Bush for Congress

In an upset that will rock the House Democratic Caucus, Ferguson activist Cori Bush on Tuesday unseated Rep. Lacy Clay, whose family has represented the St. Louis-area congressional district for more than 50 years. 

Clay dominated Bush among mail-in and absentee ballots, leading some outlets to prematurely call the race, but Bush surged back with a commanding Election Day lead, narrowly topping Clay by 3 points when all were counted.

Bush was among the original Justice Democrat recruits in 2018, but lost her first challenge by 20 points. A registered nurse and pastor, she made a second run this cycle, again with the backing of Justice Democrats, the progressive group best known for recruiting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It is historic that this year, of all the years, we are sending a Black, working-class single mother who’s been fighting for Black lives since Ferguson all the way to the halls of Congress,” Bush said in a victory speech. 

Bush’s win follows the upset of veteran Rep. Eliot Engel at the hands of Jamaal Bowman in New York, and longtime Rep. Daniel Lipinski in Illinois, who fell to Marie Newman. Justice Democrats also supported a challenge against Rep. Henry Cuellar, who narrowly fended off Jessica Cisneros in Texas.

Bush’s win is monumental in a number of ways. Unlike Bowman, she did not have the luxury of an opponent who fled his district and told a hot mic that he only wanted to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally because he had a primary to worry about. When Engel lost to Bowman, an anonymous Democrat argued to the New York Post that his loss was a fluke and tied to his race and his lack of energy in office. “It doesn’t show AOC’s power — it shows that New York voters want demographic changes in the House,” the Democrat was quoted saying. “They don’t want old white guys who don’t do anything. Not only old white guys; but old white guys who only work when they’re up for reelection. … People are punishing these kinds of lawmakers. If you’re old, white, and lazy, you’re going to get kicked out.”

Clay, however, is not old (he just turned 64, a decade younger than Engel), white, or lazy. Clay did not remotely take Bush for granted, launching a full-scale negative campaign to try to take her down, and has been focused on her as a threat since her loss to him in 2018. He is a fixture of the community, and he and his father, Bill Clay Sr., a civil rights activist and co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, have continuously held the seat since the 1960s. His father lamented the loss on Wednesday. 

Clay’s defeat is also ominous for incumbent Democrats, as he was hammered at home by an outside anti-monopoly group for his work with the financial industry to undo an Obama-era piece of Wall Street reform. The group, Fight Corporate Monopolies, spent $90,000 airing the attack ad, causing pain for Clay on the type of issue that rarely leaves the Beltway. It was doubly ominous given that it came from nowhere, and the new group, which had only previously spent against Massachusetts Rep. Richie Neal, does not disclose its donors. 

Bush rose to prominence as a leader of the Ferguson protests in August 2014 and, with the help of Justice Democrats, challenged Clay in 2018. That year, Bush told The Intercept that she was optimistic about the growing momentum progressives were having in Congress. “I don’t think it was just lightning striking in that moment, like I heard some people say, I think this is a movement and I think it’s only going to grow,” Bush said. “From 2018 to 2020, I think this is going to continue to push forward because people are beginning to see now that this can happen.”

Justice Democrats was born out of the group Brand New Congress, which had initially launched with the plan to oust all 435 members of Congress, but that ambitious objective looked to be going zero for 435 heading into the spring. So Justice Democrats, after it split from BNC, chose one race to go all-in on — Ocasio-Cortez’s — and followed that with a win by Ayanna Pressley in Boston. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib later also won open seats, creating what is known today as “the Squad.” In 2018, Bush was featured alongside Ocasio-Cortez and two other candidates in “Knock Down the House,” a Netflix documentary about working-class challengers running for Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez traveled to St. Louis to rally for Bush two years ago, but her cash-strapped campaign wasn’t able to get the word out to voters, managing just about two weeks of paid radio ads. In 2020, significantly thanks to the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his help with fundraising, but also the result of her higher name recognition from her role in the documentary, she was able to mount a more serious campaign and even outspent Clay down the stretch. Through his email list, Sanders raised Bush $107,000 throughout the campaign, a Sanders source said. The local Our Revolution chapter, which was built out of the 2016 Sanders campaign for president, backed Bush in 2018 and again this cycle, making some 30,000 voter contacts for her in 2020.

Justice Democrats spent roughly $200,000 in support of Bush through both a coordinated effort and an independent expenditure. “Cori is the fifth challenger backed by Justice Democrats to unseat an incumbent,” said Alexandra Rojas, JD’s executive director. “She organized a movement through pepper spray and rioting police in the streets of Ferguson. Her tenacity and unbreakable pursuit of justice is desperately needed in Congress today.”

Sunrise Movement, the youth climate group, was active on her behalf as well, as was Matriarch, a new organization that backs working-class women running for office. “She ran on defund the police, the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All and defeated a multigenerational political dynasty who got too close to corporate donors and too far from the needs of his district,” said Evan Weber, political director of Sunrise.

Yet Ocasio-Cortez declined to endorse Bush in her second run, as did many of the progressive groups that make up the institutional left. Clay has played a leading role in casting Justice Democrats as flatly racist in its willingness to challenge members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Ocasio-Cortez, as an incumbent, has been under intense pressure not to get behind primary challengers to her colleagues, and only backed Bowman after Engel’s hot-mic moment. No sitting member of the House backed Bush. 

Bowman, however, rallied for her.

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