Progressives Fight Democratic Establishment to Join Bernie Sanders in Senate

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks about health care on Capitol Hill, June 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks about health care on Capitol Hill, June 26, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The Democratic Party is currently facing a surge of progressive opposition in primaries, even in regions of the country where Democrats have not been competitive in recent years.

Dozens of progressive candidates are running for local, statewide and congressional races, with several candidates out-raising establishment opponents. But the progressive surge is most evident in Senate races, where the high levels of grassroots progressive engagement are unprecedented. Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election this year, with 26 currently held by Democrats who are already the minority. This shifts the political strategy in favor of preserving Senate seats up for re-election rather than attempting to seize the Senate majority, though that still remains a possibility.

In interviews with Truthout, 15 Senate candidates running across the country discussed a wide variety of issues progressives are facing in their campaigns. Their challenges range from the amount of money and resources Senate campaigns require and the exhaustive petition process to make the ballot, to the unlikely prospect that a blue wave will wash over the United States Senate this year.

Two candidates currently running for the Democratic Senate nomination in Utah this year are Mitchell Vice, a progressive running on issues like Medicare for All, and Jenny Wilson, an establishment candidate who is a Democratic National Committee (DNC) member and currently serves on the state party’s executive committee. According to Vice, Wilson has used her role in party leadership to solidify her position as the nominee and intimidate other candidates into dropping out of the race last year.

“Jenny Wilson is really in charge of the party,” said Vice, who explained that Utah Democratic Party leaders mainly focus on Salt Lake County because the populous there enables them to win the state convention. Wilson’s father, Ted Wilson, served three terms as mayor of Salt Lake City. Vice argues this structure permits the Utah Democratic Party to ignore the rest of the state while undermining progressive candidates by supporting establishment Democrats in primaries and deterring progressives from running. He pointed to Misty Snow, the progressive 2016 Utah Senate candidate for the Democratic Party, as an example, claiming she was abandoned by party leaders once she won the nomination.

The Utah Democratic Party has noted its focus in 2018 will be more on local and state elections than putting resources into federal races. In his own case, Vice noted that he and other candidates have been pressured to drop out to pave the way for Wilson to be the unopposed nominee.

“I have supported the party through my role as a Democratic elected official and role as DNC member, yet those matters do not have any direct role with the upcoming US Senate nomination,” Wilson told Truthout.

Wilson forwarded Truthout a January 2018 email that she sent to Utah Democratic Party leadership to suspend her participation in the State Executive Committee until after the primary, though she formally announced her campaign in July 2017.

“The other three initial challengers — James Singer, Danny Drew and Robert Comstock — all self-selected out early and have endorsed me,” Wilson said. “I don’t know all reasons, but I assume they endorsed me because they believe I am a stronger candidate and am better prepared to serve in the Senate. I’m happy to face Mitchell Vice at convention and/or in a primary.”

“We need a vehicle to get in, and that vehicle is the Democratic Party, but before that happens we need to take the wheel,” Vice told Truthout. “But right now, we’re in the backseat of the station wagon trying to crawl over three rows of seats.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, formally endorsed and is funding Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in the Arizona Senate race to fill the seat that will be vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. Rep. Sinema is a member of the Blue Dog Caucus, a coalition of conservative Democrats receiving substantial support from the DSCC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“When you combine the problem of campaign financing with the fact that Arizona Republican voters far exceed Democratic voters, and the historical failures of most Democratic Arizona campaigns for the last 20 years, I think the cost-benefit analysis prevents progressive-minded individuals from running,” said Sandy Russell, the campaign manager for Arizona US Senate candidate Chris Russell.

Justice Democrats, an organization founded in 2017 by former Bernie Sanders staffers to help progressives run against establishment Democrats and Republicans, endorsed candidate Deedra Abboud.

“Four Arizona US Senate candidates have promised to collectively spend $12 to $15 million on this one race, as if they can buy Arizona voters, which is intimidating to many progressives,” Abboud told Truthout. “People are the real power, and people should always be more important than money.”

In Nevada, the DSCC also endorsed Rep. Jacky Rosen in the Democratic primary, the winner of which will challenge Republican Sen. Dean Heller in his re-election race.

“For decades, politics in Nevada have been tightly controlled by Harry Reid and his machine. This cycle is no different,” said attorney Jesse Sbaih, who is challenging Rosen. “As a result, it’s very difficult to raise money and get media coverage to spread our progressive message.”

Democrats in Texas are gearing up to oppose Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in his re-election bid this year in hopes that his unpopularity and changing state demographics can make the race competitive. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) was announced as the Democratic nominee in the March 2018 primary. Rep. O’Rourke also received fundraising help from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer before the March 6 primary. The Texas Democratic Party push backed against Sema Hernandez, a Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive activist challenging O’Rourke for the nomination.

“When I arrived to Texas Democratic Party headquarters in December 2017, I was asked if I was sure I wanted to run because there was already two other people in the race,” she said.

When Hernandez paid in cash the $5,000 fee to be put on the ballot for the Democratic primary, she said that the Democratic Party official who accepted the fee jokingly asked if it was drug money. The Texas Democratic Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Rep. O’Rourke is the only primary candidate who has refused to participate in a scheduled debate with Hernandez and a third primary challenger, Edward Kimbrough. Despite only fundraising less than $10,000 in her race, Hernandez received 23.7 percent of the vote.

Ten incumbent Democrats have yet to face primary or third-party challengers. “When someone wants to take on the establishment, they are going to be met with overwhelming adversity,” said Tykiem Booker, who dropped out of the Senate race as the only primary challenger to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware). “My struggle was trying to convince the masses that they should take a chance on someone new, instead of someone who has been in office for decades and is not up to date on the new generations.”

The majority of progressive primary candidates for US Senate who are finding success in developing bases of support are challenging moderate Democrats who have sided with Trump and Republicans on several issues.

The most competitive Democratic primary in a US Senate race this year is likely Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s re-election bid in California. Feinstein’s decision to run for re-election has incited challenges from state Sen. Kevin de León to Justice Democrat Alison Hartson and Berniecrat David Hildebrand.

Hartson told Truthout the reason she threw her hat in the ring was to challenge the corporate Democrats as represented by Dianne Feinstein. But the hurdles challengers face are many.

“Speaking from a perspective of running in California, the main obstacles are the sheer amount of money pitted against progressive candidates and the undemocratic endorsement process,” Hildebrand told Truthout.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill has shifted toward the center politically, inspiring progressives to call for a primary challenge from the left. McCaskill has clashed with Bernie Sanders supporters in her votes for several Trump nominees and in her denigrating of popular progressive policies like Medicare for All.

“Claire McCaskill is not fighting hard enough to salvage our economy, society or future,” said Angelica Earl, a former Obamacare marketplace employee who is running against McCaskill in the Democratic primary. “While I understand the mindset of incremental change and support the progressive push from the ground up, I do not understand why the buck stops there.”

One of Maine’s Senate seats is held by Sen. Angus King, who managed to win election to the Senate as an independent in 2012, but unlike his independent colleague Bernie Sanders, Sen. King has tended to side with Republicans on a variety of issues, though he caucuses with Democrats.

“Running against an incumbent backed by big money is the right way to challenge dated institutions in this historic time of populism around progressive campaigns,” said Zak Ringelstein, the Democratic Party challenger to Senator King’s re-election this year.

Other Senate candidates are running against incumbent Democrats to hold them accountable to the people they serve, rather than allowing them to receive a free pass for re-election in states that trend in favor of Democrats.

Ann Marie Adams is challenging Sen. Chris Murphy in Connecticut’s Democratic primary this year as one of only five Black women running for the US Senate in 2018.

“There’s nothing personal against Murphy. I just don’t think he was doing a good job representing all of us in Connecticut,” Adams told Truthout. She cited a need for diversity in representation and the encouragement of a new wave of women running for office as her inspiration for running.

Progressive organizations backing candidates across the country have yet to endorse many candidates for Senate, though the progressive surge inspired by Bernie Sanders’ historic 2016 presidential campaign is still building momentum. As Sanders often noted during his campaign, “Change happens from the bottom up.” The organization Sanders founded to help progressives get elected, Our Revolution, has not endorsed a 2018 Senate candidate yet, and the Justice Democrats only endorsed three so far. Meanwhile, the organization founded by former Sanders staffers to elect progressives, Brand New Congress, has only endorsed Senate candidate Paula Jean Swearengin, who is challenging West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate.

“A big obstacle to challenging all incumbents is that ‘conventional wisdom’ that just doesn’t apply anymore,” Swearengin told Truthout, going on to say that elected officials should have to work to be elected rather than expect to win unopposed. “Primaries should be considered a check-up on the health of a party. This is an opportunity for ideas to be voiced and for our membership to be well-represented.”

Bernie Sanders easily won West Virginia’s primary during his presidential campaign, but in that state and several others, elected officials have ignored a progressive-majority base within their own parties. This abandonment has provoked several primary challenges from the left.

“Sanders took 64 percent of the caucus last year, and the establishment chose to represent the 20 percent,” said Dustin Peyer, who is running against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. “Some establishment Democrats are very against the idea of having a progressive run against Heitkamp.”

Several establishment Democrats have treated the threat of primary challengers on the left to incumbent Democrats as a nuisance, pushing some candidates to go so far as to run on a third-party ticket.

“I spent two years on three of the DFL [Democratic-Farmer-Labor] state party committees, party affairs, platform, and outreach and inclusion,” said Paula Overby, who is running against Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) this year as a Green Party candidate.

Sanders won Minnesota during the 2016 primaries by more than 20 percent.

“It is not possible to reform a process that is so institutionalized,” Overby said. “My current campaign focuses on changing the rules, elevating minor parties to major party status, creating easier ballot access for progressive candidates and, most importantly, providing the public with a legitimate perception of choice.”

Though many progressives are running against Democrat incumbents or establishment Democrats in open Senate races, some progressives are stepping in where the Democratic Party won’t bother to spend resources to compete.

“The reason that the Democratic Party has given up on Mississippi is financial,” said Jensen Bohren, a progressive who is currently the only Democrat running to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker in Mississippi. Wicker already has more than $4 million in cash on hand for his campaign.

“One of the first questions the Democratic Party of Mississippi asked me when I first emailed them in January of 2016 was, ‘Are you able to raise funds to compete in the election. We would expect this race to cost at least be $3 million just to compete, ” Bohren said.