Progressive insurgents are launching challenges to Democratic members of Congress in some of the country’s bluest districts, sparked by deep frustration with the party establishment and anti-Trump anger.
Most of the challengers are long shots at the moment. But some are putting a scare into entrenched incumbents, thanks to their muscular fundraising and a message of liberal disaffection on issues including Wall Street, criminal justice reform and single-payer health care.
Six veteran incumbents already face energetic primary challenges from younger candidates in New York and Massachusetts. In Illinois, two Chicago-based members are being targeted from the left.
“I think Donald Trump getting elected president is part of it — the old institutional political knowledge we had about the way things works clearly just doesn’t work. And now people are knocking down the door,” said Bill Hyers, a political consultant and campaign strategist for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “There’s a new energy and excitement out there in a new way, and it’s palpable.”
In New York, Adem Bunkeddeko is one of three young Democrats taking on longtime incumbents. Bunkeddeko, who is challenging Rep. Yvette Clarke in the Brooklyn-based 9th Congressional District, points out that Clarke hasn’t been able to pass a bill in Congress since she arrived there. He’s running on a platform to bring new subsidized housing to his district and enact criminal justice reforms — ending cash bail, changing sentencing laws and legalizing marijuana.
He’s garnered support from some unusual places — including longtime Democratic political adviser Vernon Jordan and former New York lieutenant governor and civic booster Richard Ravitch. In the most recent fundraising quarter, he raised roughly $121,000 — not far behind Clarke’s $164,000.
“People are tired of having a seat in which no one is speaking truth to power, and no one is giving voice to folks whose voices aren’t heard,” said Bunkeddeko, a Harvard MBA-holding community organizer whose parents raised him in New York after fleeing war-torn Uganda. “She does carry the advantage of being the incumbent, but the mood, the landscape — that’s in our favor.”
Several Democratic challengers have posted even stronger fundraising numbers than Bunkeddeko. In Chicago, Marie Newman outraised seven-term Rep. Dan Lipinski in the most recent quarter — $262,000 to the congressman’s $228,000 — according to Federal Election Commission figures. In New York, where 34-year-old entrepreneur Suraj Patel is taking on Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Patel reported raising nearly $550,000 over the past quarter, outraising Maloney by a factor of 4 to 1.
Maloney last faced a significant primary challenge a decade ago. But her district is home to scores of young Democratic voters who threw their support to Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
“This is a remarkably aware, awakened, active new generation looking at politics as not an option anymore but an obligation. I looked around and I saw a Democratic Party not doing much at all to welcome that group to the fold,” Patel told POLITICO, when asked why he decided to run.
Patel said he disagreed with Maloney’s vote in favor of going to war in Iraq and with her resistance to the Iran nuclear deal brokered under President Barack Obama. He said he’s running to pump some energy into a political system that has grown complacent and caters to the needs of the people who regularly vote, rather than the entire electorate.
“I’m not running against Carolyn Maloney,“ he said. “I’m running against apathy.”
Maloney’s campaign has called Patel’s decision to run against the incumbent congressperson in his first bid at elected office “the height of egotism.” But to Patel, that’s exactly the problem — Democrats are sending mixed signals to the young people they urged to run for office after Trump was elected.
“Here’s the problem. We’ve been asked across this country to enter politics, and yet when someone like me steps up and runs for office, you’re being told, ‘No, wait your turn,’” he said. “I refuse to wait my turn in an establishment that doesn’t make sure that people are competing. That’s one of the things the Democrats need to grapple with.”
In the past, Democratic challengers like Patel might have been easy to ignore. But the volatile political environment and Patel’s fundraising prowess makes him impossible to overlook. The same is true of Illinois’ Newman, who has amassed a series of endorsements from major progressive interest groups and organizations.
Even Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat who has not had a primary challenge since winning his Chicago-based seat in a 2009 special election, is looking over his shoulder. Facing several little-known progressive challengers, Quigley recently made his first ad buy of the campaign.
One of the hallmarks of this year’s class of insurgent candidates is its diversity — many are women and racial minorities. In New York’s Queens and Bronx-based 14th District, Rep. Joe Crowley is facing his first real primary challenge in 15 years from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former Sanders campaign organizer and community organizer who has never run for office before.
It’s an understatement to say the underfunded Ocasio-Cortez has an uphill battle. Crowley is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, controls the Queens Democratic Party and outraised her more than 30-to-1 in the most recent fundraising quarter.
But Ocasio-Cortez has support from progressive PACs with close ties to the Sanders campaign, including Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats. She argues that her challenge is already having an impact — a month after she announced her candidacy, Crowley signed on as a co-sponsor to a Medicare For All bill, after long opposition to it.
The daughter of a Puerto Rican native, Ocasio-Cortez recalled that after the recession hit she waitressed and bartended while her mom cleaned houses and drove school buses to stave off foreclosure on the family home. She contends Crowley’s donations from corporate PACs and Wall Street interests will work against him.
“What this is about is that if we reelect the same Democratic Party that we had going into this mess, then we’re going to have the same exact result,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “In order for the country to move forward, the Democratic Party has to transform.”
In Boston, Brianna Wu, a video game developer taking on centrist Rep. Stephen Lynch, also sees the party as an institution desperately in need of reform.
“This year, I don’t feel like I’m running against Stephen Lynch,” said Wu, who gained national attention as a target of abuse in the so-called Gamergate controversy that exposed widespread sexism in the video game culture. “I feel like I’m running against the Democratic machine in Massachusetts, which really likes the things the way they are.”
Wu is one of three women in Massachusetts mounting intraparty challenges against older, white male incumbents. Race and gender aren’t explicit campaign themes in those races, but they provide an unmistakable backdrop in a liberal state where the nine-seat, all-Democratic congressional delegation includes no people of color and just two women.
Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, an African-American who is challenging Rep. Mike Capuano, acknowledges that there are few policy differences between her and the progressive incumbent. But she stresses the benefits of a more representative delegation, as well as her firsthand experience with sexual trauma, and as the child and spouse of previously incarcerated individuals.
“I’ll say the obvious: We’re both good Democrats. We care about a lot of the same things,” but “my lens is different,” Pressley said.
Long considered a rising star in local and national circles, Pressley has seen many Democratic unions and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh close ranks behind Capuano. But despite the pushback, Pressley has so far managed to raise enough money to remain competitive: Within a week of announcing her candidacy, her campaign says, Pressley raised more than $100,000.
Across the state in western Massachusetts, lawyer and first-time candidate Tahirah Amatul-Wadud points to Trump’s election as part of her motivation to run against Rep. Richard Neal, who was first elected in 1988. She’s running on a more progressive platform than Neal — the top Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means committee — which includes support for single-payer health care.
“My district has the lowest median income in the commonwealth, with the most senior congressman in the delegation,” Amatul-Wadud said.
Democratic fundraiser and philanthropist Barbara Lee said it’s no coincidence that Massachusetts would see so much primary election activity.
“Something big is stirring in American politics, and it’s a more than a moment, it’s a movement. Massachusetts is the original ‘old boys’ club,’” said Lee. “Voters are fed up with the status quo and see a vote for a woman candidate as a vote to shake up the system in a sea of male, mostly white, politicians.”
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