Back when I was a more active blogger around a decade ago, there was an expression: “More and Better Democrats.” We wanted to elect more Democrats, sure, but specifically the best Democrats we could in each district, acknowledging that some Democrats were too often disappointing, especially when they represented districts that offered the political freedom to Better Democrats. Yes, there are still unfinished races around the country from this past 2018 cycle; and, any minute now, most political oxygen will be consumed by the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries. So, during this post-election period before it’s all-presidential-all-the-time, I wanted to share my wish list of the Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives most in need of a one-on-one progressive primary challenger in 2020 – Democrats we can replace with Better Democrats. I’ve ranked the top seven members I’d like to see primaried, whose average age is 64 years old (i.e. for some, at least, the prospect of a vigorous primary challenger could encourage thoughts of retirement).
7] Jim Costa (CA-16, age 66) – Costa has been in elected office for 40 years, and has served as a co-Chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, a coalition of conservative Democrats in the House. He has the House Democratic caucus’ third worst Progressive Punch score, which compares the conservative bent of his voting with the liberal bent of his district. If progressive Democrats could unite behind a single progressive candidate, and if a Republican runs, this is a district in which California’s unusual “top two” primary could work in progressives’ favor, as conservatives would likely support a Republican candidate, eroding Costa’s right flank, as non-conservative Democrats potentially break for the more progressive option (if, in fact, progressives unite behind a sole challenger). Costa reportedly has been an unengaged campaigner, leading to surprisingly narrower wins in 2010 and 2014 than the district’s makeup would expect. If Costa hemorrhages support from both the right (to a Republican) and the left (to a more progressive Democrat), he could easily finish third in a “top two” primary. Also, after four decades in elected office, a strong challenger from his left with unified grassroots support could encourage Costa to simply retire.
6] David Trone (MD-06, age 63) – Trone now holds the distinction of being the largest self-funder in House race history. He spent $13 million of his own money trying to win the neighboring MD-08 seat in 2016, finishing second in the Democratic primary. In 2018, he spent another $12 million of his own money winning the MD-06 Democratic primary, with just 40.4% of the vote, nearly 10 points ahead of state delegate Aruna Miller who finished with 30.6% (who spent only $1.25 million). Trone calls himself a “progressive Democrat.” As he embarks on his first term, we’ll see how his voting record bears out in this solidly Democratic district. Failure to live up to that self-designation of “progressive Democrat” should immediately earn him a primary challenger, as he won the primary in 2018 on the strength of his checkbook and on the serendipity of a crowded primary (in addition to Trone and Miller, two other candidates in the primary topped 10%). If Trone doesn’t walk the progressive walk as a Congressman, and if progressives can unite behind one candidate, Trone would remain vulnerable to a one-on-one progressive primary challenger, even with his checkbook. For those seeking out breadcrumbs, Delegate Miller did like a tweet urging her to run again next cycle.
5] Jeff Van Drew (NJ-02, age 65) – During his time in the New Jersey state legislature, Van Drew amassed a voting record that was: anti-minimum wage hike, anti-LGBTQ equality, anti-environment, and pro-NRA to the tune of an A rating. That didn’t stop the DCCC from backing his campaign, which iced any momentum that could have been achieved by more progressive challengers. That this seat was a pick-up due to the retirement of Republican Frank LoBiondo ostensibly allowed the DCCC to make the case for a moderate being necessary (though Van Drew’s record appears well to the right of a moderate). But even with virtually all of the institutional support, as well as a substantial financial advantage, along with name recognition from his tenure in the state senate, Van Drew only slightly cracked 55% against retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood and Obama administration official William Cunningham, the two splitting the progressive vote. Van Drew, with the backing of the DCCC, raised one million dollars, compared to just $115,000 for Youngblood and $78,000 for Cunningham, leading to vote tallies of about 19% and 17%, respectively. While Van Drew did accrue a majority in the primary, if he votes in Congress during his upcoming first term as indistinguishably from a Republican on so many issues as he had in the New Jersey legislature, and if progressives can unite behind a single candidate and generate competitive resources, Van Drew should expect a progressive primary challenger in his first re-election effort in 2020.
4] David Scott (GA-13, age 73) – Though representing a portion of overwhelmingly Democratic Atlanta, Scott is a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition. Scott has also endorsed and supported Republicans in high-profile, competitive races, including Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson of his home state of Georgia and Republican U.S. Congresswoman Mia Love of Utah. He’s also sided with special interests who harm his constituents, including payday lenders and car dealers who could employ discriminatory practices. And then there are the numerous ethics issues around failing to pay taxes, misusing taxpayer-funded Congressional staff, and paying his family members large sums for campaign work. Surely this district can do better in the representation department. Further, given Scott’s age (the oldest member on this list), a robust primary challenge could certainly nudge Scott toward retirement.
3] Ed Case (HI-01, age 66) – First elected to the House in a special election, Case originally served a little more than two terms (in HI-02) in the first decade of the 2000’s, succeeding the late Patsy Mink. Case had previously served as Majority Leader of the Hawaii House of Representatives. During his tenure in the House representing HI-02, Case was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, very out of step with liberal Hawaii. Case’s tenure ended upon losing a 2006 primary challenge to U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka. After failed comeback attempts for offices in 2010 and 2012, Case declared that his political career was likely over. Disappointingly, he jumped back in in 2018; and, due to the good fortune of a crowded primary splintering the progressive vote and also his lingering name recognition, Case won the HI-01 primary with 40%, against 25.5% for former A.G./Lt. Gov. Doug Chin and 18.2% for state senator Donna Kim. Despite his previous Congressional tenure, Case is not a prodigious fundraiser, and was outraised by both Chin and Kim. A one-on-one challenge to Case could easily be victorious given Case’s history, especially if his conservative approach picks up where it left off.
2] Henry Cuellar (TX-28, age 63) – Cuellar is recognized as one of the last few anti-choice Democrats in the House (along with Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, Rhode Island’s Jim Langevin, and Illinois’ Dan Lipinski), and he has served as a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition. Cuellar’s top donor happens to be a company that runs immigration detention centers. Cuellar also helped raise money this past cycle for a vulnerable Republican House member (GOP Rep. John Carter, who only very narrowly won his re-election by a 51-48 result against Democratic nominee and military veteran MJ Hegar). Further, in truly scummy fashion, he also reportedly wrongfully fired his Deputy Chief of Staff simply because she was pregnant. According to Govtrack’s 2016 report card, he is the second most conservative-voting Democrat still in the House (after Peterson); and, he has the second worst Progressive Punch score. His district is safely Democratic and largely Hispanic. He has not faced a serious primary challenger since 2006. A progressive, pro-choice Democrat who would never dream of joining the Blue Dog Coalition could certainly hold the seat in a general election. Particularly given the work that has gone into progressive organizing in Texas, through efforts including Battleground Texas, Jolt, Progress Texas, and local Indivisible chapters, surely local organizers can recruit and support a strong progressive challenger.
1] Dan Lipinski (IL-03, age 52) – Lipinski has had a defiantly terrible voting record (anti-Obamacare, anti-DREAM Act, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ equality) for a Democrat holding a safe Democratic seat, a seat he controversially inherited from his father. Lipinski (again, of Illinois) wouldn’t even endorse President Obama for re-election in 2012. Lipinski has served as a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition AND as a co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, giving the latter group its last bit of bipartisan cred. In 2018, Lipinski faced his first robust primary challenge in years, in the person of entrepreneur Marie Newman. Lipinski squeaked to a narrow 51.2%-48.8% victory over the first-time candidate (while outspending her $2.15 million to $1.47 million – though she outraised him in the cycle, he benefited from incumbency and an existing campaign account). Lipinski likely benefited greatly from conservatives crossing over in the primary (Illinois has an open primary system) to vote for him over the progressive Newman. According to exit polling by Public Policy Polling, 19% of IL-03 Democratic primary voters approved of Donald Trump, a number seemingly very high for a Democratic primary in a district like IL-03. Among that 19%, Lipinski won those voters by a rate of 85-10. Among the 76% of primary voters who disapproved of Trump, Newman beat Lipinski 51-32. Therefore, it likely benefited Lipinski that there wasn’t a competitive Republican primary for the GOP nomination in 2018, which could have drawn conservative independents away from the Democratic primary to vote instead in a Republican primary. Notably, the sole candidate in the 2018 IL-03 GOP primary was Arthur Jones, an actual neo-Nazi. Illinois Republicans could have fielded a candidate – any candidate! – to defeat Jones and avoid the embarrassment of nominating a Nazi. Given that the district is safely Democratic, and that the winner of the Democratic primary would therefore almost definitely win the seat under any circumstances, I’m of the belief (call me a conspiracy theorist if you must but this doesn’t seem far-fetched) that the Illinois GOP consciously chose to accept the embarrassment of their eventual nominee being a Nazi in order to free up independent conservatives to vote for Lipinski over Newman in the Democratic primary, to at least ensure the most conservative Democrat possible (when, to reiterate, it otherwise would have been remarkably easy to field any candidate to simply keep the Nazi from being nominated). All that said, with the experience of 2018 under her belt, and with a base of field and fundraising support to rely on in order to hit the ground running, Newman could field an even stronger challenge to Lipinski in 2020 if she ran again. And, for what it’s worth, she’s very motivated, given the outright lies and nastiness espoused by Team Lipinski over the course of the contentious 2018 primary.
While the Presidential race will dominate political coverage in 2019 and 2020, I hope to read about national progressive organizations like Democracy for America and MoveOn, along with local progressive organizers, working to recruit strong progressive challengers to this bunch, where Democrats can do so much Better. The “Green Wave” that supported 2018’s Blue Wave shows that the financial support is there to match the grassroots support for strong, progressive recruits.