In the wake of the 2018 House midterms, a piece of conventional wisdom solidified in Washington: The new progressive insurgency was a genuine threat in deep-blue districts, where grassroots organizing and small dollars could propel candidates, like the freshmen who made up “the Squad,” through primaries. But candidates with similar politics weren’t able to win in swing districts, which meant that the movement was relegated to a backseat in the party.
Exhibits A and B in that indictment were the failed campaigns of Kara Eastman in Omaha, Nebraska, and Dana Balter in Syracuse, New York. Like dozens of other candidates, they battled establishment opponents in the primary. Unlike dozens of others, they won those primaries. But when they went on to lose close races in the general election, corporate-backed groups like Third Way crowed that only through centrism lay a Democratic majority. Progressives, meanwhile, had only the victory by Katie Porter, who flipped a red seat in California, to point to — but she was heavily behind on Election Day, and her win only came days later due to the state’s slow counting of mail ballots, so it had little effect on the quickly solidifying narrative.
This year, Eastman and Balter are back, and both again won their primaries, giving the left a second chance to show that it can win in swing districts. Yet left-wing organizations have played a minimal role in the contests. Instead, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the bane of insurgent candidates last cycle, has stepped in to fill the void, with planned spending of at least $2.5 million in Omaha and $2.98 million in upstate New York.
That planned budget, some of which has gone to coordinated side spending with the campaigns and local Democratic parties, hasn’t closed the independent expenditure gap in Eastman’s race. Outside groups supporting incumbent Republican Don Bacon have outspent groups supporting Eastman by over 2 to 1 thus far — $3.18 million to $1.45 million — according to the Center for Responsive Politics (not counting future ad spending). Balter has maintained rough parity with her opponent, incumbent John Katko, in outside ads ($2.62 million for Balter and $2.77 million for Katko).
But spending takes time to show up publicly. A closer look at the television ad-buying space shows the GOP spending to be much larger, suggesting that Eastman is facing an avalanche of money as Republicans retreat from efforts to flip Democratic seats and consolidate resources in an effort to protect incumbents. A slew of super PACs, including one from the American Bankers Association, have spent more than $5 million on the Omaha airwaves to defend Bacon, a former Air Force brigadier general, according to a source with access to the data. House Majority PAC, the super PAC linked to the DCCC, is planning to spend at least $1.5 million.
That still leaves Eastman at a deficit, suggesting a role for progressive groups to fill. That race is also important nationally, as her congressional district comes along with its own Electoral College vote, due to Nebraska’s unusual distribution of votes. In some maps, that single elector could be the difference between a Biden loss and a Biden victory. Polls of the district have Joe Biden ahead, with a lead in the high single districts, and Eastman pacing behind him. A new poll paid for by the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC found Eastman up two over Bacon. (The CPC PAC plans to spend at least $300,000 through an independent expenditure, spread between Eastman, Balter, and five other swing-district Democrats; a recent fundraiser they held for Eastman, Balter, and two others netted around $70,000 a spokesperson said.) One poll released earlier this week shows Balter with a narrow lead over Katko, but also behind Biden.
Down-ballot candidates often get outpaced by the top of the ticket, but if Biden wins the district and Eastman loses it to Bacon, the left will never hear the end of it. Yet if Eastman can bring out new voters to the polls who go on to cast their ballots for Biden as well, they’ll have an argument that progressive politics can play even in Nebraska.
That dynamic makes the lack of national progressive energy all the more confounding. Indivisible, which endorsed Eastman in 2018 in the contested primary, hasn’t done so again. Kenny Palmer, an Indivisible spokesperson, said that the group’s local Omaha chapter made no endorsement and has been unresponsive to the national organization, and without a local endorsement, Indivisible can’t jump in the race.
For Balter, Indivisible said they would use the peer-to-peer texting campaign they employed in her successful primary. But they added that they would be more involved in other races in which they could drive up turnout and help the top of the ticket where it matters, in states like Michigan. Of course, Nebraska’s 2nd District is one of those seats where increasing turnout would matter for the presidential election as well.
Justice Democrats, which spent well more than $1 million between Jamaal Bowman, Alex Morse, Marie Newman, Jessica Cisneros, and Cori Bush’s primaries against Democrats in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, and Missouri, have not invested heavily in either Eastman’s or Balter’s race, though it helped raise money for Eastman’s campaign and organized some text messaging into the district. After publication, Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas said that the group is planning to spend a minimum of $250,000 in an upcoming independent expenditure for Eastman. Justice Democrats had raised $84,000 directly for Eastman through small donors, which is more than it raised for Cori Bush ($74,000), though less than for Jessica Cisneros ($128,000).
Sunrise Movement threw down heavily for those same insurgent candidates this cycle, but has been absent in Omaha and Syracuse. With no local chapters in either Syracuse or Omaha to build on, the group decided to focus elsewhere.
The Working Families Party, which endorsed Eastman in 2018, hasn’t gotten involved yet this time around. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, or PCCC, a backer of Eastman in 2018, has also not spent heavily in the district, limiting its help so far to fundraising from its members and other organizational support. WFP in New York, however, where the group is based, is backing Balter, having supported her in both her primary victories. WFP is funding two organizers, sending mail on her behalf, and working closely with the campaign.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., recently endorsed Eastman, but not Balter, and sent a fundraising email on Eastman’s behalf. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is planning to host a fundraiser for Eastman.
.@karaforcongress is facing the same incumbent Republican she came within just 1.9% of defeating two years ago while running on a strong progressive platform that prioritizes the needs of working people in Omaha and beyond. Let’s make sure Kara is elected to Congress this year. pic.twitter.com/kEINTeFRRC
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 16, 2020
For some groups, it was difficult to get either national grassroots donors or the ideological lefties who can write big checks interested in the races. In some ways, that’s a sign of growth for the left. As the party has become more progressive generally, the gap between Eastman and Balter and a more standard Democrat has narrowed, paradoxically making their races less interesting to ideologically motivated donors, who get more excited at taking on Democrats hostile to progressives, like Dan Lipinski (Newman), Henry Cuellar (Cisneros), Eliot Engel (Bowman), Lacy Clay Jr. (Bush), or Richie Neal (Morse). With the House of Representatives comfortably in Democrats’ hands for the time being, the incentive to flip two extra seats is minimized.
Adam Green, co-founder of PCCC, said he’s trying to counteract that instinct by making the connection between House races and the presidential campaign and will soon be launching a fundraising drive for six candidates around that theme, plus Balter to help get her over the finish line. Other than Eastman and Balter, they’ll be driving support to Jon Hoadley, a state representative in Michigan, taking on Rep. Fred Upton in a state where Donald Trump won by fewer than 11,000 votes. They’re also backing three candidates in Texas — Mike Siegel, Julie Oliver, and Candace Valenzuela — where Biden is tied, as well as Pam Keith in Florida, another close presidential state.
For Eastman specifically, PCCC is teaming with Rebellion PAC to put together a six-figure outside expenditure, Green said, though the exact size is still being worked out. An “enthusiasm event” scheduled for next week will encourage PCCC members to volunteer on behalf of Eastman and the organization’s other endorsed candidates.
With the House of Representatives comfortably in Democrats’ hands for the time being, the incentive to flip two extra seats is minimized.
Relatedly, resources — not just money, but time — are limited, and for some groups, Eastman and Balter just didn’t make the cut. Sunrise, for instance, had specific reasons for each of the races it decided to prioritize. Siegel, for instance, is a proud supporter of the Green New Deal, yet also managed to win over local labor support in the fossil-fuel heavy Texas district he’s trying to flip. If he beats incumbent Mike McCaul, he’ll be one of the most populist-progressive candidates elected in a swing district in modern memory, which would show that a Green New Deal can win anywhere. Next door, Sunrise-backed Julie Oliver is also a champion of the Green New Deal, and winning both would be a coup for the organization and shift climate politics in the House.
Sunrise has prioritized three other races of significance. Audrey Denney is running as a climate candidate in a heavily Republican northern California district. It’s the home of Paradise, which was notably devastated by wildfires and has continued to burn off and on since. Sanders recently endorsed and raised money for Denney, and activists believe that hostility toward GOP climate denial and inaction could make the race surprisingly close.
They’re also focusing on unseating Upton, former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a fierce ally of dirty energy companies. He’s seeking his 18th term, and hasn’t had an organized challenge since 2014, though he won by just 5 points last cycle. Hoadley has been the subject of a wildly out-of-context homophobic smear campaign by Republicans in the district.
Cathy Kunkel, running as part of the West Virginia Can’t Wait slate, under the banner of “For the many, not the few” (the same slogan as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the U.K.), is another Sunrise and Sanders priority, hoping to show that a Green New Deal can win in West Virginia despite its pro-coal legacy.
One key Democrat, however, has weighed in on the Omaha race. To win her primary in 2018, Eastman had to beat the DCCC-backed former Rep. Brad Ashford; in 2020, she defeated Ashford’s wife. On Wednesday, in a sign of the ongoing political realignment, Ashford endorsed the man he’d set out to beat last cycle: Republican Rep. Don Bacon.
David Dayen and Alex Sammon contributed reporting.
Update: October 9, 2020, 9:40 a.m.
After publication, Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, said the group is planning to spend at least $250,000 for Eastman. The article has been updated to reflect this, and to include WFP’s support for Balter, and new spending by the CPC PAC.