The presidential race is, understandably, overshadowing the left’s fight to reshape Congress. But no matter who is president, if establishment Democrats in Congress are defining the party’s policies, the progressive movement will be stifled. With primary season approaching—the first states hold their primaries on March 3—it’s time to examine the left’s best opportunities to seize seats from conservative or ineffective Democrats. Seven primary races stand out: In all of them, the stakes are high, and the progressive challengers have the resources and grassroots support to compete.
1. IL-03: Dan Lipinski (incumbent) versus Marie Newman (versus Rush Darwish and Charles Hughes)
Dan Lipinski’s existence as a Democratic congressman in the year 2020 feels like a cosmic accident. There are plenty of cowardly centrists, Wall Street cronies, and aggressively bipartisan grandstanders in the caucus, but Lipinski is an outlier even from them: a social reactionary propped up by a city machine and a handful of trade unions. He’s so anti-abortion rights that he regularly speaks at the extremist March for Life. He’s so anti-LGBTQ that he opposed marriage equality as recently as his 2014 re-election campaign. He voted against the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act. And he boycotted Nike, because they took Colin Kaepernick’s advice on a shoe design.
Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory shocked Democratic politics, Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District was the marquee primary of 2018. Local nonprofit director Marie Newman turned what started as a long shot campaign into a party flashpoint, splitting unions, members of Congress, and interest groups. She narrowly lost, 51.1 to 48.9 percent. The 2020 race is a rematch; Newman is once again balancing her positive messaging on progressive priorities like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and student debt cancellation with attacks on Lipinski’s failings on reproductive and gay rights.
An additional wrinkle is the entry of two other competitors: Rush Darwish, who is raising considerable money—more than $650,000 thus far—and positioning himself ideologically between Newman and Lipinski, and Charles Hughes, a former staffer of Lipinski’s father with an almost nonexistent campaign. Illinois congressional primaries don’t have runoffs, so Lipinski could win with less than a majority if the non-Lipinski vote gets split. Despite that hitch, Newman’s head start relative to last time and earlier endorsements from abortion rights groups, such as Emily’s List and NARAL, mean it will be a competitive race.
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This is the most important primary of the cycle. While the improvement from Lipinski to Newman will be vast, this election is bigger than one house seat. Illinois’s 3rd District will make clear the limits of what pro-choice activists, the LGBTQ community, and progressives of all stripes can be forced to tolerate. This is a fight that will have lasting implications on the relationship between the Democratic base and the party leaders, and on what it means to be a Democrat. By coincidence, there’s a slew of primaries from March 3 to March 17, and then nothing for over a month. As a blockbuster race on March 17, it will create (or kill) momentum for the other progressive challengers.
2. TX-28: Henry Cuellar (incumbent) versus Jessica Cisneros
Henry Cuellar might not match the sheer odiousness of Dan Lipinski on any single issue, but he’s been branded “Trump’s favorite Democrat” for a reason. Cuellar’s career dates back to the days of conservative Democratic dominance in Texas, and his politics haven’t improved much since. He has a terrible voting record, is waist-deep in money from the National Rifle Association and fossil fuel industry, is contemptuous of progressives, and backs Republicans in competitive elections. In February, he was one of seven Democrats who refused to back the PRO Act, because it would end right-to-work legislation and empower “union bosses.”
Enter Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney who grew up in Laredo, Texas, and was previously an intern in Cuellar’s congressional office. She announced her run in June, the first candidate recruited by Justice Democrats to do so. She’s running on progressive principles like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and, unlike some primary challengers, is willing to directly criticize the incumbent, especially for his corporate and NRA ties. It’s your guess as to whether the campaigning from Cuellar, who has not had a serious challenger since 2006, is very confident or very rusty. He’s mixing boilerplate NRA and anti–Green New Deal talking points with bizarre attacks against Cisneros, such as suggesting her small-dollar donations constitute “dark money.”
Cisneros is raising good money. In the most recent quarter, she raised over half a million dollars, but she’s unlikely to ever match the millions at Cuellar’s disposal. An even bigger concern is the electorate. There has long been the contention that the Democrats of the Rio Grande Valley have conservative politics—a perception mostly resulting from the record of politicians elected from the region. The Cuellar family, in particular, includes two other elected politicians in Webb County. It’s often suggested (and not just by Cuellar) that he fits the district. At the same time, the region’s elections are so rarely contested that it’s easy to wonder if political apathy and incumbent inertia are the real cause. Cisneros’s campaign will answer that question.
3. CA-16: Jim Costa (incumbent) versus Esmeralda Soria (versus Kimberly Williams)
The 2004 congressional election cycle was cursed, giving us Dan Lipinski, Henry Cuellar, and Jim Costa. Though quieter than the other two, Costa’s stamp is indelible: He’s the Costa of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, the law that prevents meaningful rent control in California. He also wrote the state’s “three strikes” law—the passage of which occurred a month after police found drugs in his apartment. He’s been a Blue Dog his entire time in Washington, and is so thoroughly entwined with the group that their website is hosted on his House webpage. He also stands a serious chance at chairing the House Committee on Agriculture when a Green New Deal is worked out, a frightening prospect considering he might have the most anti-environment record of any Democrat in the next Congress.
Costa is a sponge for Big Ag and Big Oil money, one of the top three Democratic recipients for both industries in the House in 2018. Normally, this would leave him with a massive war chest, but after his lazy campaigning and a terrible Central Valley turnout nearly caused the seat to flip in 2014, Costa went overboard and spent $2.3 million dollars on his 2018 campaign, leaving him with little in the bank ($903,735 as of January 31). Don’t mistake California’s 16th Congressional District for a swing district, though; it supported Obama by 18 points in 2012 and Clinton by 22 points in 2016. The 2014 House election was only close because of Costa’s incompetence.
Esmeralda Soria is the daughter of farmworkers who immigrated from Mexico. A first-generation college graduate, she later earned her JD, interned at the Obama White House, and, in 2014, was elected to the Fresno City Council. Soria has made a name for herself on the council as an advocate for the homeless, and Governor Gavin Newsom appointed her to his homelessness task force. She also led a delegation from Fresno to meet with and apologize to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, after a local baseball team showed a video calling her an “enemy of freedom” and comparing her to Kim Jong-un.
Costa is going into the final stretch without a large incumbent advantage. Also leveling the playing field is geography. Starting in 1994, Costa had represented a district that contained the city of Fresno as well as a stretch of farming country to its south and east. But the 2012 redistricting gave him a district that connects Fresno to rural territory to the north. Half the district is fairly new to him, and he hasn’t had a serious Democratic challenger since redistricting.
Soria’s electoral prospects look good. She’s a good fundraiser who’s known throughout the political world of Fresno, the part of the district Costa’s represented the longest, and she’s already gotten the support of a leading Central Valley politicians and labor unions (including the California Labor Federation). She also stands out for her willingness, even as the only challenger in this article who isn’t as far left as “the Squad” (though she does support Medicare for All), to directly attack her opponent for his membership in the Blue Dog Coalition. Her win would signal that mainstream Democratic voters’ patience with the conservative obstructionist group might finally be wearing thin.
4. OH-03: Joyce Beatty (incumbent) versus Morgan Harper
Joyce Beatty has represented Columbus in Congress for seven years, and has had one of the most anonymous tenures in Washington. Morgan Harper could not be more of a contrast. The first thing you’ll notice about Harper’s campaign is just how active she is: holding event after event while managing the best opening fundraising quarter of any Democratic challenger in the country. Her focus on organizing—or “Morganizing,” as she puts it in either one of the best or worst portmanteaus in politics—has served her well. It’s impressive to see a first time candidate assemble a hundred volunteers a year before the primary and outraise an incumbent in her first fundraising quarter. And Harper managed to do both without the aid of any corporate PACs.
There’s not a great deal of antipathy there toward Beatty. In fact, there isn’t too much strong feeling about her at all. Harper is running a campaign that will live or die based on herself and her platform. She’s a Columbus native, graduate of Stanford Law, and ex-adviser to Richard Cordray in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and she is taking her vision to Columbus, a city that’s growing by thousands of residents a year. She is running on a boldly left platform that, among other planks, combines a jobs guarantee, a federal minimum living wage, and a universal basic income.
In 2012, Beatty made to Congress by winning fewer than 16,000 votes out of the 41,000 cast in her primary. She hasn’t had a primary since. Harper’s task is to mobilize and spread her message in time, which won’t be easy—but Beatty doesn’t have much of a head start with the electorate.
5. NY-16: Eliot Engel (incumbent) versus Jamaal Bowman versus Andom Ghebreghiorgis
Eliot Engel is a natural target for a progressive challenger. He’s been in government since 1977 and in Congress since 1989. While a long tenure isn’t an inherent detriment, Engel’s been on the wrong side of many of the worst bipartisan mistakes of the last couple decades: the Clinton crime bills, the Iraq War, the Bush-era surveillance state, and extensive financial deregulation. He’s a perfect representation of a part of the Democratic Party that’s been on a the decline since the George W. Bush years, when Engel was backing conservative Democrat (well, Democrat at the time anyway) Joe Lieberman for president. He’s also a white guy representing a district where the white proportion of eligible voters has fallen to 42 percent (compared to 31 percent black and 21 percent Latinx). It’s difficult not to see the parallels between him and Joe Crowley. And that would be the case even if his district weren’t bordering NY-14.
In 2020, Engel faces two progressive challengers in the primary. Justice Democrats recruited Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal in the Bronx, to run for the seat. Simultaneously, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a special education teacher, was gearing up for the race, entering about a week before Bowman. Both candidates are younger, black men who work in education and have a solidly left campaign platform. It would be nice to see them both in Congress, but of course, that’s not how it works. Even worse, if the anti-incumbent vote gets divided between the two, then Engel could win without a majority. The left will eventually have to choose between the two if they don’t want Engel reelected.
Luckily, it seems like that’s beginning to happen. Last quarter, Bowman outraised Ghebreghiorgis nearly eight to one—$162,000 to $22,000—while similarly eschewing PACs and corporate donors. An early Data For Progress poll of the district found Engel with 29 percent support, Bowman with 10 percent, and Ghebreghiorgis with only 1 percent. While the large number of undecideds speak more of Engel’s weakness than anyone’s strength, the relative position of Bowman compared to Ghebreghiorgis is a sign of who progressives in the district are backing.
6. NY-09: Yvette Clarke (incumbent) versus Adem Bunkeddeko (versus Chaim Deutsch, Lutchi Gayot, Isiah James, and Alexander Hubbard)
In 2018, there were two grassroots candidates in New York City who did far better than the establishment expected. Ocasio-Cortez, of course, won, but the unsuccessful challenge came from 30-year-old organizer Adem Bunkeddeko, who pointed to incumbent Yvette Clarke’s absenteeism from the district and lack of initiative in Congress. Clarke didn’t take his challenge seriously, but The New York Times did, endorsing Bunkeddeko. Clarke pulled out a 6 percent win that year, just weeks after telling him on television that his challenge made her laugh.
Adem is running again in 2020, this time with both the experience of having run a race and a head start on the recognition he built in 2018. As with Illinois’s 3rd District, this is a rematch of a close race, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the challenger has proven their viability, but the question becomes what’s changed since the last time that would change voters’ minds. For instance, in 2006, Donna Edwards challenged incumbent Al Wynn in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, focusing on his Iraq War support, and lost 50 to 46 percent. She challenged him again in 2008, after the Democratic base had turned further against the war, and won 59-37. Conversely, then state Senator Adriano Espaillat challenged incumbent Representative Charlie Rangel in 2012 in New York’s 13th Congressional District, in a contest that mostly fell along racial lines. Espaillat lost 44-42, and two years later, he lost again by a similar 48-43 margin.
In addition to reaching voters he didn’t in 2018, Bunkeddeko needs to contend with new challengers running this year: Isiah James, a local community organizer and veteran; Alexander Hubbard, a cybersecurity and app developer; and Lutchi Gayot, a UBI advocate and Andrew Yang supporter. While their campaigns are still small scale, the more candidates on the ballot, the more the anti-incumbent votes get split, and Clarke could win with a plurality—a danger not unique to New York’s 9th Congressional District. One challenger, however, may work in Bunkeddeko’s favor: Chaim Deutsch, a conservative City Council member who may win the small but politically active group of Orthodox Jewish voters in the district, a cohort that appears to have gone for Clarke in 2018.
7. MA-01: Richard Neal (incumbent) vs Alex Morse
Richard Neal entered politics during Richard Nixon’s first term, and has been in Congress for over three decades. While some politicians have used similarly long tenures to transition into roles as elder statesmen, Neal has simply grown complacent. His years in Congress have allowed him the power of running the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where he’s generally opted against taking strong positions on issues, except, of course, when his finance industry donors want him to slip something into a bill. Last year, Neal became the only person in the country with the authority to subpoena Donald Trump’s taxes, and then didn’t do it. He relented only after months of activist pressure.
Neal doesn’t stand out for being terrible on the issues like Lipinski, Cuellar, or Costa does, but there are good reasons to think he might be vulnerable to a primary challenge. The aforementioned tax return fight is, of course, on that list. Billionaire Tom Steyer spent months hammering Neal with ads disparaging his inaction.
Neal currently represents a district less friendly to him than he used to. Before 2013, Neal represented Massachusetts’s 2nd Congressional District, then a collection of small, industrial cities in the state’s southern border, while Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District was a more rural and liberal district in Western Massachusetts. In 2012, those two districts were combined. The parts of the old first district he inherited never really warmed up to Neal, as evidenced by his 2012 and 2018 primaries—elections where Neal had an underfunded challenger to his left who performed well in the areas that had been MA-01.
Neal’s challenger is Alex Morse, the 31-year-old, progressive, gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Once the paper-making capital of the country, Holyoke was a poverty-stricken postindustrial city of 40,000 when Morse beat the incumbent mayor in 2011, at the age of 22. Morse focused on opening up city government to the underserved minority population (the population of Holyoke is majority-minority, and nearly half are from out of state) and improving the city’s failing schools. Holyoke is by no means fully recovered, but the graduation rate has improved and unemployment has fallen. Morse also made Holyoke a sanctuary city and became one of the first mayors in the state to back marijuana legalization. Having already raised $340,000 in the latter half of 2019, Morse has a serious shot at taking the seat.
Other races to watch
CA-20: Jimmy Panetta has coasted on his name recognition (his dad is the former secretary of defense, director of the CIA, and longtime California representative Leon Panetta), but he might have a real threat in environmental advocate Adam Bolaños Scow. Scow launched his campaign for this liberal Monterey Bay district late, obviously with the intention of fighting this out in a Dem vs Dem November contest. This may be an important race later, but it’s just beginning.
IL-01: It has been 20 years since Bobby Rush beat Barack Obama in a primary, and since then he’s given up, barely fundraising or showing up to Congress. Rush is a paper tiger, but his two opponents, Robert Emmons and Sarah Gad, are under-resourced, and the election is in March.
MD-05: Steny Hoyer, Nancy Pelosi’s far more conservative second-in-command, should be vulnerable. He’s cruised along since the 1980s as his district has gotten increasingly diverse and different from its original form. Mckayla Wilkes is very progressive and a good challenger, but a third Democrat who was in the race until recently prevented most progressive groups from coalescing around Wilkes, and it may now be too late.
MO-01: Cori Bush did surprisingly well in 2018 against chronically underperforming incumbent Lacy Clay in 2018: losing only 57 to 37 percent. The big concern here is that her campaign this cycle doesn’t look markedly different from last.
NJ-05: Josh Gottheimer may be one of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress and may represent a district Trump won by 1 percent, but his contempt for progressives has landed him the ire of local Indivisible groups, a significant presence in suburban New Jersey. They’re backing Glen Rock Borough Councilor Arati Kreibich, who will be hampered by New Jersey’s machine-boosting ballot system, where the county party’s choice gets indicated in a prime slot.
NY-10: Incumbent Jerry Nadler has been on the left flank of the Democratic Party since the 1960s, but he’s become a stodgy institutionalist in House leadership. Former Cuomo staffer Lindsey Boylan promises to be the polar opposite in approach—an activist willing to demand immediate change. Nadler will benefit greatly from being one of the faces of impeachment and from the presence of three minor candidates in the primary.
OR-05: Kurt Schrader is one of the worst Blue Dogs in Congress, and many local Democrats have had enough. Mark Gamba, the progressive mayor of the suburban city of Milwaukie, is a capable politician with support from a lot of Portland progressives, but he’s struggled with fundraising so far.