Left-wing candidates are racking up victories in Democratic primaries, presenting both an opportunity and challenge to presumed presidential nominee Joe Biden as he seeks to run as a moderate alternative to President Donald Trump.
The latest example of the liberal surge came this week in a primary race in Missouri, where Cori Bush, a 44-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, defeated Representative William Lacy Clay Jr, 64, the heir to a St Louis political dynasty, for a reliably Democratic House seat.
Ms Bush is the fifth left-wing Democrat to oust an incumbent member of congress from her party since the start of Trump’s presidency – including three this year – and her victory came as a welcome jolt for liberal activists working to challenge entrenched Democrats. A constellation of liberal organisations that helped push Ms Bush to victory are now turning their focus on defeating other establishment figures, such as Representative Richard Neal, D-Mass., the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
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In another race in Michigan on Tuesday, Representative Rashida Tlaib easily fended off a primary challenger for her Detroit House seat – virtually ensuring her return to congress as a member of the self-described “squad” of younger minority female House Democrats seeking to push the party’s policies to the left.
“They counted us out,” Ms Bush told supporters Tuesday night at her St Louis campaign office. “They called me – I’m just the protester, I’m just the activist with no name, no title and no real money. That’s all they said that I was. But St Louis showed up today.”
The insurgents and establishment figures disagree over the impact of these races, some dismissing the anti-establishment wins as unique to each campaign. But both sides agree that this movement feeds off victories, boosting fundraising for a slew of relatively new liberal PACs, and that losses would have starved them of political oxygen.
Veteran Democrats see this as the natural outgrowth of a wave of protests that started the day after Mr Trump was sworn into office.
“This is all a reaction to Donald Trump. Some took to the streets, others took to the campaign trail,” said Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Long Island who remains close with his former colleagues.
Along with victories in other open-seat primaries earlier this year, liberals will have a larger presence inside the House Democratic Caucus next year. This could give them a broader platform to push the potential Biden administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, to embrace their more aggressive agenda on health care and climate issues.
But Ms Pelosi’s allies noted that she has had a stronger grip on her caucus in her second stint as speaker than she did a decade ago, and she has so far not faced the problems that drove John Boehner, R-Ohio, out as speaker in 2015 when conservative firebrands demanded his ouster.
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Ms Bush’s victory was several years in the making, starting in April 2017 when she became the first recruit announced by Justice Democrats, an organisation built by veterans of the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Each candidate embraced the key planks of Mr Sanders’s platform – Medicare-for-all, criminal justice and immigration reform, as well as opposition to corporate PAC money. Each was also a serious underdog.
In the summer of 2018, Hispanic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and black Representative Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass, defeated a pair of white incumbents with more than 40 years combined tenure in districts that had quickly diversified.
Representatives Dan Lipinski, D-Ill, and Eliot Engel, D-NY, lost to insurgent primary challengers in March and July, respectively, but Ms Bush’s win this week served as a breakthrough for a movement that previously lost badly when it challenged members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
Mr Clay Jr’s grandfather had served as a St. Louis alderman and his father, William “Bill” Clay, served 32 years in the same congressional seat, co-founding the CBC, before turning over the seat to his son in 2001.
“Cori Bush took down a [political] dynasty on her 2nd try,” tweeted Kayla Reed, the executive director of Action St. Louis, a group that grew out of the Ferguson protests in 2014. “She ended a 50 year stronghold. Do you understand what that means? The entire black [political] establishment came” after her, Ms Reed said. “And she put them in the ground.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md, who has brushed aside similar primary challenges on his left, chalked up Ms Bush’s victory to unique circumstances surrounding her own campaign.
“I don’t think there’s any big message,” Mr Hoyer said Wednesday on NPR.