WASHINGTON >>Activists hoping to defeat House Democrats in next year’s primary elections with more progressive and diverse challengers are assessing how to cope with unintended consequences of their 2018 success, even as they hunt for their next Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez .
Ocasio-Cortez, of course, is the 29-year-old bartender who last year upset the No. 4 House Democrat in a New York City primary and became one of this Congress’ most buzzy and even influential figures. Her startling victory sent shivers through incumbents and has helped galvanize liberals eager for more fresh Democratic faces in 2020.
Yet progressive organizations worry that, emboldened by Ocasio-Cortez and others, a glut of Democratic challengers might divide the anti-incumbent vote in some districts, helping House members they are targeting to survive party primaries. In 40 states, the primary winner needs only the largest share of votes, and there is no runoff.
So even as Democrats celebrate a diverse freshman class that includes Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — who ousted a 10-term Boston Democrat — Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, progressives are considering how to harness the energy for 2020 primaries.
“One challenger per district, that’s my motto,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, which provides political analysis to activist groups.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, says he’s exploring whether competing liberal candidates would pledge to coalesce before their primaries if one challenger leads decisively. Yvette Simpson, CEO of Democracy for America and Adam Gold, a political director for the Center for Popular Democracy Action, say several groups have discussed whether to make early, joint endorsements of candidates to avoid divisions.
Justice Democrats, the tiny grassroots group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run and is already seeking new candidates around the country, says it plans to recruit fewer than the dozen House challengers it enlisted and mentored in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez was their only winner. They also endorsed 66 other House, Senate and state candidates, of whom six won.
“We used to think it was quantity,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, which has around 10 staffers and reported spending just $2.5 million in 2018. But because of Ocasio-Cortez’s impact, pressuring even Democratic presidential candidates to address issues like climate change and universal health care, Rojas says she now believes “it’s more about one big race can really transform everything and shift the political landscape.”
It’s premature to gauge whether the zeal progressives say they’re observing is real or will translate to serious primary candidacies. The overwhelming majority of challengers fail due to funding, organizational and name-recognition shortcomings.
But in an early tabulation by The Associated Press, there were 260 declared House Democratic challengers through May this year. Of those, 103, or 40%, were in districts with sitting Democrats, not GOP-held or open seats.
In contrast, there were just 212 declared GOP House challengers. Only 37, or 17%, would oppose Republican incumbents, many of whom hope to avoid GOP primary challenges by hewing close to President Donald Trump.
“It’s not just older white men, but everybody including younger incumbent women is looking over their left shoulder,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Calif., finance co-chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ political organization.
Still, party leaders note that just four of the House’s 435 members were defeated in primaries last year, two from each party, with most lawmakers facing no primaries because they seemed unbeatable. Only three times since 1974 have the number of incumbents losing primaries reached double digits.
Activists say they will concentrate their efforts on safely Democratic seats. Top Democrats argue that still endangers their House majority by forcing incumbents to spend money defending themselves in primaries, siphoning funds that could have helped the party elsewhere.
“You end up losing seats based on litmus tests,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., a former DCCC chairman.
Looking to thwart progressives and other challengers, DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., wrote private consultants earlier this year that her committee won’t conduct business with firms that work with primary challengers to sitting Democrats. She said the DCCC’s “core mission” includes protecting incumbents.
Bustos and others say because much of the committee’s budget comes from dues paid by House Democrats, it shouldn’t work with firms that try unseating those same incumbents.
“I still don’t have a pollster,” said Marie Newman, a progressive who’s launched her second consecutive primary challenge against Rep. Dan Lipinski , D-Ill. He defeated her last year by 2 percentage points.
That’s not stopping progressives from preparing to challenge incumbent Democrats they consider too conservative. Those most mentioned include Lipinski and Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, among Congress’ few anti-abortion Democrats. Activists’ hit list also includes Reps. Stephen Lynch and Richard Neal of Massachusetts, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The New York City area seems ground zero for possible targets. They include Democratic Reps. Yvette Clarke, Kathleen Rice, Tom Suozzi and Carolyn Maloney, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who’s playing a central role in Democrats’ investigations into Trump.
“We need to focus on defeating President Trump, keeping the House and gaining the Senate. This is just taking away from that,” said Lipinski.
One not-so-secret weapon for progressives this time is Ocasio-Cortez. She told The Associated Press that depending on the districts and candidates, she could support primary contenders challenging Democratic incumbents next year — usually taboo for sitting lawmakers.
“That’s how I got here,” she said. “I think it would be hypocritical of me to say no one should walk through the door I walked through.”
Lauren Johnert of the AP Election Research and Quality Control team in New York and data journalist Michelle Minkoff in Washington contributed to this report.