The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic tensions surface as House incumbents plan defense against far-left primary challengers

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) speaks during a news conference at Capitol Hill on June 15. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Smoldering tensions between far-left activists and Washington’s Democratic House leaders are flaring again ahead of the midterm elections, prompting Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and others to raise money to defend incumbents against primary challengers in congressional races.

The effort by Jeffries and two colleagues sets up potential showdowns with a band of younger and more liberal House members, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and arrives amid jockeying to eventually replace House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) if she makes good on her pledge to leave leadership after the upcoming elections.

The decision by Jeffries, 50, one of his party’s top fundraisers and currently fourth in line behind Pelosi, is an early sign of continued frustration among many House Democrats at activist efforts by groups like the Justice Democrats to challenge liberal incumbents in big-city primaries. And it comes three years after Ocasio-Cortez dethroned a member of the party leadership in a shocking primary result.

Jeffries has formed a new fundraising effort, Team Blue PAC, with Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and New Democrat Coalition co-chair Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.). The group will focus on protecting incumbent members of Congress in safe Democratic seats that are not a focus of the House Democratic campaign committee.

To date, Team Blue has indicated it will defend at least two incumbents, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), two liberals who face fresh challenges from younger women of color backed by the Justice Democrats.

Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, accused Jeffries of trying to beat back gains by democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and a crew of like-minded legislators who have brought a more disruptive and aggressive style to Congress.

“Democratic Party leadership should be focused on keeping the majorities in the House and the Senate, and this looks like an ideological vendetta from Jeffries and Gottheimer,” Shahid said. “The message they are sending is they do not want ‘the Squad’ to expand.”

Those organizing Team Blue, however, say the path to retaining the majority depends upon minimizing intraparty fights.

“There is a gap that needs to be filled,” Gottheimer said of the fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is not focused on safe seats. “If you are spending all of your resources and time fighting with each other instead of fighting the other team, that is a huge distraction.”

Christie Stephenson, a Jeffries spokeswoman, said Team Blue was focused on a core responsibility of party leaders like Jeffries: protecting incumbents.

“It should come as no surprise that the chair of the House Democratic Caucus plans to support the reelection of Members of the House Democratic Caucus who are working hard to enact President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda,” she said in a statement responding to a request for comment from Jeffries. “The extreme left’s multiyear obsession with Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, a Black progressive leader, is unhealthy. Perhaps their time would be better spent targeting Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell.”

The two primary fights at issue appear more generational than ideological. Maloney, 75, and Davis, 79, were early backers of the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, and Davis was previously been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, to which Jeffries belongs, has endorsed Maloney.

But the younger challengers have cast incumbents as disconnected from their districts and lacking energy to change the system, while also criticizing them for their acceptance of donations from corporate political action committees. Jeffries had previously weighed in against other Justice Democratic candidates who challenged Democratic incumbents in primaries, including Rep. Cori Bush (Mo.) who won in 2020 and Morgan Harper, who lost the same year in a primary for a House seat in Columbus, Ohio.

“I think it is completely backward and I think it is hypocritical of Representative Jeffries and, quite frankly, Representative Davis who have both challenged incumbents before,” said Kina Collins, 30, the liberal activist who is challenging Davis. “He bullied Cori Bush and he bullied Morgan Harper who ran in Ohio, and now he is trying to bully me and Rana.”

Rana Abdelhamid, 28, a Google employee who also works as a women’s empowerment and self-defense activist, has been endorsed by the Justice Democrats to challenge Maloney, who survived a serious primary challenge from the left in 2020. Abdelhamid’s campaign announced Monday that it raised $411,265 in the second quarter, more than Maloney raised in the first three months of the year.

“Our race is grass-roots-funded. We are not taking any corporate money,” Abdelhamid said, before turning to Jeffries. “To see someone who is a top Democrat challenging us in a deeply blue state feels like we are not prioritizing our already thin majority in the House.”

Emily Crerand, a campaign adviser to Maloney, said she looked forward to the coming campaign.

“Congresswoman Maloney has never lost a fight in her entire career and we do not anticipate losing this election,” she said.

Davis communications director Ira Cohen said the congressman had not yet announced his reelection effort. “But he is very excited about the progress being made under the current administration,” Cohen said.

Democratic leaders have long had an uneasy relationship with House members like Ocasio-Cortez, who came to Congress with the support of the Justice Democrats and a desire to transform the institution with less deference to party leaders. That has raised questions about how the next generation of leaders in the House will manage the broad spectrum of views among Democrats and avoid the fate of Republicans, who repeatedly found themselves too divided along ideological lines to pass legislation when they had the majority.

Both Collins and Abdelhamid said it was too soon to say whether they would support Jeffries for a leadership position in the House, if they make it to Congress.

Pelosi, 81, pledged in 2018 that she would only serve four more years as speaker, setting off a quiet conversation about her succession. The National Republican Congressional Committee, in a clear sign that it is monitoring the Democratic succession, added an approval question about Jeffries to an April poll, which showed that about 8 in 10 voters in battleground districts had not heard of him or had no opinion of him.

Jeffries’s involvement in the most recent primaries continues a long-running fight he has waged against more liberal elements of his party in New York, as he has cast himself as a leader who can bridge the Democratic donor community and the party’s activist base. He has raised nearly $1.4 million for House Democrats so far this cycle, according to an adviser. At the same time, he has tried to show his ability to break the mold of previous leaders. In his closing arguments last year in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, Jeffries quoted a refrain from the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 hit “Juicy.”

“If you don’t know, now you know,” the Brooklyn-based congressman said on the Senate floor.

Jeffries started his political career in New York by challenging an incumbent Democrat in the state Assembly and losing, though he later went on to serve in the State House. He won an open House seat in 2012 over Charles Barron, a left-wing New York city council member who’d attacked the “Israel lobby” and once invited the late Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe to City Hall. Democrats worried that Barron, if elected, would become a national embarrassment to the party. Jeffries, who mocked Barron as having the “pro-Qaddafi vote locked up,” won the primary in a landslide. (Barron narrowly defeated a Jeffries-backed challenger for the city council last week.)

Jeffries’s opponents say that his focus sharpened after Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory in 2018 over Rep. Joseph Crowley. The 10-term incumbent’s defeat gave Jeffries a path to the leadership, one that the left sought for itself. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the party’s most respected left-wing voices, announced her candidacy for Crowley’s job hours after his defeat. Jeffries later jumped into the contest, beating her by 10 votes with the help of newly elected moderates.

In federal and local New York races, Jeffries has taken a mixed approach to primary challengers, defending incumbents in the House delegation while backing opponents of his political foes. In 2020, he sided with Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who lost to now-Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who had the support of Ocasio-Cortez.

Despite the diversity of the best-known far-left candidates, Jeffries has at times characterized that wing of the party as White interlopers who don’t truly represent their urban communities. He mocked the Democratic Socialists of America as a club of professional activists.

“The socialist left is on the rise, particularly in neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents are being gentrified out of existence,” Jeffries told the New York Times late last year, as the mayoral contest got underway.

Jeffries threw himself into last month’s New York municipal primaries, with mixed results, but with a strategy that impressed critics.

Democratic Socialists of America activists, who hoped to win six city council seats, focused intensely on the campaign of Michael Hollingsworth in Brooklyn. Jeffries backed another candidate, Crystal Hudson, who sought to become the first gay Black woman on the council. He also campaigned with liberal mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, who campaigned with Hudson. That, and a six-figure ad campaign from a Realtor against Hollingsworth, helped Hudson triumph.

“The most interesting take away from this year’s NYC elections may be the battleground city council races,” Jeffries tweeted the week before the primary. “Streets is watching.”

After the election, Hollingsworth said that Jeffries had been “very hostile to Democratic Socialists of America” after Crowley’s 2018 defeat and particularly since 2019, when some left-wing challengers defeated his proteges.

“He was a friend of Joseph Crowley, and there’s obviously tension between him and Ocasio-Cortez,” Hollingsworth said. “You’ve got people in office who don’t look at the districts they represent as districts. They look at them as fiefdoms. They want their people in all the political roles. Establishment Democrats get elected, do nothing for their constituents, and if anyone challenges them, they use every lever of power to stop them.”

A spokeswoman for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment for this story.

The Justice Democrats have so far endorsed only three House candidates including Odessa Kelly, who is challenging Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) all of whom are running in safe Democratic seats. More are expected and party strategists in the establishment wing are hopeful that the group does not expand its reach into seats that could be vulnerable to Republican takeover.

During the Obama administration, Republicans suffered losses in Senate contests they were expected to win, after conservative activists associated with the tea party elevated primary candidates who struggled to gain traction in the general election.

“With Trumpian insurrectionists so close to power and our democracy hanging in the balance, it’s absolutely vital that the far left not weaken our at-risk incumbents in swing districts with divisive primaries,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. “When the tea party attacked vulnerable Republicans, it cost them dearly.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which Jeffries quoted Notorious B.I.G. It was during the 2020 Senate trial of President Donald Trump, not the trial in 2021. The article has been corrected.