On Monday evening, several left-leaning congressional candidates joined a call for emergency organizing with activists reeling from a proposed Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. A somber Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, opening the discussion, acknowledged that Democrats held control in Washington but were nonetheless “in an uphill battle for change.”
The moment, she said, required leaders “who know how to get into the fight and who know how to win.”
Tensions over how to execute those twin ambitions — effectively pushing for change, while winning the election — are now driving Democratic primaries from Pennsylvania to Texas to Oregon as Democrats embark on a new season. intense intra-party battles.
In the early months of 2022, the Republican primaries dominated the political landscape, emerging as key measures of former President Donald Trump‘s grip on his party base. But the coming weeks will also provide a window into the mood of Democratic voters who are alarmed by threats to abortion rights, frustrated by the deadlock in Washington and deeply worried about a difficult campaign environment mid- mandate.
Some competitions are shaped by political debates on issues such as climate and crime. The House primaries were inundated with money from a constellation of groups, including those linked to cryptocurrency, pro-Israel advocacy and a national party intervening, sometimes drawing backlash. And in races that could have general election consequences, national party leaders have openly taken sides, turning some House primaries into proxy battles over party leadership.
Tuesday night’s Democratic House primary in the Omaha, Nebraska, area drew less of that national fervor, but it could lay the groundwork for a competitive general election. Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican representing a district president Joe Biden won, defeated a left-leaning Democratic nominee in 2018 and 2020.
Democrats hope to make inroads there this year despite a brutal national climate, and on Tuesday nominated State Sen. Tony Vargas, who highlighted his experience in government and his background as the son of immigrants.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said recent primary contests have been shaped primarily by moderate versus progressive divisions. This time around, she said, voters seemed to focus much less on ideological labels and much more on policy proposals and electoral viability. This reflects the pressing concerns of many Democratic voters across the country who, above all else, fear their party will lose its congressional majorities in Washington.
“There’s a less ideological vibe — I think Democrats, especially in our state, feel like we’re fighting for every position we can get,” she said. “People want to win, but I also think the word ‘progressive’ is not enough. Voters really want to know what the candidate stands for and what they are going to do when they take office.
Starting next Tuesday, the Democratic primary season heats up, headlined by the main Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has consistently run rare public polls against Rep. Conor Lamb of suburban Pittsburgh and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia.
The race, in one of the few states where Democrats have a solid chance of winning a Senate seat, has focused heavily on what it will take to win the general election. Fetterman promises to improve the Democratic standing in Trump’s rural territory, while Lamb, a polished Navy veteran, often cites his winning record in a tough House neighborhood.
That theme has echoed in a handful of upcoming House primaries, underscoring fierce Democratic disagreements over what party candidates need to do or show to win in November.
In Oregon, Rep. Kurt Schrader, the well-funded chairman of the political arm of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition that has Biden’s endorsement, faces a challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a small-business owner and emergency response coordinator who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018.
This time, McLeod-Skinner garnered considerable support from local institutions, as well as left-leaning groups including the Working Families Party (which called the Monday meeting Warren addressed).
Several Oregon County Democratic Party organizations normally expected to support the incumbent or remain neutral endorsed McLeod-Skinner and urged the House Democratic campaign arm, which backs Schrader, to stay out of the primary. Johanna Warshaw, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that the “primary mission of the organization is to re-elect Democratic members.”
Schrader’s supporters and some National Democrats believe he has a better chance in a fall election that could be highly competitive. But McLeod-Skinner’s supporters argue she can galvanize Democratic voters in a year when Republicans are widely seen as having the edge on enthusiasm.
Democrats should “want a candidate that Democrats are enthusiastic about,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder and co-executive director of the Indivisible Project, a grassroots group. Citing “local frustration,” she added, “Kurt Schrader is not that candidate.”
In a statement, Schrader spokesperson Deb Barnes said he has a proven ability to “bring everyone together – rural, urban and suburban – to find common ground and win victories that make a difference.” real difference”.
Eligibility plays out differently in South Texas, where Jessica Cisneros is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, the House’s most vehemently anti-abortion Democrat, in a district where conservative Democrats have often thrived.
Cisneros has strong support from left-leaning national leaders, and abortion rights advocates believe Democratic outrage around the issue will help him in the May 24 runoff and beyond. .
“When we beat the anti-choice Democrat, that will set the tone for the rest of the midterms,” Cisneros said.
But other National Democrats clearly see Cuellar as a stronger fit in a more culturally conservative district that could become a heated general election battleground.
“We shouldn’t have a litmus test of who and what makes us a Democrat,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third House Democrat, who campaigned with Cuellar last week.
Still, there are sharp divisions over what it means to be an effective Democrat — a dynamic at the heart of high-profile primary battles in recent years, as left-leaning contenders have defeated several senior incumbents but also faced setbacks, like in Ohio, where Rep. Shontel Brown won a rematch against former state senator Nina Turner.
Next Tuesday will begin a new round of testing for the kinds of candidates who can excite — or reassure — Democratic voters at a perilous time for their party.
“In 2018 and 2020, they rebelled against an establishment that lost to Trump,” said Sean McElwee, founding executive director of Data for Progress, a liberal policy and polling organization. “Now they want people who will embrace Biden’s agenda and take swing seats, and progressives need to make the case that they have the best shot at doing that.”
In Pennsylvania, a House primary for the seat around Pittsburgh vacated by retiring Rep. Mike Doyle will sharply test that argument. A lawyer and former head of the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, Steve Irwin, has garnered support from much of the party establishment, while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mayor Ed Gainey of Pittsburgh are expected to campaigning this week with state Rep. Summer Lee, who joined Monday’s call with Warren. Jerry Dickinson, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is also among the candidates for the nomination.
In North Carolina, former state senator Erica Smith and County Durham Commissioner Nida Allam also participated in the Working Families Party appeal. Smith, who is running in the 1st District, is in the running to succeed Rep. GK Butterfield, who endorsed State Senator Don Davis. Allam faces opponents including State Senator Valerie Foushee and former “American Idol” contestant Clay Aiken in the 4th District. There is also a primary in the state’s newly drawn 13th district, which may be competitive in the general election.
In the Kentucky primary next Tuesday, state Rep. Attica Scott, a vocal leader of the police accountability movement in Louisville, is running to the left of state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey in the race to succeed Representative John Yarmuth.
And in the coming weeks, several House incumbents will face contested primaries, while the Los Angeles mayoral primary and San Francisco prosecutor’s recall vote, both on June 7, will weigh the odds. attitudes of typically liberal Californians on the issues. crime and homelessness.
Sanders, who has backed several upcoming primaries, framed the moment as “a struggle over whether the Democratic Party is a party of working families” or one of “wealthy campaign contributors.”
But he also issued a grave warning to his party that has implications far beyond the primary season.
Because the Democrats have so far failed to pass major elements of their platform, he said, “There is now a lot of demoralization among working people, whether black or white, Latino or Native American. , never mind. And I’m very concerned that the Democrat turnout is not very high. »