The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Democrats are bracing for primary fights. Does the left have a plan?

In this edition: The left's primary strategy gets a reboot, an election in Wisconsin could be a proxy fight about schools, and a Florida Democrat's death starts another special election.

Boycotting Coke, but not for any interesting political reasons, this is The Trailer.

When Deb Haaland was tapped to run the Interior Department, the Democratic Party’s left flank saw an opportunity in Antoinette Sedillo López, a state senator who’d lost a 2018 primary to Haaland. National and local liberal groups got behind her quickly, touting her support for Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal. Last weekend, when Sedillo López led the first round of virtual voting at a party convention, her endorsers expected her to win it all.

She didn’t. Melanie Stansbury, a state legislator with a slightly more moderate profile than Sedillo López, will represent Democrats in the June 1 special election. As the party’s resurgent left wing selects its targets in this year’s elections and next year’s primaries, the Democrats’ overall shift to the left has complicated the left's pitch — and the effort to consolidate liberal votes behind a single candidate hasn’t gotten easier. 

“Her team was extremely confident, but the entire party apparatus came out and endorsed a different candidate,” said Dominique Shuminova, a strategist for the New York-based Matriarch PAC, which endorses liberal women in Democratic primaries, and which backed Sedillo López. “We didn’t coalesce the way the establishment coalesced.”

The upset in New Mexico surprised some national liberals, though not all. Groups that have plowed money into other races, such as Justice Democrats or the Congressional Progressive Caucus, stayed out of the race. (Justice Democrats had backed Sedillo López in 2018.) The convention system, which hands power to local party officials instead of a potentially more liberal electorate, was always seen as a stumbling block. And that thinking panned out, as Stansbury pulled over most supporters of other candidates in the second round — some of whom had initially backed Sedillo López.

Of the three special elections underway in safely Democratic seats this year, the party’s left has unified and taken command in just one of them — the race in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, where former state senator Nina Turner has tripled the fundraising of her closest competitor.

“The fact that people all over the country are feeling the energy of this campaign is vitally important,’ Turner said in a call with reporters, announcing her fundraising lead. “It’s a continuation of the national work that I've been doing over the last six years.”

In Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, the Congressional Progressive Caucus's PAC bought ads to help state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson only after she edged activist Gary Chambers in last month’s primary — good timing for the April 24 runoff, but a reflection of how the left in the majority-Black district initially struggled to pick a candidate. (Chambers, who did best in parts of the district dominated by white liberals, endorsed Carter Peterson not long after the primary.)

Liberal wins in Louisiana and Ohio would shift the Democrats' House conference to the left, the goal of the campaigners who came out of Sen. Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign. It began with a wave of endorsements by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress in 2018, which helped put New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and other members of the “squad” — a nickname turned into an epithet by Republicans — in the House. In 2020, Ocasio-Cortez herself endorsed challengers to her colleagues, including now-Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D) from a district not far from hers.

“Mounting continued primary challenges or just supporting candidates in general, putting candidates in open seats … I’ve seen the impact of it from the inside,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with the in-house magazine of the Democratic Socialists of America, of which she's a member. “Even incumbent members of Congress will totally reinvent themselves in a far more progressive direction because they know that their communities are watching.”

After 2018, when liberal activists worried that they had ignored winnable seats, the strategy got more sophisticated. Justice Democrats endorsed just a few candidates, such as Bowman, as part of a high-profile national recruiting process. They focused on seats that were functionally impossible for Democrats to lose, and are doing so again this cycle. On Monday, they announced that Odessa Kelly, a Black community organizer in Nashville, had their support in a race against Rep. Jim Cooper (D), a fiscally conservative Democrat in an increasingly liberal district.

“He has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate PACs representing weapons manufacturers and real estate developers throughout his entire career,” Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas said in a stream from Kelly's campaign office. “He has also taken votes and organized his colleagues to support cuts to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare as recently as 2018.”

The targeted strategy, which has also elevated non-White candidates in places with substantial numbers of non-White voters, has paid off while putting no Democratic seats at risk. Yet it has made enemies anyway. Two years ago, Justice Democrats' first recruit of the cycle was a challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), a Latino member who represents a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, a district that backed Hillary Clinton for president by 20 points. Cuellar won the 2020 primary narrowly, but in November, the district backed Joe Biden by just 5 points — and this year, Republicans announced that they would target the seat, which probably will be reshaped by redistricting. Back in office, Cuellar has criticized Biden's border strategy, while his allies say the election proved that the left should stay away from primaries. 

"[Justice Democrats] racially profiled this district as having a lot of Hispanics and therefore being ultra-progressive,” said Colin Strother, a former Cuellar strategist who helped him win the primary. “This is all weird shapes and numbers on a map to them. They don’t know these districts.”

None of the left's wins have put the party's majority at risk, but its opponents are happy to argue otherwise. That began immediately after the November 2020 election, with a not-yet-settled argument over whether liberals who adopted the “defund the police” slogan hurt more vulnerable members. Three narrowly defeated members of the party's 2018-2020 class, all of them from the centrist wing of the party, have founded Shield PAC, aiming to raise $26 million, to protect Democrats and to rebut any left-wing ideas that Republicans adopt for their negative campaigns in swing seats.

“I’m not certain there was a broad and deep recognition of the danger of these messages,” former Oklahoma congresswoman Kendra Horn told The Post's Karen Tumulty last month. “We have to make sure there are better conversations happening.”

Those conversations will take place in an atmosphere that has grown both less and more hostile to liberal and left-wing challengers — less because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's new leadership has abandoned a “blacklist” on consultants who work with challengers, more because of the perma-panic about the left making Democrats less electable. Last week, the DCCC apologized for allowing Ocasio-Cortez's campaign to make direct $5,000 contributions to members who didn't ask for them; at least three have reportedly returned the money. In an interview, DCCC Chairman and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York said that diverse voices were nothing new for the party, and they'd head into 2022 unified to beat a Trump-aligned GOP.

“Every cycle has primaries, and this one will be no different,” Maloney said. “It's not going to distract us from the core mission, which is to hold and expand this majority.”

At this early point in the cycle, Republicans may be headed for more serious primary challenges than their Democratic counterparts. Ten members of the House GOP conference voted to impeach Trump, and all now face opponents in their 2022 primaries. The former president, while broadly unpopular outside the party, has the ability inside it to steer votes toward candidates of his choosing. 

The left doesn't have the same, singular force to cohere support behind one candidate or nudge others out of the race; Bowman's 2020 win owed a lot to one candidate's decision to quit and clear the field. The anti-establishment sentiment that Trump can still shape as a former president is less strong among Democratic voters. In Ohio, that has been made clear by Turner's emphasis on local support, her work to elect Barack Obama and her willingness to vote for the party's legislation if she gets to Washington. In the media call about her fundraising, Turner was audibly annoyed by how much she was being asked about intraparty drama — an issue that doesn't give Republican challengers any pause.

“I was critical of the system,” Turner said. “I wish people had more concern about the suffering that I’m talking about than the maybe colorful words I’ve used to frame the system.”

Reading list

“How Joe Biden tamed the left — at least for now,” by Annie Linskey, Jeff Stein and Ashley Parker

He wasn't who they wanted in the primary, but he has pleased some old critics.

“How Trump steered supporters into unwitting donations,” by Shane Goldmacher

Why one in 10 donations to the former president's 2020 campaign led to a refund.

“Inside a stealth ‘persuasion machine’ promising Republican victories in 2022,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker

Inside the American Culture Project.

“Voting law a Rorschach test for a divided Georgia,” by David Wickert and Mark Niesse

Aftershocks of the Major League Baseball snub.

“Time back home with voters only emboldens Republicans to oppose Biden’s agenda,” by Mike DeBonis, Eric Berger and Chris Dixon

Republicans who didn't vote for Biden continue to be skeptical of Biden.

“Terry McAuliffe’s record on race gets a second look in Virginia governor’s race,” by Daniel Marans

Can a White guy still get nominated in the Old Dominion?

“Republicans ramp up attacks on corporations over Georgia voting law, threaten ‘consequences,’ by Marianna Sotomayor and Todd C. Frankel

How will conservatives take on business?

“Andrew Yang’s Asian American superpower,” by Tina Nguyen

A candidate navigates a big moment he never would have wanted.

In the states

It's Election Day, again, in Wisconsin, where the vote for a nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction attracted serious investment from Democrats, and an investment from a school choice campaign fund run by Betsy DeVos.

The race for the state's top education job, always held in an off year, doesn't typically follow red-blue vote patterns, but candidates backed by teachers' unions tend to win. Gov. Tony Evers (D) won his last term in this, his previous job, by 40 points, after four years of clashes with pro-school-choice Republicans. The February primary that narrowed down the field — to educators Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr — didn't advance a Republican. Both Underly and Kerr are Democrats, but the state Democratic Party supported Underly. Kerr favored school vouchers. Underly did not.

The divisions sharpened in the following weeks. Kerr stumbled out of the gate, tweeting a response to a Twitter thread about the first time people had been called the “n-word” — Kerr, who is White, shared a story of being called that word, then closed her account. Former governor Scott Walker endorsed Kerr, and his former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch contributed $5000 to Kerr through a PAC. But the state Democrats invested far more in the race, putting $750,000 into Underly's campaign and helping her blow past Kerr on the airwaves.

Although the campaign unfolded during a debate over school reopenings, that didn't emerge as an issue until the final weeks. Kerr endorsed in-person education at all schools, five days per week, something a state education superintendent could advocate for; Underly said that each school was different, though the goal was getting back to normal.

“I'm currently leading a school district through a pandemic,” Underly told TMJ4 News this week. “My schools have been open and I know what it takes to have them open and keep them open.”

Although nearly no Wisconsin schools remain fully closed, a Kerr win would be a serious upset, one linked to voter frustration as vaccinations begin to bring an end to pandemic lockdown. And it would be credited in part to DeVos, whose American Federation for Children put $200,000 into ads that attacked Underly for opposing school vouchers while personally putting her children in a private school. (Underly's response is that she did so with her own money.)

Wisconsin voters in two safe Republican Assembly seats will also fill vacancies today, along with voters in southern California (replacing now-Secretary of State Shirley Weber), in the Oklahoma City area (replacing now-Rep. Stephanie Bice), and in a blue part of Missouri (where David Tyson Smith is expected to become the first Black representative from Columbia.) The marquee race in Missouri is the second round of St. Louis's mayoral contest: Democrat Tishaura Jones, the city treasurer who lost a fractured 2017 race for the job, is facing Democratic Alderman Cara Spencer. The city hasn't elected a Republican mayor since Harry S. Truman was president, but Jones would be its first Black mayor in 20 years.

Voters could elect another Black mayor in Nebraska, where Omaha Republican Jean Stothert, who is White, is seeking a third term. In 2013, she won easily, and in 2017 she won by single digits over an antiabortion Democrat whose politics became a national controversy after Sen. Bernie Sanders flew in to campaign for him. Democrats have struggled to break out of their rut in the city, despite easily winning it (and the surrounding 2nd Congressional District) for Biden last year. Two Black women and two White men are running against Stothert, all angling to keep her below 50 percent tonight and win their own slot in a runoff.

And in Alaska, Democrat Forrest Dunbar is trying to win back Anchorage's city hall, which Democrats held until the resignation of former mayor Ethan Berkowitz after a lurid sex scandal. Several Republicans and independents are running, and one to watch is Dave Bronson, who has promised to crack down on those who choose to live a homeless lifestyle.

Ad watch

Progress for the People PAC, “Eighty-Five.” A PAC opposing Democrat Karen Carter Peterson in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District runoff goes with a negative campaign standby: The candidate doesn't show up enough for her current job in the state Senate. “Shows up for the money, not for you,” grouses the ad's narrator after running down the sort of issues ("voting rights,” “gun safety”) handled in the bills she didn't vote on. Carter Peterson led the state's Democratic Party for much of her time in the Senate; her opponent, Sen. Troy Carter, has run as a more effective legislator.

Jana Lynne Sanchez, “Stand Up.” The highest-spending Democrat in Texas's 6th Congressional District, where candidates of all parties are trying to make a runoff, reintroduces herself as a self-made small-business woman who started out “working at Dairy Queen.” Sanchez's path to the runoff is through consolidating Democratic votes, and her red meat here is an image of Sen. Ted Cruz (R) rolling his suitcase back from the airport. "They even abandoned us when the lights went out.”

Mark Moores, “Just a Stare.” The Republican nominee in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District introduces himself for the special election with no mention of his party or politics. A narrator talks up Moores's playing for the University of New Mexico football team, before some old teammates arrive to quibble with how scary it makes him sound. “He's just a big teddy bear!” says one teammate. 

Melanie Stansbury, “Grit. Determination. Heart.” The first special election ad by the Democrat in the New Mexico race is similarly light on detail, like Moores' competing ad, but it does mention Stansbury's party affiliation. “I know what it's like to not know how you're going to make it to the end of the month,” Stansbury says, a message that rhymes with the one President Biden has used in his campaign. Like Moores, Stansbury does not mention that she's a member of the state legislature.

Club for Growth, “Dogs.” The conservative group is spending money in Arizona and West Virginia to provide cover for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and, here, Sen. Joe Manchin, as they resist calls to abolish the filibuster. Footage of wild, feral dogs plays as a narrator lists all the reasons how “the new left” is running rampant, including “wokeness, whatever that is,” before the point hits: Voters should thank Manchin for resisting. It's not new territory for the Club, which ran ads in 2017 urging Manchin to support Betsy DeVos's nomination to lead the Education Department, with footage of Women's March protests representing the activists they wanted him to reject. (Manchin instead rejected DeVos.)

Poll watch

What is the most important problem facing the United States? (Reuters/Ipsos, 1005 adults)

Economy/jobs: 19% (-5 from March 25) 
Immigration: 13% (+2) 
Public health/disease: 11% (-)
Health care: 9% (-1) 
Inequality/discrimination: 8% (-)
Morality: 6% (+1) 
Crime/corruption: 6% (+1)

The most frequent tracking poll of Biden's approval has found him above 50 percent since he was sworn in, and found voters growing a bit less concerned over time with coronavirus recovery. That's one reason for the decent approval numbers; it's also a reason “immigration” has moved up on voters' list of concerns, as Republicans and independents now rate it as their most important issue. The rub is that less than a quarter of either group think so, and virtually no Democrats do: They rate every other issue on this list higher than immigration, with just 4 percent calling it their top issue. The surge of migrants at the border hasn't knocked Biden off course, in large part because a small group of voters is focused on it and a larger group isn't paying attention. 

On the trail

House Democrats this morning released a list of 22 seats they’ll target in the 2022 midterm elections, clustered largely in the suburbs where the party gained ground during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“Every Republican member on this battlefield voted against putting money in people's pockets and getting shots into people's arms,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York (D), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview, referring to unanimous GOP opposition to the coronavirus relief bill. “They are on the wrong side of the most important issues.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the DCCC's counterpart, published its own target list in February, including both Maloney and his immediate predecessor, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois. Both flipped swing seats, after favorable new maps, in 2012; Maloney's seat, New York's 18th Congressional District, backed Biden last year after backing Trump in 2016. The GOP's 47-seat list included 41 carried by Biden. On average, the targeted seats backed Hillary Clinton by two points in 2016 and Biden by six points in 2020.

Democrats' targets are less ambitious; on average, the districts they're aiming at backed Trump by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, then backed Biden by the same margin. Ten districts were held by Democrats from 2018 to 2020, at least: California’s 21st, 25th, 39th, and 48th Congressional Districts, Florida’s 26th and 27th Congressional Districts, Iowa’s 1st and 2nd Congressional District, New York’s 22nd Congressional District, and Utah’s 4th Congressional District. An 11th, Arizona's 2nd Congressional District, was easily held by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick last year, but is open in 2022 because of her retirement.

Not on the DCCC list: Four seats won by the party in its sweeping 2018 House victories but lost with Trump back on the ballot. New York's 11th Congressional District, where Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R) defeated Max Rose last year, isn't a target. Neither is New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District or Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District, carried by Trump; neither is South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, trending left even though the party lost it last year; and neither is Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, where Rep. Michelle Fischbach defeated perennial rural Democratic target Collin Peterson.

Although Democratic recruiting groups such as Run for Something have reported higher interest in first-time candidacies this year, the Democrats' 2022 bench isn't sorted out yet. Asked about recruiting narrowly defeated 2020 candidates (three lost by less than 1,000 votes) or finding new ones, Maloney suggested that “the outrageous conduct by the Republicans and the inspiring accomplishments of the new administration” would pull more people into House races, and that the GOP was giving them plenty to run against.

“The theme is that this Republican Party in the House is bankrupt of ideas,” Maloney said. “They voted against the plan that 75 percent of the country supports, and every local Republican that I know also supports, and what they have focused on instead are either irrelevant issues like Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, or trying to justify a violent attack on the Capitol.”

Special elections

Rep. Alcee Hastings died on Tuesday morning, ending a long career in politics that included a judicial appointment, an impeachment that ripped him off the bench, and 29 years as an increasingly powerful Democrat in Congress.

The election to replace him in Florida's 22nd Congressional District could take a while — or not. Florida law requires local party leaders to hold a meeting about filling any vacancy within five days, but gives Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) wide discretion over when an election can be called. In 2014, when a House Republican from southeast Florida resigned, then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) scheduled a primary for three months later, and a general election, which the GOP nominee won easily, two months after that.

A similar schedule in 2021 would leave Hastings's safe Democratic seat, a majority-Black stretch of Palm Beach and Broward counties, open for most of the year. The 20th Congressional District gave Biden 77 percent of the vote last year, and victory in a Democratic primary is a ticket to the House, over minimal GOP opposition. Before Hastings's death, Broward County Commissioner and fellow Democrat Barbara Sharief had already launched a primary campaign, along with three minor candidates who have not held elected office — including Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who raised less than $70,000 in a 2020 challenge to Hastings but won 31 percent of the primary vote.

The Democratic field probably will widen as Hastings is put to rest; Black legislators in the district spent Tuesday paying tribute to a political mentor rather than publicly affirming their ambition. Potential candidates include Shev Jones, a state senator who'd be the first Black LGBT member of Congress from Florida; Sharief would be the state's first Muslim member of the House. Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, who made a quixotic 2020 bid for president, also lives in the district, though some lesser-known legislators represent more of Hastings's turf.

Hastings's death also reduced his party to 218 seats in the House — the smallest majority it's possible to have if the entire 435-seat chamber is full. But it won't be full for most of 2021. In 18 days, voters in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District will elect one of two Democrats, state Sen. Troy Carter or state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, to fill the vacancy left by White House adviser Cedric Richmond. On May 1, voters in Texas's 6th Congressional District will hold an all-party primary to replace the late Rep. Ron Wright (R); it's possible the race could move on to a summer runoff. On June 1, voters in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District will replace Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

But it will be five more months until anyone is seated in Ohio's 11th Congressional District, and we don't have a date yet for a race to replace Hastings. The result: Two safely Democratic seats, represented since their creation by Black Democrats, could stay vacant until the current Congress is nearly halfway through its term.

Dems in disarray

Why is the left fighting about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D)? And why haven't you heard about it? Two answers: It's complicated, and the fight is revealing more about factions of the resurgent left than it is about Ocasio-Cortez's political clout.

At the start of the year, some voices on the left pushed for their allies in Congress to “force the vote on Medicare-for-all,” asking why Democrats such as Ocasio-Cortez did not demand such a vote in exchange for backing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reelection. The campaign got little attention outside of new left media like comedian Jimmy Dore's online show, the Hill's “Rising” show, and, obviously, Twitter.

On March 19, Democratic Socialists of America's magazine, the Democratic Left, published an interview that the labor writer Don McIntosh had conducted with Ocasio-Cortez in January. McIntosh asked the congresswoman to respond to the idea that “no progress is going to come out of the Biden administration,” and Ocasio-Cortez unloaded on him, labeling this a “privileged critique” that erased the gains activists had made by removing Trump from office.

“Bad faith critique can destroy everything that we have built so swiftly,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And we know this because it has in the past, and it’s taken us so many decades to get to this point. We do not have the time or the luxury to entertain bad faith actors in our movement.” She mentioned no critics by name, but denounced the “weaponization of cynicism” and added that the left was “allowed to win” — the implication being that the critics didn't want to. 

The interview poured lighter fluid on the embers of “Force the Vote.” Six days later, Ocasio-Cortez's comments were panned by Eric London of the World Socialist Web Site, a Trotskyist publication with little presence in American politics, who accused her and DSA of “carrying forward their pro-imperialist, anti-communist traditions into the 21st century.” (WSWS supports the Socialist Equality Party, whose 2020 presidential candidate won just 356 votes.) 

“Their main role, as expressed in the interview, is to serve as gatekeepers of the bourgeois political left, channeling social opposition into the Democratic Party and placing its left opponents beyond the pale,” London wrote.

The Ocasio-Cortez interview had taken place just six days into Biden's presidency, before a number of Biden decisions that had angered the left — from keeping most Trump restrictions on asylum in place to, as Trump had, ordering an airstrike in Syria. On Twitter and on some left-wing podcasts, among people who thought competing inside the Democratic Party was a dead end, the interview went viral. Richard Medhurst, a left-wing video news host, got more than 10 times his usual viewership (more than 300,000 views for a version of the AOC video on Twitter) with a rant about how Ocasio-Cortez was defending “literally Donald Trump policies.” Some of the voices that debated “Force the Vote” began debating what Ocasio-Cortez had meant.

“I wish she would have rejected the premise and said, well, I don't think many people on the left are saying absolutely nothing will come out of the Democratic Party,” former Bernie Sanders campaign press secretary Briahna Joy Gray said on Bad Faith, the podcast she co-hosts. “What they're arguing is that the Democratic Party has in its power to do a lot more given that we have the White House and both branches of Congress.”

The congresswoman's critics went further. Some circulated a 2018 video of her praising Pelosi, after the speaker agreed to set up a climate committee, as if Ocasio-Cortez was defending Pelosi from critics in 2021. A screenshot of a speaker booking service, which does not represent Ocasio-Cortez but lists potential costs for famous speakers, was circulated as evidence that Ocasio-Cortez gets paid at least $75,000 for one-hour speeches. Members of Congress are not permitted to give paid speeches, Ocasio-Cortez never worked with the booking service and her campaign had gotten the page pulled down five months ago.

The criticism fed into Ocasio-Cortez's point — that winning elections could achieve things and positioning as “more socialist than thou” did not. But it's worth watching how some on the left, demanding that socialist members of Congress stand up to Biden, approach the movement's best-known elected leaders.


… 18 days until the runoff in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District
… 25 days until the special primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District
… 32 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 56 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 63 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 77 days until New York Citys primary
… 119 days until the special primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District