Home Politics Where 2020’s Primary Challenges Are Coming From
Where 2020’s Primary Challenges Are Coming From

Where 2020’s Primary Challenges Are Coming From


By David Weigel
The Washington Post

In this edition: The 2020 insurgent primaries take shape, Biden doesn’t change a thing, and abortion keeps tripping up the Democrats.

I have a bunch of soybeans to unload if you know somebody who wants them, and this is The Trailer.

Marie Newman is running for Congress again. In 2018, she came just 2,125 votes short of ousting Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) in a primary, arguing that a deep blue district deserved a reliably liberal congresswoman.

“The Chicago machine is not going to make this easy for me,” she said. “They’re already out there in force. We are ready for it this time and we’ve put a lot of infrastructure together. We’re starting much earlier than we did in 2018, and more people know my name.”

In both parties, unrest has been mostly manageable. At this very early stage in the 2020 cycle, fewer Democratic members of Congress are facing left-wing primary challenges than in 2018. Those challengers who have emerged are focused more on safe districts — “blue to blue” races — than the try-everything class of 2018. Republicans, meanwhile, are watching challengers enter their 2020 primaries on the same “true conservative” grounds as the old tea party challengers, with a twist: Instead of accusing GOP incumbents of doing too little to oppose President Barack Obama, they see them doing too little to support President Trump.

On the left, Democratic challengers have been complicated by new rules; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has told consultants who worked with primary challengers that they would be blocked from working with the party’s campaign committee.

That hasn’t stopped Newman, who on Monday was endorsed by a coalition of liberal groups — Emily’s List, MoveOn, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Democracy for America. Some early media attention about the “blacklist” also boosted Newman’s fundraising, with PCCC members and other activists donating tens of thousands of dollars.

Newman said there are still frustrations with the support she’s gotten.

“We are still having trouble getting a pollster because it’s a very specific type of activity and requires a certain level of expertise,” Newman said in an interview. “And we’ve lost other consultants that we thought we could get.”

The highest-profile backlash to the DCCC’s new consultant rule has been a DCCC boycott by College Democrat chapters; but College Democrats are more valuable to campaigns as volunteers than as donors, and they are continuing to work for individual candidates.

“The DCCC implemented their policies to prevent progressive primary challengers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley from going ‘mainstream’ in 2020, but it looks like the exact opposite is happening,” said Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas, citing two first-term Democratic members of Congress.

It’s not just the DCCC’s rule that has changed the landscape; the left’s goals have shifted since 2018. In that cycle, new groups such as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, arguing that the Democratic Party had failed at every level, recruited dozens of candidates for all sorts of districts — safely red, safely blue and swing. Nearly all of the primary challengers lost, but one of them, Ocasio-Cortez of New York, became one of the best-known and most galvanizing members of Congress.

“In order for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try,” Ocasio-Cortez told a defeated Justice Democrat in 2018, in a moment captured in the new documentary “Knock Down the House.”

In 2019, the left’s focus is on safely blue seats. Sean McElwee, co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress, argued that the terrain was much friendlier, not just because local Democrats are accustomed to winning but because long-serving incumbents are out of practice in a way that swing-seat Democrats are not.

“I don’t want to let the DCCC control the fate of the progressive movement,” McElwee said. “The solution is that you leave their turf of swing districts for the lawless zone of blue-to-blue primaries. You can win the argument there, because the D.C. consultants don’t know how to talk to Democratic voters anymore.”

The DCCC policy has been a complicating factor for some potential Democratic primary challengers. A candidate who had outraised Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) in his first quarter quit the race last month, citing a family issue; a four-month campaign to find a challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) has found no takers.

But the left’s new thinking has meant challenges to Lipinski, to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), and to Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.). Each represents a safely blue district where, on average, Donald Trump won 32.9 percent of the vote in 2016. Each challenge is premised on the idea that voters want new leadership in line with liberal values, if only they realize that they can have it.

That has found Hoyer’s challenger, Mckayla Wilkes, attacking the leader’s support of “Israeli apartheid,” and it has found Scott’s challenger, Michael Owens, attacking the congressman’s vote against blocking aid to the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a vote to relax some rules that restrict payday lenders.

“There are things he voted on that really just cripple our district and seem to affect black and brown communities more so than others,” Owens said. (Both Scott and Owens are black, as are a majority of the district’s voters.) “He had an opportunity to stop this terrible war that was going on, with thousands of innocent women and children being killed, and he didn’t take it.”

The people organizing challenges argue that any “blue to blue” race is a win for the party. Justice Democrats say the push to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen was sped along by one of their 2018 challenges: Sarah Smith, who lost by 36 points to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash), challenged the congressman on that issue in a safe blue seat. (Washington is one of three states with “top two” runoffs, which led to an all-Smith election with no chance of Republican victory.)

Younger, hungrier candidates, they say, can build the party in ways that older, safe incumbents don’t. That was crucial to the argument Rep. Pressley (D-Mass.) made in 2018, and it’s a big part of the case Owens is making now, in a race against an incumbent who will turn 75 during this term.

The DCCC defends its policies.

“I don’t want to spend one ounce of any resource on keeping Democrats in the seats that they already have,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) told the Chicago Tribune this week. “I want to make sure that we have resources to pick up seats.”

The strategies of early Republican challengers are very different. In the past few weeks, Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) have gotten primary opponents. Collins is being challenged by Derek Levasseur, a party activist; Tillis is facing Garland Tucker, a wealthy venture capitalist seen as more of a threat because he could self-fund a campaign.

Both challengers are running in swing states against senators whom the party has promised to protect, and both argue that the incumbents have not worked closely enough with the president. In an interview, Levasseur said that Collins’s vote for Brett Kavanaugh had impressed him, but she had voted against the president on key issues related to immigration, such as the president’s declaration of an emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Bill Weld comes out and says he’ll challenge the president in the primary, and Mitt Romney and Susan Collins come out and say what a good guy he is,” Levasseur said. “She says it’s good for the political process for the president to get a primary, so I’m going to keep the process good here in Maine and give her a primary.”

Levasseur is not well known, but Maine Republicans say there’s not much movement to prevent a primary. “There’s a lot of discontent amongst her constituents because they don’t feel that she is representing them,” said Cindy Johansen, the party chair in rural Aroostook County.

Tucker’s campaign in North Carolina has the same premise; the candidate, according to adviser Carter Wrenn, is ready to argue that Tillis has undercut the president when it counted.

“Tillis said he was against amnesty, so Trump got elected and repealed Obama’s executive order,” said Wrenn, referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “What does Tillis do? He says amnesty for 1.8 million illegals is something we need to debate.”


“Elizabeth Warren reshaped our view of the middle class. But some see an angle,” by Annie Linskey

The story of an academic battle that defined Warren’s early public career and the long grudges held by her critics.

“Republicans think they know how to win back Congress in 2020. Races like this one could screw it up,” by Alexis Levinson

Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) won a 2018 upset and is working to hold a Trump-friendly seat, while Republicans couldn’t prevent a primary in the race to beat him.

“Two more years? Trump’s retweet sets off a furor over the idea of bonus time,” by Ashley Parker

No, the president isn’t going to have two years added to his term, but the quickness with which that idea spread among supporters says a lot about his movement.

“Mike Pompeo risks alienating free trade supporters like the Koch network as he pushes Trump’s hard-line trade agenda against China,” by Brian Schwartz

Big donors have warmed to the Trump reelection campaign; the question is whether any policy advanced by the president could get them rethinking that.

“Who’s most electable? Candidates point to themselves,” by Chelsea Janes

Kamala Harris took direct aim at the idea that “electability” means who can win over more white male voters.


When Joe Biden began making moves toward a 2020 bid, Republicans considered the former vice president a strong threat to the president and consoled themselves with a theory: He’d have to move left to win. The Democratic Party of 2020 was too “woke” for Biden to conquer it without changing more than he already had, and he’d apologized for his advocacy of the 1994 crime bill.

So far, reality is being hard on that theory, and for two different reasons. One is that some “left-wing” policy is popular; Biden’s endorsement of the $15-an-hour minimum wage, for example, has cost him nothing on the center or the right. The other is that Biden hasn’t buckled to any unpopular left-wing idea or felt much of a need to. The party’s post-2016 march to the left has halted.

How is that possible, when every week brings a new Democratic idea from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) or Cory Booker (N.J.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)? It’s because those ideas matter only if the advocates get the nomination or if the front-runner feels pressure to move — as Hillary Clinton frequently did in 2015 and 2016. While Clinton started her campaign with a speech in favor of rethinking her husband’s criminal justice policies, Biden has spent two weeks on home court, talking about “rebuilding the backbone of the middle class.”

Biden has not shown any desire to move, and it has yet to hurt him with Democrats. Instead of endorsing Medicare-for-all, he says he supports letting people “buy into Medicare with a public option,” with more details to come on health care. Instead of endorsing the Green New Deal, he doesn’t talk about that plan and says he believes in “science, not fiction” and will put America back into the Paris climate agreement.

Biden’s ability to stick to his agenda comes from a cautious campaign strategy, with no audience questions at most campaign events. That is a problem for the left, which has been using town-hall settings to get candidates to take stands on voting rights, energy sources and the existence of the private insurance system.

“We’ve got a good, consistent track record of getting candidates to step forward with clear, consistent positions,” said Ronnie Newman, the political director of the ACLU, which has trained activists to ask policy questions that advance the debate on tricky issues. “We’ve seen that whether it’s Amy Klobuchar taking a clear stand in favor of legalizing marijuana, or whether it’s Pete Buttigieg getting on board with making sure there’s a resource if tech companies violate your privacy.”

The only candidate not facing this heat is Biden, who, coincidentally, leads every recent poll of the early states. The left’s work to move the Democrats ahead of this primary succeeded, but it’s not moving the front-runner any further. At the same time, there has been some backsliding on issues where the left seemed to have won.

Half a dozen 2020 candidates have endorsed House or Senate versions of Medicare-for-all, but under questioning, most of them have said they prefer an incremental move toward a Medicare buy-in rather than the Medicare-for-all bill’s two-year phase-in of a system that would ban most private insurance. That’s a setback for Medicare-for-all advocates such as National Nurses United, although organizers say the debate is ongoing.

“I think that you’re probably seeing Democratic candidates trying to figure out where to position themselves, and what is popular,” said Kelly Coogan-Gehr, a director of public advocacy at NNU. “But I think the public is really clearly saying that they want Medicare-for-all. And I think when they get clear information about how Medicare-for-all is really the only system that comprehensively saves money, much more so than a public option, then you’re going to see more and more people starting putting pressure on politicians to get away from this chapter and really put their weight behind Medicare-for-all.”

Polling has found that most Americans favor a universal health care plan, but most oppose the idea if told that it would cancel all private insurance plans.

In the meantime, the Democratic primary looks like the one Republicans couldn’t imagine one month ago — voters gravitating toward the candidate who seems the likeliest to win, not the one who has checked the right boxes with activists.


New Hampshire primary. Demand Justice, a Democratic pressure group that advocates for expanding the Supreme Court to add more liberals, is on the air in New Hampshire with an attack on Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). The focus: Bennet’s criticism of fellow Democrats on court appointments and Bennet’s own votes in favor of Trump-nominated judges.

“Donald Trump is giving our courts a right-wing makeover, and Michael Bennet is helping him do it,” a narrator says. “Bennet even praised Neil Gorsuch when Trump picked him for the Supreme Court seat stolen from President Obama.”

Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. Harrison Floyd is the latest aspiring GOP nominee to frame his campaign as a fight against “socialism,” with images of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the failed coup in Venezuela dominating his introduction video.

“My family and I didn’t fight for our freedoms to see our country fall to socialism,” said Floyd, a Marine veteran. “I’ll fight socialism in Congress the same way I fought terrorism in the desert.”


Attitudes toward socialism (Monmouth, 801 adults)

Is socialism compatible with American values?

No — 57%Yes — 29%

Do you favor or oppose creating a universal health care system?

Favor — 58%Oppose — 37%

The “socialism” debate is muddier than it appears. On one hand, there has been a resurgence of socialism among young, left-wing voters and historic victories for members of Democratic Socialists of America. On the other hand, not even Bernie Sanders has been able to replace the Republican definition of socialism (a Venezuela-style eradication of wealth and freedom) with his definition of “democratic socialism” (a healthy, Norway-styled welfare state). Monmouth’s big socialism poll gets right at the problem: Voters are comfortable with an idea that is labeled socialistic but uncomfortable with the “socialist” label.


Cory Booker. He proposed “making it harder for people who should not have a gun to get one” by creating a national firearm registry, an electrified third rail for Second Amendment voters.

Pete Buttigieg. He has begun to confront his lack of support from black voters; “I need help,” he told a skeptical black student in Orangeburg, S.C.

Elizabeth Warren. She’ll become the first 2020 Democrat to visit West Virginia as a candidate, with a Friday morning stop on her way to Ohio.

Joe Biden. In an interview with NPR, Biden’s wife Jill said that it was “time to move on” from questions about the Anita Hill hearings.

John Delaney. He’s heading back to New Hampshire for a schedule of 13 public events.

Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s said she’d require any Supreme Court nominee to support upholding Roe v. Wade, making explicit what Democrats usually prefer to imply.

Donald Trump. His campaign officially condemned an effort by Presidential Coalition, an unaffiliated super PAC run by a campaign ally, to raise money using Trump’s name.


What is it? The National Republican Redistricting Trust

Who runs it? Adam Kincaid is the executive director, but the national finance chair and most visible leader is Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor.

What’s it doing? Trying to raise at least $35 million to put the GOP in the best possible position ahead of redistricting in 2021. That will be tough; several states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, had Republicans running the entire redistricting process in 2011, and the party is unlikely to get such favorable maps in the wake of electoral and legal defeats.

What’s the argument? Walker, who stepped up his public presence after an unexpected defeat in 2018, is arguing that donors need to take the offense against Democrats as they try to put courts in place that would rule against maps slanted toward the GOP.

“They’re using the litigation process to take redistricting out of the hands of the people we elect, the people we hold accountable in our state legislative bodies and trying to send it to the courts where they have friendly folks, many of whom have been appointed by some of their allies,” Walker said this week on Fox News. “They’re trying to sue to change the makeup really for, I think, for a generation to come in terms of putting Democrats in power.”

This is all part of a response to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which itself was founded by Democrats who worried that Republicans had out-organized them in census-year elections. Led by Eric Holder, the committee has both worked to elect more Democrats and to sue to block GOP-drawn maps; it also, in 2018, sued Walker’s government to ensure that Wisconsin would hold special elections.


The last time Alabama state Rep. John Rogers was on TV, he was onstage with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), cheering his 2017 upset. In the past week, Rogers has emerged in a much less helpful capacity — unloading on Jones for criticizing him.

“[H]e called me twice,” Rogers told a radio interviewer this week. “He told me, ‘John, I know you’re right but I [have] to come out against you.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine, if it’s going to help your campaign, do that.’ That’s the kind of guy I am.”

What was Jones allegedly agreeing with Rogers about? It’s complicated. Last week, as Alabama was debating legislation to make abortion a felony, Rogers, who is African American, accused Republicans of caring about black babies in the womb and abandoning them when they’re born.

“A whole lot of black kids are looking for adoption,” Rogers said. “That child is brought into the world unloved and unwanted. So you kill him now or you kill him later. If you don’t kill him now, then you send him to the electric chair down the road.”

It was a brusque, glib version of what many Democrats say about abortion politics, and it was quickly bent into something else. The Rogers clip was tweeted by a reporter for the conservative Daily Wire, with an excerpt that made it sound like Rogers was talking matter-of-factly about what should happen to “unwanted” babies. As the controversy swirled, Rogers held a news conference to clean up his remarks, insisting that he was trying to talk about the hypocrisy of banning abortion (which, he said, he was “morally” opposed to) while leaving other harmful policies on the books.

“The state of Alabama is killing people every day,” he said. “You’re going to tell a woman she can’t make a decision about incest and rape? She can’t have an abortion? That’s a woman’s choice.”

But Rogers didn’t adjust well to viral fame, attacking Donald Trump Jr. (who had retweeted the Daily Wire clip). Jones condemned Rogers, which led to Rogers’s pushback, which led to Jones condemning him again.

“I called because I had to say something to publicly condemn his remarks,” Jones said. “I thought they were horrible and out of line and did not represent his constituents, no less the state of Alabama. I called a second time when he doubled down and started offending the disability community across the state.”

For Jones, who is already seen as an underdog for reelection, the controversy couldn’t be more harmful; it has reminded voters of his pro-abortion-rights votes and angered a member of the state’s black caucus. For other Democrats, it’s illustrative of a pattern the party has yet to adjust to.

After the 2012 election, when Republicans in two Senate races imploded over questions about whether abortion should be allowed in cases where the mother was raped, the anti-abortion movement worked more assiduously to find questions that would expose Democrats’ more politically dangerous abortion stances. The main pressure point has been on this question: Should abortion should be allowed late in pregnancy if a fetus has deformities or otherwise can’t survive outside the womb? That question tripped up Virginia Del. Kathy Tran, which led to Gov. Ralph Northam’s clinical description of what happened to an unviable fetus after delivery, which has written the script for how to make Democrats talk about abortion.


. . . seven days until the special primary in North Carolina’s 9th District. . . 14 days until Kentucky’s statewide primaries. . . 91 days until Mississippi’s statewide primaries. . . 126 days until the earliest possible date when all 435 congressional districts will have a representative


This article was written by David Weigel from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.



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