Progressive Challengers' Year: 3 Wins and Some Close Calls

As the long parade of House and Senate Democratic state primaries finally nears its end, progressives suffered a high-profile setback Tuesday in Massachusetts

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Progressives trying to shove Congress to the left by competing in this year's Democratic primaries ousted three moderate incumbents, won other victories and established themselves as a force that's not going away.

But some challengers lost, and their overall wins were a modest number compared with the 535 House and Senate members. That means it's been a mixed bag of results for progressives in this year's races, leading party centrists to minimize those gains and assert that congressional Democrats' power is really wielded by moderates.

“Centrists won the big enchilada, the presidential race,” said Jim Kessler, an executive vice president at the moderate Third Way, citing Joe Biden's triumph over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the party's nomination. Kessler wasn't impressed with the three progressive challengers who defeated Democratic incumbents, either.

“If this is what they call a win, they can have this cycle every two years for the next 20,” he said. "I'd be thrilled."

As the long parade of House and Senate Democratic state primaries finally nears its end, progressives suffered a high-profile setback Tuesday in western Massachusetts. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, 31, openly gay and backed by a host of progressive stars, lost an expensive bid to defeat Rep. Richard Neal, a 16-term House veteran who chairs the Ways and Means Committee.

But that same night in the same state, 74-year-old Sen. Edward Markey, buttressed by progressive support, held off a challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III.The defeated 39-year-old member of the storied Kennedy political clan boasted support from establishment stalwarts like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to no avail.

“It’s not your age that counts — it’s the age of your ideas,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., 30, who backed Markey and whose unexpected 2018 primary win over a long-term incumbent established her as a progressive celebrity with clout. The two co-sponsored one of progressives' most prized proposals: Green New Deal legislation to curb emissions that help cause climate change.

Earlier this year, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros narrowly lost a bid against moderate Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in south Texas, while Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, survived a primary scare of her own. Other high-profile progressive hopefuls lost Senate Democratic primaries in Colorado, Maine and Texas, and House contests in states including Georgia, New York and Ohio.

But 2020 bore other progressive wins, too.

Jamaal Bowman, a Black educator raised by a single mom, defeated House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of the Bronx and Westchester, New York. Outside Chicago, businesswoman Marie Newman defeated Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of Congress' few anti-abortion Democrats. And in a race between two Black candidates, community activist Cori Bush defeated 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay in St. Louis after claiming Clay wasn't involved enough in the Black Lives Matter movement.

All three were endorsed by the grassroots group Justice Democrats, which boosted Ocasio-Cortez to her 2018 victory. Two other Justice Democrat candidates also made it to the November elections in districts in California and Nebraska.

Other liberal groups also claimed victories. Fifteen challengers backed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which boasts more than 100 members of Congress, advanced to the November general elections, though there was plenty of overlap between their endorsements and those of other organizations. That gives progressives shots at winning more seats in states including New Mexico, New York, Texas and Washington.

With the proportion of House incumbents losing primaries seldom topping 5% since World War II, progressives said this year's results have been strong.

“They're an effective and well-funded operation now," said Sean McElwee, who does polling and research for progressive Democrats.

In addition, all four members of the House's “Squad” of progressive women of color first elected in 2018 should all be back next year. Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota won primaries, while Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts didn't even face a challenge. All represent strongly Democratic districts.

Liberals argue that polls show why they're winning: wide support for their proposals to battle climate change, expand health care access and boost the minimum wage to $15 hourly.

“We really are where the general public is at," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., co-chair of the progressive caucus.

Progressives say their successes mean momentum that's already pushing Democrats' agenda leftward, such as Biden's embrace of a public option for health care.

They also see growing clout for progressives in Congress, especially if Biden defeats President Donald Trump in November. That would be a welcome change for progressives like Ocasio-Cortez who arrived eager to flex their muscles, leading to clashes with party leaders like Pelosi who tried keeping Democrats unified.

Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats' spokesman, said progressive electoral victories mean “you might see other incumbents and leaders try to figure out how to earn the support of progressives instead of just trashing them."

With this year's progressive wins mostly in Democratic-held districts, moderates argue that those victories will do little to alter Democrats' power in the House, where they currently hold 232 of the 435 seats.

It's even possible there will be more moderates in the chamber next year. If Democrats increase their majority, it would likely be by defeating Republicans in closely divided districts where moderates have the best chances of winning.

“These districts are pragmatic, not anti-business districts," said Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., a leader of the chamber's moderate New Democrat Coalition, which also claims around 100 members.

Former Rep. Joseph Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in their 2018 primary, agreed that it's moderates who will wield the power in the House.

“The pathway to having won the majority in the House of Representatives was through moderates” who defeated Republicans, Crowley, who was part of the House Democratic leadership, said in an interview Wednesday. “Not Democrats replacing Democrats. So that's where the power of the majority lies.”

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