Progressive Challengers Could Shatter a Washington Narrative on Tuesday

With most attention on the presidential race, a number of Democratic House candidates are hoping to flip red seats and disprove a 2018 theory.

Empty Republican seats are seen in the House Chamber before a ceremony for the opening of the 116th Congress in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Nancy Pelosi is all but certain to become House speaker on Thursday as the new Congress is sworn in and Democrats claim control of the chamber, setting up two years of confrontation and possible compromise with President Donald Trump. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Empty seats are seen in the House Chamber before a ceremony for the opening of the 116th Congress in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 3, 2019. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The 2018 House Democratic primaries saw the most robust battle between the party’s progressive and centrist wings since the 2006 Blue Wave. Flush with anger at President Donald Trump, dozens of progressives leapt into congressional races to oust Republican incumbents. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, diverging from the practice of its House GOP counterpart, decided to play aggressively in many of the key races, endorsing its preferred candidate early, and managing to beat most of those new congressional aspirants.

Those victories established a narrative that Democratic primary voters prefer moderate candidates over progressives, ignoring the fact that thanks to party support, the progressives were outgunned on every level, whether it was local validator endorsements, fundraising, or media coverage. But a handful of progressives did beat their establishment-backed primary opponents in 2018, including Kara Eastman in Omaha, Nebraska; Dana Balter in Syracuse, New York; Katie Porter in Orange County, California; and Mike Levin outside San Diego.

Both Eastman and Balter lost close races on election night to popular incumbent Republicans, while Porter and Levin were trailing or too close to call for several days, due to California’s slow count of mail-in votes. That left centrist, pro-business elements of the party to crow that not only had Democratic primary voters largely rejected progressives in the primary, general election voters had stamped out the ones who snuck through.


All of this came amid the victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, who won their primaries in safely blue districts. Sifting through the results, a conclusion was reached by the media, establishment Democrats, and some progressives: The best the left could hope for was to grow the Squad with the help of Justice Democrats and other similar groups, and pick off some out-of-touch, corporate-friendly Democrats in deep blue districts.

Except both Porter and Levin, once all the votes were counted, went on to win. Levin has bucked conventional swing-district wisdom by becoming an outspoken supporter of the Green New Deal, and Porter is now famous for her viral vivisections of hapless corporate executives and administration lackeys who have the misfortune of coming before her on the Financial Services Committee. Despite occupying once firmly red seats, both representatives are expected to win comfortably on Tuesday.

The question, then, is whether Porter and Levin were really flukes. And it could be answered on Tuesday. With Democrats in control of the House, there were far fewer competitive primaries in 2020 than last cycle, since most freshmen ran unopposed for their renomination. But with attention squarely focused on the presidential race and the fight for control of the Senate, something remarkable happened on the House side during the primaries: Progressives have been cleaning up.

The high-profile wins need little introduction. Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Marie Newman all ousted longtime incumbents (and Jessica Cisneros came close), while Mondaire Jones beat a well-funded field of spies, prosecutors, and corporate executives to win an open primary in New York. But progressive candidates also won again in Omaha and Syracuse, with Eastman and Balter both coming back for a second shot, this time with the backing of the DCCC. Julie Oliver, who ran a quixotic bid on Medicare for All in 2018, again won the nomination in her suburban Austin seat on the same universal health care platform — and this time she has a chance. Civil rights and labor attorney Mike Siegel, running on the Green New Deal with the support of both local labor and the Sunrise Movement, beat two better-funded primary candidates with establishment backing. If he ousts Rep. Michael McCaul, he’d be the most progressive challenger to flip a red seat since former Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders won Vermont’s House seat in 1990 from Republicans — and that he would do it with DCCC support, long after the primary, shows the shifting dynamics inside the party.

Still, the old narrative remains firmly in place. Take the Cook Political Report’s final assessment of Siegel’s race against McCaul. “Earlier this fall, it looked like McCaul was in the clear: national Democrats’ favored candidate, physician Pritesh Gandhi, lost the runoff to progressive Austin attorney Mike Siegel, who ran a lackluster race two years ago and lost to McCaul by four points,” Cook wrote.

With Siegel largely written off, the Sunrise Movement made his race a top priority, and progressives around the country rallied to fundraise and turn out voters for Siegel. Katie Porter, through a project called “Red to Bold” run by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, is fundraising for Siegel, Oliver, Eastman, and Balter as well as two other progressive candidates looking to flip red seats: Pam Keith in Florida, and Jon Hoadley in Michigan.

On Monday, Cook updated its rating of Siegel’s race from “Leans Republican” to a toss-up. While acknowledging Siegel could pull it off, the analysis sidesteps the organizing and suggests the Biden juggernaut might drag Siegel over the finish line. “McCaul might have a top-of-the-ticket problem,” Cook reports. Democratic operatives in Texas, meanwhile, say that the reverse is also true: The extraordinary amount of organizing going on at the ground level for House, Senate, and state legislature candidates have delivered Biden a capacity that he didn’t have, given that he only began paying attention to Texas recently.

Because the narrative is so firmly entrenched — that progressive candidates can’t win, and if they do, it’s only because they got lucky — it’ll take multiple upsets to cause a rethink. But if Porter and Levin can win reelection convincingly, and unapologetically progressive candidates like Eastman, Balter, Siegel, Oliver, or others can join them in the House, moderates would lose the most persuasive argument they have to oppose the party on key pieces of legislation, whether it’s immigration, climate, health care, wages, or economic stimulus: They’d love to support it, but the voters back home just won’t go for it, and without moderates winning reelection, Democrats can’t keep the majority. If this cycle’s progressive candidates can win in GOP territory, those moderates will face increasing pressure to support publicly the things they claim to support privately — or risk a primary challenge in districts rapidly becoming more progressive.

Members of the House of Representatives don’t watch anything as closely as they do the election returns of their colleagues. Here are a few races to follow Tuesday night to get a sense of how the politics of the House will shift  in the coming Congress.

The Expansion of the Squad

Shortly after they entered Congress in 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley became known as “the Squad”: a powerful new progressive bloc changing the politics in the Democratic Party and inspiring millions of young people nationwide. “Our squad is big,” Pressley said during a 2019 press conference following racist attacks from President Donald Trump. “Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world. And that is the work we want to get back to.”

This year, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar beat back well-funded primary opponents, while Tlaib decisively defeated Brenda Jones, the former Detroit city council president whom Tlaib also competed against in 2018. Pressley did not face a primary challenge. The Squad is set to expand come January, with the addition of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Marie Newman, and Mondaire Jones — who are all-but-guaranteed to win their general elections on Tuesday.

Jamaal Bowman, Democratic nominee for New Yorks 16th Congressional District, attends a news conference on the Jobs and Justice Act of 2020 in the Capitol Visitor Center on September 23, 2020.

Jamaal Bowman, Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th Congressional District, attends a news conference on the Jobs and Justice Act of 2020 in the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 23, 2020.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Bowman, a former middle school principal from the Bronx, won an upset primary victory against one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, 16-term Democrat and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel. Bowman, backed by Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, ran on Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a new deal for housing, and criminal justice reform. “I am part of the Squad,” Bowman told GQ in August. Squad members welcomed his win as an opportunity to grow their caucus. Conservative Party candidate Patrick McManus is on the ballot in November, though New York’s 16th Congressional District hasn’t elected a Republican or Independent candidate since the 1940s.

In another unexpected upset in the primary season, Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush unseated 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri by 4,600 votes, coming back from a 20-point loss in the 2018 primary and an unsuccessful 2016 Senate campaign. Bush — a nurse, pastor, and community activist who was formerly homeless — was a leader of the Ferguson protests in 2014 after police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Like Ocasio-Cortez, she was backed by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress in 2018, and appeared with her in the documentary “Knock Down the House.” This cycle, she also picked up endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Working Families Party. Bush ran on Medicare for All, Housing for All, a Green New Deal, closing private prisons, ending cash bail, and public campaign finance. She targeted Clay’s reliance on corporate money, his lack of attention to local movements in closing the “Workhouse” jail and ending mandatory minimums, and his voting record.

Another prospective Squad member who rebounded from a 2018 loss is Marie Newman, who defeated Rep. Dan Lipinski by just under 3 percentage points in the March primary. She came close to unseating him in 2018, when he had the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This cycle, Newman had the backing of Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats, in addition to groups that backed her 2018 campaign like Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Mondaire Jones, a Black openly gay attorney also endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, won an open primary in a safe blue district and is likely to succeed outgoing Rep. Nita Lowey, a powerful moderate Democrat who has held the seat since 1989. He supports signature progressive policies like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Jones, who spent a year working at the Department of Justice where he helped vet judicial nominees during the Obama administration, said his shift left was driven in part from watching congressional Republicans obstruct the vetted candidates and Democrats not fight back.

In Washington state, Beth Doglio, a community activist and progressive state legislator whose primary bid was backed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is facing off against Marilyn Strickland, a former Tacoma mayor who later served as president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group. Doglio, who has been endorsed by Sanders, is running on a platform that includes a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which Strickland opposes. The two Democratic candidates have raised comparable amounts of money; Strickland has raised $1.5 million compared to Doglio’s $1.3 million.

Another highly watched race for progressives is the race in California’s 53rd District, where two Democrats are vying to succeed outgoing Democratic Rep. Susan Davis, who held the San Diego County seat since 2001 but announced last year she’d be retiring. Georgette Gómez, the president of the San Diego City Council, is facing off against Sara Jacobs, a former Obama State Department official whose race has been bankrolled by her billionaire grandfather, the co-founder of Qualcomm. Jacobs has raised $2.9 million next to Gómez’s $1.6 million. Gómez is backed by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Justice Democrats, but following an admission in April that Gómez disagreed with Justice Democrats calling Israel “a human rights violator,” the group all but withdrew its support from the race. Gómez’s robust support from the pro-Israel lobby has supporters of Palestinian rights nervous, and the original progressive candidate in the race has denounced Gómez, endorsing Jacobs instead. A recent SurveyUSA poll projected Jacobs will win the election.

Red to Blue

Democratic House candidate Kara Eastman waves to passing motorists in Omaha, Neb., on Nov. 6, 2018.

Democratic House candidate Kara Eastman waves to passing motorists in Omaha, Neb., on Nov. 6, 2018.

Photo: Nati Harnik/AP

Nebraska’s 2nd: Kara Eastman vs. Rep. Don Bacon

Kara Eastman, a progressive Democrat backed by groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, is facing off against Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who narrowly beat Eastman in 2018. The 2nd Congressional District, a swing seat in the Omaha metro region, has implications for the presidential election: It has its own Electoral College vote. In 2018, Eastman beat former Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford in an upset primary but had little support from DCCC in the general election. This year, she defeated Ashford’s wife, Ann, in the Democratic primary. While the DCCC is supporting Eastman this time around, in October, Brad Ashford endorsed Bacon over her — a blow to the party.

New York’s 24th: Dana Balter vs. Rep. John Katko

Former Syracuse University professor Dana Balter narrowly lost a bid to unseat Republican Rep. John Katko last cycle, coming within 5 percentage points of ousting the two-term congressman in her first run for office. Her 2018 campaign had been backed by progressive groups like the Working Families Party and Indivisible, but even in the general election, establishment groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stayed away. After announcing her rematch in April, though, she got the backing of the DCCC, as well as Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the Working Families Party, Hillary Clinton, EMILY’s List, and End Citizens United. Balter is running on getting big money out of politics, universal health care with a focus on the opioid crisis and treatment, fully funding public schools, and ending mandatory minimums and the criminalization of poverty.

Iowa’s 4th: J.D. Scholten vs. Randy Feenstra

Democrat J.D. Scholten came within 3 percentage points of unseating Republican Rep. Steve King last cycle. King lost the Republican primary in June to Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra, bringing an end to King’s nine terms in office. Last year, King was stripped of committee seats, and House Democrats attempted to censure him following reporting from the New York Times that he defended the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist.” Scholten is on the ballot again on Tuesday, and is polling between 6 to 3 points behind Feenstra. Scholten has rejected corporate PAC money, and is running on universal health care, expanding Medicaid, funding rural hospitals and community health centers, and expanding access to public services for addiction recovery. The DCCC, which ignored Scholten’s 2018 race, urged him to challenge King a second time around, then deprioritized the race after King lost his primary, with Scholten rejecting their help. He’s outraised Feenstra by just under $1 million, with $2.7 million so far.

Texas’s 10th: Mike Siegel vs. Rep. Michael McCaul

Progressive Mike Siegel is running in a rematch against Republican Rep. Michael McCaul after coming within 4 percentage points of unseating him last cycle. While the DCCC was no help to Siegel in 2018, they added his race to their “Red to Blue” program in October, months after he came out on top in the state’s March primary, and advanced from the runoff in June. Siegel has raised $2.3 million to McCaul’s $3.5 million, and is polling within 2 points of the incumbent. Siegel is running on universal health care, a Green New Deal, housing for all, college for all, ending transfer of military weapons to police, and ending qualified immunity. His endorsements include Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, former Texas Rep. and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, the AFL-CIO, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, and Brand New Congress.

Texas’s 25th: Julie Oliver vs. Rep. Roger Williams

While the largely rural, gerrymandered red district which went for Trump in 2016 by 14.8 percentage points, Julie Oliver has the advantage of having run for Congress before, coming just 8.7 points behind Rep. Roger Williams in 2018. This time around Oliver has the backing of party leaders like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the Sunrise Movement, and even the DCCC. Oliver’s campaign is hoping their targeted campaigning, aided by data from Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race, can help put them over the edge.

Oliver speaks often of her working-class roots, having been a teen mom who experienced homelessness (check out her recent interview on Deconstructed). She’s a supporter of the Green New Deal, and leads with her support for Medicare For All.

Candace Valenzuela, Democratic candidate in the Texas 24 Congressional District, for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, on Oct. 13, 2020, in Dallas.

Candace Valenzuela, Democratic candidate in Texas’s 24th Congressional District, campaigns for presidential candidate Joe Biden on Oct. 13, 2020, in Dallas.

Photo: LM Otero/AP

Texas’s 24th: Candace Valenzuela vs. Beth Van Duyne

After winning the Democratic primary in an upset runoff in July, Candace Valenzuela is facing off against Republican Beth Van Duyne in one of the most competitive Texas districts, which has been GOP-controlled since 2004 but growing steadily more diverse. (In 2018, outgoing incumbent Rep. Kenny Marchant eked out a 3-point win over his poorly funded Democratic opponent.) Valenzuela, who grew up homeless, is hoping to bring a new socioeconomic perspective to Washington; Van Duyne, a former local mayor who worked as a HUD official under Trump, gained national attention for trying to pass a state law shielding American courts from Sharia, or Islamic law, recycling a Republican conspiracy theory that Muslims are trying to take over the U.S. legal system. Both FiveThirtyEight and the Cook Political Report list the race as a toss-up.

Virginia’s 5th: Cameron Webb vs. Bob Good

Vying to represent a district in the outer D.C. suburbs, Cameron Webb, an internal medicine doctor and lawyer, is facing off against Bob Good, an anti-LGBTQ Republican who worked as a fundraiser for the athletic department of Liberty University for 14 years before resigning to run for Congress. The seat is currently held by a libertarian Republican, Rep. Denver Riggleman, and this past summer Good ousted him in the primary, taking aim at the fact that Riggleman had officiated a gay wedding in 2019. Webb has been running on tackling climate change and criminal justice reform, as well as access to affordable health care, though he does not support ending private health insurance. Webb has significantly outraised Good and has a slight lead in the last few polls. The race is one of the most competitive in the nation, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Texas’s 2nd: Sima Ladjevardian vs. Rep. Dan Crenshaw

Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a freshman firebrand who has earned a reputation as a national conservative star since being elected two years ago, is working to protect his seat in a suburban Houston district that has been trending demographically in Democrats’ favor. Ladjevardian, an Iranian immigrant and cancer survivor, has been going after Crenshaw for his reckless handling of Covid-19. While Crenshaw won his race in 2018 by 7.2 percentage points, Beto O’Rourke lost his Senate race in that district by just 1 point, making it a top priority for national Democrats this time around. Forecasters at FiveThirtyEight give Ladjevardian a 1 in 9 chance of winning, and the Cook Political Report ranks it as “likely Republican.”

Campaign photo of Christy Smith.

Campaign photo of Christy Smith.

Photo: Christy Smith For Congress/AP

California’s 25th: Christy Smith vs. Rep. Mike Garcia

In one of the most competitive races in the country, for a district that includes northern Los Angeles County and parts of Ventura County, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith is seeking to oust Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, who beat her in a 2019 special election. The seat was previously won in 2018 by Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned following a scandal involving leaked intimate photos and accusations that she had an illicit affair with a staffer. Smith is hoping increased turnout from the presidential election will push her over the edge, and FiveThirtyEight gives her a 59 percent chance of winning.

Michigan’s 6th: Jon Hoadley vs. Rep. Fred Upton

Jon Hoadley, a three-term progressive Democratic state representative from Michigan, is seeking to unseat GOP incumbent Fred Upton, who is gunning for his 18th term in Congress. Upton hasn’t had a real organized challenge since 2014, and he won his last election by 5 percentage points. The Southwest Michigan district is pretty conservative, but Hoadley’s campaign is hoping a wave election could drive turnout. In September, local Republicans subjected Hoadley to a brazen homophobic smear effort, and Cook Political Report puts the race at “lean Republican.”

Michigan’s 3rd: Hillary Scholten vs. Peter Meijer

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash left the GOP last year to become an Independent, later joining the Libertarian Party and running a brief presidential campaign. Amash retired in July during his fifth term, leaving an open seat in the state’s Grand Rapids region, which went narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 before flipping for Mitt Romney in 2012, and going on to support Donald Trump in 2016. The district leans Republican, but the party’s vulnerability amid a slew of retirements and increasing polarization under Trump, plus a huge primary turnout, opened the door for a possible flip. Democrat Hillary Scholten, an immigration attorney who worked for the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals under Obama, ran unopposed in the March primary and got more than 65,000 votes in the March primary. Scholten is running on defending the Affordable Care Act and working to create a public option, paid family and medical leave, and increasing the minimum wage. Her opponent, Republican Peter Meijer, an Army veteran and business analyst, got more than 47,000 of the 94,000 votes cast in the GOP primary.

New Jersey’s 2nd: Amy Kennedy vs. Rep. Jeff Van Drew

Former Democrat Jeff Van Drew won election in 2018 with help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which backed him over two viable progressive candidates in the Southern New Jersey district as part of its “Red to Blue” program. In December, just about halfway through his first term, Van Drew officially joined the Republican party. He had already made a name for himself as one of the most conservative Democrats in the state, supporting restrictions on abortion and touting a perfect approval rating from the National Rifle Association. Democratic candidate Amy Kennedy, a former teacher and the wife of former Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, won 43,414 votes in the July primary, just under 2,000 less than Van Drew received in the GOP primary. Kennedy is not a Squad-level progressive but beat a machine-backed opponent to win the primary.

Texas’s 22nd: Sri Kulkarni vs. Troy Nehls

Rep. Pete Olson was one of seven Republican congressmen to announce they were leaving the Texas delegation this cycle as the state’s changing demographic landscape spells trouble for the GOP. Sri Preston Kulkarni lost a bid to unseat Olson by just 5 points in 2018; during that race, Olson was filmed calling Kulkarni a “liberal, liberal, liberal Indo-American who is a carpetbagger.” Kulkarni, backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the moderate Blue Dog PAC, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, will face Republican candidate, Sheriff Troy Nehls on Tuesday. Kulkarni hewed more closely to the center this cycle, having advocated for Medicare for All in 2018 and moving toward a public option this time around. Kulkarni’s campaign has an outreach program in more than two dozen languages aimed at turning out the Asian American vote in the diverse district — but those efforts were complicated as some Indian Americans were turned off by his acceptance of campaign contributions from members of U.S.-based groups connected to Hindu nationalist groups in India, The Intercept reported. Kulkarni, who ran as more of a progressive in 2018, has fashioned himself as more of a New Democrat in 2020, showing that the left doesn’t have a monopoly on grassroots organizing tactics.

In a couple of other races, Democrats who flipped red districts in 2018 are fighting to retain their seats in the face of a concerted effort from national Republicans to vote them out.

U.S. Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., poses for a portrait outside his office in Staten Island, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in New York. Rose is running for re-election in New York's 11th Congressional District. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

U.S. Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., poses for a portrait outside his office in Staten Island on Oct. 8, 2020, in New York.

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

New York’s 11th: Rep. Max Rose vs. Nicole Malliotakis

Democratic Rep. Max Rose will try to defend his Staten Island seat in a district Trump carried by 10 percentage points. Rose flipped the 11th District in 2018, riding the “blue wave” backlash to President Donald Trump that saw Democrats pick up 40 seats in the House. But Rose became a Trump target, with the president endorsing his opponent, Republican state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, in February. In an August interview with the New York Post, Trump called Rose a “fraud” and a “puppet” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and declared Staten Island “Trump country.” No Democrat has won re-election in the district in nearly four decades, but the Cook Political Report rates the race as a Democratic toss-up. Rose has raised more than $8 million to Malliotakis’s $3 million.

New York’s 22nd: Rep. Anthony Brindisi vs. Claudia Tenney

Democrat and Working Families party candidate Anthony Brindisi is trying to defend his seat representing the state’s 22nd District, covering the regions of Utica and Binghamton outside of Syracuse. Brindisi narrowly won election in 2018, unseating former Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney by less than 2 points to flip the district blue for the first time since 2012. Trump won it by 16 points in 2016, a major swing from John McCain’s near-tie with Barack Obama in 2008. Tenney will be on the ballot again Tuesday, along with Libertarian candidate Keith Price. The National Republican Campaign Committee launched an all-out assault on Brindisi in hopes of reclaiming the district, one of their four targets in the state this cycle.

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