/Members are looking over their shoulders: Democrats spooked by new primary threats

Members are looking over their shoulders: Democrats spooked by new primary threats

Henry Cuellar

The progressive group Justice Democrats is looking to unseat incumbents Rep. Henry Cuellar (shown) of Texas and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Just when it looked like the threat of widespread primary challenges to House Democrats had quieted down, the activist left is agitating again to go after many of the party’s longtime incumbents.

Tensions inside the House Democratic Caucus are running high after an ugly debate last month over legislation to provide emergency aid for the humanitarian crisis at the border. Progressives lambasted leadership and some centrists who backed the measure as “child abusers” because it lacked money to improve hygiene and nutrition standards for detained children migrants.

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That Democratic firefight and others have inflamed liberals looking ahead to 2020, including the group that was behind now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win last year. The raw emotions have many in the party wary of an all-out battle for the party’s soul in primaries from the presidential race all the way down to the congressional level.

“Members are looking over their shoulders,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the chairman of the House budget committee.

The list of Democrats facing primaries is growing as the restive liberal base fights hand-to-hand in skirmishes across the map. A local New York City district attorney race erupted onto the national scene last month, with the result between a progressive insurgent and the establishment Democrat still up in the air.

Meanwhile, liberals see the vulnerability of more established candidates at the top of ticket, as former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid has hit a significant speed bump, while diverse and more liberal candidates, like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), rise in the polls.

There are still questions about how far-reaching and organized the effort to remake the Democratic caucus in the House will be— and whether it could jeopardize the party’s control of the chamber. But the uptick of actual and threatened primary challenges presents an additional headache for the party as it seeks to hang on to its majority next year. An Associated Press analysis found that 40 percent of currently declared Democratic challengers were in districts with sitting Democrats.

Immediately following the 2018 election, the progressive group Justice Democrats put incumbents on notice, vowing to focus on sitting Democrats. Six months later, they’ve only announced two recruits. The targets: seven-term Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel of New York.

Despite initially endorsing Justice Democrats’ modus operandi of targeting Democrats, joining a launch call with them in November, Ocasio-Cortez is staying on the sidelines — for now.

“I haven’t looked into either of these races, so I need to take a look at it,” Ocasio-Cortez, who rocketed onto the national scene after defeating then-House Democratic Chairman Joe Crowley in New York, told POLITICO last month.

“But frankly, votes like [the border-aid bill] certainly grind my gears,” she added, delivering a veiled threat to her colleagues.

Though Ocasio-Cortez has decided to remain mum on Justice Democrats’ new recruits, her chief of staff is not — and members have taken notice.

Hours after Ocasio-Cortez told reporters she needed to take a closer look at the race before deciding whether to get involved, her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, tweeted support for Cuellar’s challenger, immigration rights attorney Jessica Cisneros.

“Cuellar says he knows Texas. When I lived in TX, I don’t recall people wanting their reps to be bought out by big corps,” Chakrabarti wrote, directing followers to donate to Cisneros.

Chakrabarti’s tweet irked other members.

“If my chief of staff endorsed a primary challenge without my direction,” Yarmuth said. “They wouldn’t be my chief of staff anymore.”

In an effort to hamstring primary challengers, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fired a warning shot to the party’s consultants in March, telling them that they risked losing the party committee’s business if they worked for anyone primarying a sitting member of Congress.

“The question that comes up all the time is: Is there anybody internally assisting and abetting, encouraging people to run against incumbents?” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who has faced Democratic opponents in previous cycles, said of members and their staff.

But the DCCC’s so-called blacklist has only inflamed tensions more. The left is trying to build an alternative consulting infrastructure to support these insurgent candidates. Two alums of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign rolled out plans for a new firm last week, reported the Daily Beast.

In addition to Cuellar and Engel, a number of other Democratic incumbents are facing possible strenuous party challenges, including four House Democrats in New York, and Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and David Scott of Georgia, along with Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.

The 2020 election would hardly be the first cycle in which rebels in either party took aim at the establishment. Typically, they have little success: In 2018, just four House incumbents were defeated in primaries, two Democrats and two Republicans.

Justice Democrats hopes to be a galvanizing force to change that. The group plans to back opponents to sitting Democrats who don’t support progressive ideals, or who failed to use their position as lawmakers in more aggressive forms, they say.

Though promising to dedicate more attention to Democrats, the group is also open to getting involved in a small number districts that could be turned from red to blue, according to their executive director Alexandra Rojas.

Justice Democrats is potentially eyeing challenges to Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.), according to a source close to the group.

Rojas didn’t deny or confirm any of the names, instead saying “anywhere we haven’t announced yet means that we may or may not have someone.”

Though members have expressed frustration and concern about primary challenges, there appears to be less fear among members about the power of Justice Democrats, which has struggled to fundraise and provide a clear picture about where they plan to invest their time.

The recent district attorney race in Queens highlighted the growing party divide, as New York lawmakers Gregory Meeks and House Democratic Chairman Hakeem Jeffries threw their weight behind the establishment candidate, Melinda Katz, the borough president. In a statement, days away from the primary, Meeks blasted Sanders and Warren for getting involved in the local race on behalf of the insurgent candidate.

The episode rankled progressive activists like Shaun King, a loyal Sanders supporter, who backed the outsider candidate, Tiffany Cabán.

“Meeks should absolutely be challenged and defeated for his seat in Congress,” said King, co-founder of the Real Justice PAC.

King then directed his ire toward Jeffries, who he said is “out of step” with the progressive base. King took issue with Jeffries’ support of Katz, the establishment-aligned candidate who is currently ahead by only 20 votes, with the count still ongoing.

“Jeffries continues to duck and dodge on impeachment, continues to fail to support Medicare For All, and seems more interested in rising up the ranks of power than actually taking bold stands for his constituents,” King said, adding that he thinks the caucus chairman, who is on a leadership fast-track, should be primaried “without hesitation.”

“The leadership of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries on criminal justice reform issues, including the dismantling of ‘stop-and-frisk’ in NYC, ending inmate-based gerrymandering in the state, electing former District Attorney Ken Thompson in Brooklyn and the recent passage of the Historic FIRST STEP act speaks for itself,” said Jeffries’ spokesperson Michael Hardaway. “If you don’t know, now you know.”

Asked if she agreed with King’s call for a primary challenge against Meeks and Jeffries, Rojas of the Justice Democrats dodged. “Every politician needs to be on notice,” she said.

But six months after POLITICO reported that Justice Democrats was weighing a potential challenge to Jeffries according to two sources with direct knowledge, the group has not produced a candidate against him or Meeks or any other New York lawmaker aside from Engel.

“[King] came into my district and tried to hold a rally and only eight people showed up,” said Meeks. “Come on after me. You think you can get me, come on.”

“I’m preparing; I know Hakeem is,” Meeks continued. “And if somebody decides to run, we’re ready. But you’re not going to catch us by surprise.”