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Incumbent Democrats Are Facing Serious Primary Challenges From Progressives

Competitive Democratic primaries are putting real pressure on incumbents to adopt progressive priorities.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks as Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

When the House of Representatives moved to approve a short-term funding bill to keep the government running in mid-November, a small handful of Democrats voted against the legislation. But these Democrats weren’t against keeping the government financed.

Instead, they were opposed to a provision that re-authorized controversial surveillance powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for an additional three months. New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded with a snarky tweet to an activist pointing out that House Democrats were reauthorizing the powers, “Yeah that’s gonna be a no from me dog.”

But alongside Ocasio-Cortez and other stalwart progressive representatives (the entire “Squad” voted against the legislation), a curious band of more establishment-friendly and conservative Democrats also voted against the bill. What is one possible explanation for these votes?

Sam Feldman, a public defender and member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, offered a theory. He noted that of the six non-Squad Democrats who voted against the bill, five of them are facing primary challenges from their political left. One of those House Democrats who voted against the stopgap bill, California’s Juan Vargas, had in the past supported attempts to expand the government’s surveillance powers under the Patriot Act. This year, however, Vargas is facing a primary challenge from his left, as San Diego activist Aeiramique Glass-Blake is running against him. It’s possible that his vote on this legislation was impacted by having to defend his left flank, Feldman said.

Over the next year, Democratic voters will decide not only their presidential nominee, but also the fate of a number of congressional Democrats who face primary challenges. Because all domestic legislation must go through Congress, the composition of the House in 2021 will arguably determine it just as much as who is in the White House.

Truthout spoke to three of those challengers who are aiming to unseat incumbent Democrats this year.

In New York’s 9th Congressional District, incumbent Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke is facing a challenge from four different Democrats, including Adem Bunkeddeko, an activist who is challenging her again after coming within six percentage points of defeating her in 2018.

Clarke will also be facing off with Isiah James, a Brooklyn-based activist and Army veteran who joined the race in March. In an interview with Truthout, James explained why he decided to throw his hat into the ring.

“I actually had a few meetings with Congresswoman Clarke,” he said, over her support for placing the new Amazon headquarters in New York City, which many local progressives feared would displace people and create a heavy burden on taxpayers. “She wouldn’t rescind her support.”

Clarke also asked her to stop taking corporate donations — including PAC donations from banks like Bank of America and Citigroup and drug companies like Pfizer — and to return the ones she did take. She refused to agree to either demand.

“That was the day that I came home and told my wife that I was so upset about the situation…. I decided somebody had to do something and I was going to be that somebody,” he said.

In his quest to unseat Clarke, James is running on issues such as housing affordability, an area where he has released a comprehensive plan to tackle the problem in this rapidly gentrifying part of New York City. The proposal calls for, among other things, a progressive tax on non-primary homes worth more than $5 million, an increase in public housing vouchers, and limits on the operations of companies like Airbnb in order to free up housing stock.

In November, Clarke released her own affordable housing legislation. It does not go as far as James’s plan, but does make some reforms that local activists have called for — including changing the government’s Area Median Income (AMI) calculation. The AMI that is currently used to define what counts as affordable housing currently includes the affluent suburbs of nearby Westchester and Rockland counties; Clarke’s bill would remove those suburbs from the calculation.

It isn’t unusual to see competitive Democratic primaries create real pressure on incumbents, which helps change their political posture. In 2010, then-Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, one of the most conservative members of her caucus, led the charge to toughen up financial reform legislation in 2010. It’s probably no surprise that she was doing this while she faced a competitive primary challenge from then-Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

On the other coast of the United States, the most powerful House Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is facing her own primary challenge. For years, Pelosi has been viewed by liberal activists as the most left-wing Speaker possible; these activists viewed her as the driving force behind the passage of the Affordable Care Act, for instance.

But in recent years, Pelosi has come under fire from some on her left for her skepticism toward some progressive priorities. Most notably, she has repeatedly thrown cold water on the left’s campaign for a single-payer health care system, where almost all care would be free at the point of service. “I’m not a big fan of Medicare for All,” Pelosi told Bloomberg earlier this year. Without Pelosi’s support, it is unlikely that single-payer legislation can move in the House.

Shahid Buttar is a long-time civil liberties advocate who is one of several Democrats challenging Pelosi this year. This marks the second time Buttar, a former grassroots advocate at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is challenging Pelosi. In 2018, he received 8.5 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, but did not advance to the November election.

He is running on, among other things, Pelosi’s refusal to entertain support for Medicare for All. He recognizes the challenges in getting the full Democratic caucus to get on board, but he doesn’t accept Pelosi’s reluctance to push for the bill.

“It resigns the opportunity to assert and persuade,” Buttar said. “And part of representing the nation’s most progressive city should include asserting our city’s visionary interests — precisely what she is unwilling to do by deferring to what the Congressional consensus will bear.”

California has a “top-two primary” system, where candidates from all parties are first invited to compete in a primary election — whether they be Democrats, Republicans, Greens, or some other party affiliation. The two candidates who received the most votes then advance to the November general election. This has resulted in many general elections in California where Republicans have been shut out altogether, and two Democrats faced each other in November elections. In 2018, Buttar was narrowly beaten by Lisa Remmer, the Republican candidate, who received almost 1,200 more votes than him.

This time around, Buttar is aiming to make the top two in the primary, assuring he will be able to go into a head-to-head election with Pelosi in November. His campaign has amassed around 7,000 donors, with an average donation of $24. According to the latest campaign filings, Buttar’s campaign has raised around $230,000. That’s more than the two Republican candidates running combined, who have raised around $159,000 over the same period.

All of Pelosi’s challengers, however, do not have a war chest of her size. She has more than $3.7 million raised over the course of this year.

Buttar, however, argues that Pelosi hasn’t been forced to run a competitive race in decades, and that this leaves her vulnerable to a city where much of the younger population is more skeptical of the Democratic establishment.

“I think there’s a whole legion of people in San Francisco who are not partisan but who are very deeply progressive,” Buttar said, adding, “I think people who presume Pelosi’s invulnerability don’t have their ear to the ground.”

It is true that San Francisco’s Democratic establishment has suffered real losses in recent years. Most recently, the Bernie Sanders-backed candidate for District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, triumphed over his establishment-backed opponents.

Whether Buttar can translate that anti-establishment sentiment over to Pelosi’s seat remains to be seen, but one factor that will likely play a role is where San Francisco’s conservative and libertarian-leaning voters would go in a potential Buttar-Pelosi general election matchup. Buttar believes that his history of civil liberties work could win them over.

Back on the East Coast, Lauren Ashcraft is challenging incumbent New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the state’s 12th Congressional District.

Ashcraft is a millennial with a background as both a project manager at JPMorgan Chase and a stand-up comedian who has used her comedic talents to raise money for nonprofits. She has been endorsed by Brand New Congress — the organization that helped Ocasio-Cortez win her initial race — and Buttar is supporting her run as well.

In an interview with Truthout, Ashcraft complained about Maloney’s continued acceptance of corporate fundraising and her support for more establishment candidates in local races.

“She endorsed Joe Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez and Melinda Katz over Tiffany Cabán, yet calls herself a progressive,” Ashcraft said. “I take major issue with her acceptance of corporate PAC money, as it shows what her true priorities are. How do you accept big real estate money when so many families are experiencing homelessness in our district?”

Ashcraft’s time at JPMorgan Chase gives her an atypical background for a left-wing Democratic primary challenger. In a blog post, she explained that despite the company profiting from the wide-ranging corporate tax cuts passed in 2018, it continues to consider shifting jobs out of New York City. “Because of at-will employment in our society,” she wrote, “if one does not accept the relocated job they may be ineligible for severance, as it is not technically a layoff. So, despite handing those banks billions of dollars in incentives, my district will be hit hard by corporate greed.” She said that her experience at the bank would lead her to seek a position on the Financial Services Committee, where she can hold the “entire industry accountable.”

In 2018, Maloney faced a closer-than-expected primary, winning 59.6 percent of the vote to lawyer and NYU business ethics professor Suraj Patel’s 40.4 percent of the vote. Maloney faces multiple opponents this time, which includes another bid by Patel.

Over the last fundraising period, Ashcraft has raised $32,139. Maloney, on the other hand, raised more than a million dollars.

In our interview, however, Ashcraft noted she had more than a thousand donations, with an average donation of $34.50, with none of it coming from corporate political action committees.

As Ashcraft, Buttar, James, and other primary challengers face off with their opponents next year, some Democrats are likely to be skeptical of the value of these challenges. With competitive races between Democrats and Republicans happening all over the U.S., some Democratic voters may wonder what the value is of challenging incumbents within their own party when the GOP has so many seats up for grabs.

Ashcraft isn’t convinced by these arguments.

“Essentially, this is saying that we should allow anyone who wins as a Democrat to stay in office as long as they want, even if we disagree with how we are being represented. Let the people choose who they want in office in a primary and general election. If the incumbent wins, they realize they have to work to stay in their seat and may start becoming more vocal when representing their constituents,” she said. “If the challenger wins, we can push for more than the status quo of incremental change.”

James offered a similar argument.

“Everybody focuses on left versus right, D versus R,” he said. “But we don’t have to accept people just because they have a D behind their name when they aren’t doing anything for their constituents and they aren’t doing anything to move their country forward.”

Citing rising health care costs and the lack of affordable housing, James argued that there should be more electoral competition not just in his district, but across the U.S. “Every incumbent [in the U.S.] should be challenged on a regular basis,” he said. “How selfish is it to say that one woman or one man in a district of nearly three quarters of a million people has the only answers? There should be a hundred people running in every primary. That is what democracy is.”

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