This is the first of two posts looking ahead to 2020 House primaries. This post will look at Democratic primaries and next week’s will focus on Republican’s. I largely relied on a report by Common Dreams, endorsements by Justice Democrats, and an article by Sabato’s Crystal Ball to identify vulnerable incumbents.
Incumbents almost never lose their primaries. In the last 37 House elections since 1946 over 98% of incumbents running for reelection have won their party’s nomination. Over the last twenty years that rate has been 99% — only 49 incumbents have lost primaries.
When insurgent candidates do beat incumbents, though, it makes headlines. The most famous Democrat in the House (besides maybe Nancy Pelosi) is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She holds the title because of her surprise primary win in 2018 over the Joe Crowley, who was the Democratic Caucus Chairman and the number four Democrat in the House leadership. The only other Democratic newcomer to defeat an incumbent last year was Ayanna Pressley, another nationally known figure. Together, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez form half of the “squad” a group of four progressive Democratic women who have pulled the party leftward and been the focus of national media, Republican ire and Democratic infighting since their elections. All this to say, an insurgent beating an incumbent is rare, but when it happens, can be big news.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose primary goal is to elect Democrats to the House, took a controversial step to protect incumbents earlier this year. In March, the committee announced that it would no longer hire political vendors that work for Democratic primary challengers. Whether or not this will help Democrats keep the House — some saw this as a way to keep more electable, moderate Democrats in at-risk seats — it infuriated progressives. The executive director of the progressive organization, Justice Democrats, tweeted “This is in direct response to the election of AOC and Ayanna Pressley.” The founder of a progressive consultant firm, New Deal Strategies, called the DCCC an “incumbent protection racket”.
So, how are Democratic primaries shaping up as we head towards 2020? The following is an overview of what are looking to be the most interesting and competitive primaries. It is not a comprehensive list of all incumbents who will face a viable challenger or are at risk of losing the party’s nomination.
I’ve separated the incumbents who face — or are likely to face — viable primaries into five groups. Some incumbents fall into more than one category, but I have put them into the one that seems to be the dominant reason for their primary challenge.
- Moderate Mistakes: Representatives seen as too ‘moderate’ or ‘corporate’ for their districts.
- Progressive Problem Makers: Representatives seen as too ‘progressive’ or as causing problems within the caucus.
- Leadership Loons: Members of the Democratic leadership.
- Presidential Pursuers: Representatives who are seeking the presidential nomination.
- Vulnerable Voters: Representatives who have faced close primaries in recent years as incumbents.
The biggest (and most dramatic) bucket is #1: The Moderate Mistakes. These are the incumbents that risk a primary due to their moderate voting record or public image. Some of these candidates have business relationships and take campaign donations from corporate PACs, giving them the derisive title, corporate Democrats.
The left wing of the party and affiliated groups want to replace these more moderate incumbents with progressives. These groups seem to have made the concession that a far left progressive might not do well in a purple, moderate district. That’s why they are largely targeting moderate incumbents in deep blue, safely Democratic districts. Their aim is to pull the party leftward by replacing moderate incumbents in safely Democratic seats.
I’m not going to detail each of these elections because most have the same story: A reliably blue district. A ‘moderate’ incumbent who has made statements or taken votes that infuriate progressives. A progressive insurgent who claims that the incumbent does not truly represent their constituents and that it’s time for a new generation of leadership. It’s worth noting, though, that Lipinski, Clay, Beatty and Cuellar have opponents that have been endorsed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped AOC and Pressley get elected and is now a proxy of sorts for them. Justice Democrats requires endorsees to refuse corporate PAC donations and to sign onto their extremely progressive platform — Abolish ICE, Green New Deal free public college, Medicare for All, etc. Races that have challengers with endorsements from Justice Democrats or other progressive organizations — Our Revolution, Indivisible, PCCC, Move On, Democracy for America — will be the most heated and interesting primaries among the “Moderate Mistakes”.
Progressive Problem Makers
On the other end are the outspoken progressives who have drawn the ire of Republicans and, more importantly, of Democrats. The two that actually could have viable primary opponents are Ilhan Omar (MN-05) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13). I’m not going to go into the drama surrounding accusations of anti-Semitism here — you’re one Google away from that.
Omar’s comments in particular have angered some Democrats and have them searching for a primary challenger. Her district very liberal, but includes the white suburbs surrounding Minneapolis. These demographics would appear to have cross-cutting effects for a progressive, Somali-American Muslim woman.
Tlaib, though, is even more vulnerable than Omar. Tlaib is a Muslim and Palestinian-American representing a district that is 57% black. In 2018, Tlaib just barely won the primary with just 31% of the vote, enough to eek out the plurality over her competitor Brenda Jones who got 30%. Several African American candidates — including Jones — were running that year and split of the black vote. The right black candidate could coalesce that constituency in 2020.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset was a big deal because she ousted the number four House Democrat, a national political figure. Party leaders are natural targets for Democrats who are upset with the status quo. If you want to change the party and get your voice heard, it makes sense to attack those at the top. But not every leader is vulnerable. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, for example, isn’t going anywhere. So which leaders could be?
The highest-ranking Democrat that might realistically be in trouble is Steny Hoyer (MD-05), the House Majority Leader and the highest-ranking Democrat after Speaker Pelosi. He already has two challengers, one of which has received some serious attention. She’s running in the mold of AOC — pushing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All while claiming that Hoyer is out of touch and beholden to donors. Hoyer faces criticism from the left for his ties to Wall Street, his vote to authorize the Iraq War and opposition to big progressive programs like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
Cheri Bustos (IL-17) is the Chairwoman of the DCCC. She infuriated progressives with the new policy blacklisting vendors who provide service to challengers. She continued to infuriate liberals with plans to attend a fundraiser for her pro-life Democratic colleague, Dan Lipinski. She eventually backed out, but anger does not dissipate quickly. She’s also a member of the New Democratic Coalition, a moderate branch of House Democrats, further opening her up to a progressive challenger.
Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, holds the job of AOC’s 2018 primary rival before she successfully ousted him. Rumors of an AOC backed challenger began late last year. She has since tamped down these rumors, but Jeffries will probably face a progressive opponent for accepting corporate PAC donations, supporting of charter schools, ties to the banking industry, etc. He might also face some residual anger for defeating progressive hero Barbara Lee in the election for Democratic Caucus Chair.
The other four party leaders are all Chairs of House committees. Jerry Nadler (NY-10): House Judiciary Committee, Nita Lowey (NY-17): House Committee on Appropriations, Richard Neal (MA-01): House Ways and Means Committee, Elliot Engel (NY-16): House Foreign Affairs Committee. Their vulnerabilities all come in familiar form — some combination of being too moderate and a general anti-establishment fervor among progressives. I’m not going to go into each of their individual circumstances, but importantly, two of the four — Neal and Engel — have opponents officially endorsed by Justice Democrats, so they could be in the most trouble.
Then there are the dreamers. There are currently three Representatives running in the Democratic Primary for president: Seth Moulton (MA-06), Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Tim Ryan (OH-13). Each of these candidates could probably have safely won the party renomination to the House, but risk that every day they stay in the presidential race. Being on the presidential trail means they can’t spend as much time in their district with constituents. It also could make voters back home feel like a stepping stone. Why re-nominate a representative who doesn’t really want the job?
Gabbard in particular seems vulnerable. She already has a viable primary opponent in state Senator Kai Kahele and has raised negative $20 for her House campaign in the second quarter of 2019. Her heterodox political ideology grinds with Democrats and her a rough history on LGBT issues, abortion rights and support for the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could be problematic in a deep blue district.
Moulton also faces legitimate primary if he decides to run for the House again. Criticism over his failed attempt to block Nancy Pelosi’s leadership is a weak spot and could be a focus of the primary. He already faces primary challengers, including Salem City Counselor Lisa Peterson who thinks there is room to Moulton’s left in the primary.
Tim Ryan, who tried to take on Pelosi as the House Democratic leader in 2016, seems safer than both Moulton or Gabbard if he heads back to the House. He doesn’t have any official challengers yet and won his primary in 2018 with 87% of the primary vote.
Both Yvette Clark (NY-19) and Carolyn Maloney (NY-12) faced relatively close primary elections in 2018. Clark in particular just scraped out a 53-47 win over Adem Bunkeddeko, a son of Ugandan refugees who had been endorsed by the New York Times. Clark, though, is extremely progressive, leaving little room for Bunkeddeko on her left. He ran instead on a message of anti-establishment/machine politics. He is running again in 2020, making Clark one of the most precariously positioned incumbents. Maloney is probably in less trouble than Clark as she won her primary 60%-40%. It was not an extremely close election, but still indicates a vulnerability that the right candidate could exploit.
So, what’s the big takeaway? It’s not particularly important to remember every endangered incumbent, their district and their challenger. Even the incumbents covered above is not a comprehensive list of all vulnerable representatives, nor will all of these incumbents face tough primaries. The big takeaway is that the Democratic party is not at peace — there is tugging and pulling and fighting coming from many different wings within the party.
Looking at primaries highlights intraparty challenges that Democrats will face in the coming years. Chief among these is: what kind of a party do Democrats want? Do they want a big tent party with room for moderates like Henry Cuellar and pro-life Dan Lipinski? The 2020 primaries will help identify what kind of leaders Democratic voters want and how willing they are to throw out their current representatives in an effort to transform the party.