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How Progressive Democrats Fared This Primary Season – And What It Means

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., fended off a primary challenge on Tuesday from Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., for a second full term in the Senate. Although both ran as progressives, young climate change activists helped fuel Markey's victory.
Steven Senne
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., fended off a primary challenge on Tuesday from Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., for a second full term in the Senate. Although both ran as progressives, young climate change activists helped fuel Markey's victory.

The season for mounting challenges to incumbent lawmakers is nearly over, and the focus is shifting toward the general election. But incumbents shouldn't rest easy — it's clear that groups on the left feel emboldened by the places where they did make gains over the course of the 2020 cycle and plan to keep an eye on where else they can target their energy next.

Progressives trying to pull their party to the left had mixed results in Tuesday's Massachusetts Democratic primarieswith a win in the Senate and a loss in a key House race.

Activists pushing a sweeping Green New Deal proposal to remake the economy and eliminate the country's dependence on fossil fuels had a big winwith the Senate author of the proposal — Ed Markey — beating back a challenge from Joe Kennedy III, a member of the state's political dynasty.

Markey partnered with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat from New York known as AOC, who has garnered national attention for her overhaul of the energy sector and effective social media presence.

Democratic operatives credit her with revving up younger voters that gave Markey a healthy margin across the state against the 39-year-old Kennedy.

Her involvement backing the white male candidate with more than 40 years experience on Capitol Hill was a departure from her focus in other congressional races, where she campaigned on behalf of young diverse candidates around the country who made the case that people of Markey's generation didn't reflect the country.

But AOC said it wasn't about age in this case, which Kennedy tried to frame as a generational clash, but about policy.

Groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats that backed Markey fell short in their effort to knock off Rep. Richard Neal, though. Neal chairs the powerful tax writing committee and represents a district in the western part of the state.

Alex Morse, the 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke who challenged Neal, 71, portrayed him as a captive of corporate interests.

But Neal easily beat Morse, and his years of attending Rotary Club meetings and tending to constituent casework countered the narrative that he opposed proposals like Medicare because he was lobbied by interests before his committee.

Pair of 2018 primary challenges spurred broader effort

It's rare that sitting members of Congress lose. Incumbents have huge advantages in raising money and getting their message out through both official and political teams. If they are visible both in their committee assignments in Washington and in events in their districts, they are less vulnerable to inter-party challenges.

During the 2020 primary season, eight of the 435 lawmakers in the House have lost in primary challenges, and three of them were Democrats.

Progressives got a huge jolt of momentum in 2018 with a pair of high-profile wins — Ocasio-Cortez ousted New York Rep. Joe Crowley, a top House Democratic leader; and Ayanna Pressley defeated Mike Capuano, a 10-term incumbent in Massachusetts.

Those races spurred a trend, and the groups like the Justice Democrats, which was created by some former aides from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign, set their sights on other older white and veteran lawmakers.

David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, told NPR that the successes of Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez prompted others to decide it was worth jumping in now.

"Certainly a candidate like Alex Morse is someone who you know maybe in the past would have been more willing to sort of wait his turn wait out," Hopkins said.

The split inside the party on issues of climate and health care, and tension about whether Congress should work on more incremental reforms rather than more ambitious proposals, was also a major issue throughout the 2020 presidential primaries.

"There definitely is a fight for what the Democratic Party stands for right now," Stevie O'Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, a climate change advocacy group, told NPR.

In recent months the national attention on issues of racial justice and police reform also became flash points in primary races.

In Missouri Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, toppled William Lacy Clay in the August primary. He served 10 terms in the House and succeeded his father. Bush lost to Clay two years ago, but was backed by AOC and other progressive groups in her bid this time.

Fitting a district is a factor on par with ideology

Progressives have targeted largely urban, safe blue districts like Clay's.

In New York's 16th Congressional District Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old school principal, defeated Eliot Engel, the 73-year-old House Foreign Affairs Committee chair. Engel was caught on a hot mic at an event in his district admitting he wouldn't care about speaking if he didn't have a primary challenge.

But in Illinois Marie Newman did beat moderate Rep. Dan Lipinski in a suburban Chicago area district. Lipinski is one of the last Democrats who has an anti-abortion rights record and has been a target of progressives for some time.

Democratic challengers in recent months have wielded their support for progressive policy proposals like "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal as wedge issues in debates.

But former New York Congressman Steve Israel, who headed up his party's campaign committee from 2011-2015, told NPR the issue of identity is more important than ideology.

"There's this kind of narrative that it's the left of center versus the far left the center. But the differences aren't really that great — it's differences of nuance," Israel said.

Instead, he pointed to changing demographics in the electorate in the districts where incumbents lost. He also said that the 2018 midterms when a large influx of women and lawmakers of color won and changed the makeup of the caucus, issues of representation became a larger factor.

Hopkins agrees that there has been a lot of attention on perceived ideological splits in these races, but he believes voters are also very focused on making Congress more reflective of individual districts. "The pressure to make the party more demographically diverse at the leadership level is such a major consideration for Democratic voters these days."

Top leaders in both the House and Senate have touted the diversity of their caucuses and pointed to efforts to give younger members key roles on committees and opportunities to run for leadership posts.

But members like AOC, and fellow members of the "squad" including Pressley, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, still bristle over the lack of input rank-and-file members have had in fashioning key bills. And tensions with the large group of moderate Democrats who won in competitive seats in 2018 and gave Democrats control of the chamber continue to play out as the party sorts out what its agenda should be post-election.

Some progressive issues may have more regional appeal

Markey's embrace of the Green New Deal as a centerpiece of his campaign was effective in a primary in Massachusetts, a solidly blue state where the issue has more resonance.

"This might be the first major Senate primary ever we're climate change is maybe the defining issue," said O'Hanlon of the Sunrise Movement.

Charles Booker, a state representative who lost to Amy McGrath, the candidate backed by the party's leadership, had a harder time getting traction with the climate issue in the Kentucky Senate primary. The state is far more dependent on fossil fuels, and the electorate included more working-class voters.

Plus the contest there narrowed in the final weeks because Booker, a Black lawmaker, became a vocal opponent of the Louisville police's handling of the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police who were using a no-knock warrant.

The party's standard bearer, Joe Biden, has not embraced the Green New Deal. After he clinched the nomination for president, activists refocused on congressional races but acknowledge that they couldn't compete with the House and Senate party committees' fundraising prowess and infrastructure.

O'Hanlon told NPR Sunrise is pivoting to the general election now and says the group is planning to roll out endorsements of some Democrats running in competitive districts who have embraced the Green New Deal.

Future for primary challenges?

Both progressives and establishment Democrats involved in high-profile faceoffs this year can claim victory. Challengers on the left ousted Engel and Clay, progressive forces protected Markey.

In addition to Neal, two other senior House Democrats who faced opponents from the left — House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney — won their primaries.

Groups who backed primary challenges continue to have far fewer resources than party committees and because they have confined their efforts to a relatively few number of seats, it's unclear what kind of real operational infrastructure they have to widen out their target list in the next election cycle.

Both the House and Senate Democrats' campaign committees have policies to back incumbents in races where they face challengers, a policy that has bristled progressives. As a response, AOC set up her own super PAC this year to help raise money and support candidates. She also called out those who try to tamp down internal divisions in atweet following the Massachusetts primary.

But there's no doubt that the threat of a challenge is having an effect on incumbents. Israel says the same advice applies today that he gave to his colleagues when he ran the House campaign arm: "If you're not doing your work at home, your time may be limited in Washington."

Those worried about a challenge may be more willing to break with the leaders, or sign on as co-sponsors for bills that are viewed as more progressive, even if the legislation isn't expected to move in Congress.

But what happens in the 2020 elections could be the most important factor for future internal party clashes. If Biden wins the White House and Democrats take control of the Senate, there will be even more of a spotlight on the ideological splits over policies like Medicare for all.

Advocates will pressure Congress to act early in a new administration, and leaders will be under intense pressure to try to bridge gaps and unite the party around some significant legislation.

But if President Trump wins a second term, the type of grassroots energy from the left that followed the 2016 election could once again inspire more people to want to challenge sitting Democrats.

"If Trump is reelected, I think it will only embolden the progressive left," Israel said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.