The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Progressives launch challenges to Democrats, and a congressman signs up

Ro Khanna speaks with voters before heading out to canvas neighborhoods two weeks before the California primary vote. (Nick Otto for The Washington Post)
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Just days after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) drew his first real Republican opponent, he got unwelcome but expected news from his left. Paula Swearengin, an environmental activist who has never run for office, would challenge him in the Democratic primary — more than a year away. That news was worth a special segment on “The Young Turks,” the progressive Web series hosted by Cenk Uygur, who launched a “Justice Democrats” project to encourage primaries against people like Manchin.

“His time in the Senate is about to run out,” said Uygur on May 9.

One day later, Uygur invited Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) on the show for another announcement. The freshman from the Bay Area, who defeated a Democratic incumbent to win his seat, would be Justice Democrats’ “champion” in Congress. Uygur played “Stars and Stripes Forever” to celebrate the news.

“It’s time that the Democrats had a bold, clear, progressive vision,” Khanna said. “It’s time that we had spine.”

As Democrats grow more bullish on winning coming special elections and midterms, a number of scrappy organizations are trying to encourage and crowdfund primary challenges to move the party to the left. The launch of Justice Democrats and We Will Replace you, which got copious attention at the start of the year, have finally led to some actual campaigns, with cues from the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. (Swearengin attracted some attention on the left after a video of her talking about West Virginia with Sanders circulated online.)

“One of the problems in 2016 was the sense that a small group of insiders were trying to influence who could run,” said Khanna in an interview last week. “I ran against an incumbent in my own party, and I said if I ever got to Congress, I can’t be hypocritical. I can’t say, if someone ever runs against me, I’ll close the door on them.”

On the surface, the progressive primary-challenge groups resemble the tea party organizations that mobilized in 2009 and 2010 to push Republicans to the right. Like the tea party, Justice Democrats et al. argue that the party doesn’t just have policy reasons to abandon the “center” — they argue that the means-testing politics of “neoliberalism” has been a disaster, alienating the party from voters who were so desperate for help in 2016 that they took a chance on Donald Trump.

“We need to have that grass roots energy on the Democratic side,” Khanna explained. “We need to channel it into something positive. The people on the right have not been shy about being bold about what their ideas are; neither should we. If people are supporting a financial transaction tax, breaking up big banks, and strong regulation of Wall Street, that’s what’s going to matter to people.”

Sometimes, the Justice Democrats have found themselves pushing on an open door. The outcry against Democrats voting to confirm Trump nominees this winter led to the filibuster of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, joined by seven Senate Democrats who represented Trump-won states. Every Democrat — Manchin included — has opposed the Republicans’ American Health Care Act.

But progressive groups, taking a cue from the right, are demanding more. As the AHCA passed the House, they derided Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) for saying that single-payer health care would not be in the party’s 2018 platform. In an echo of 2006, the last time Democrats took back Congress from Republican control, the party’s committees have recruited first-time candidates with sterling biographies, including military experience, to win competitive House seats. But there’s little clarity on whether those candidates would push through a progressive agenda if, and when, Democrats win control of the Congress and executive branch again.

That’s led to a curious paradox, where the Democrats in both Houses are led by blue-state progressives — both of whom personally have supported single-payer health care — viewed skeptically by some of the activist base. One of that base’s demands looks particularly tricky to fulfill. Justice Democrats call on their candidates to reject any “corporate” money, arguing that it inevitably limits what they can achieve in office.

“President Obama had a ban on lobbyists and corporate money and he was a successful two-term president and the DCCC raised an extraordinary amount of money,” Khanna said.

In 2016, however, the DNC undid the rule Obama had asked for. There’s no sign of the DNC reinstating the rule so long as Democrats are locked out of power. Last week’s announcement that Jess O’Connell, the executive director of Emily’s List, would become the DNC’s CEO sparked a quiet round of panic from progressive activists, who saw yet more evidence that the Washington-based party was sticking to the strategists it new and not bringing in supporters of Sanders.