Bella Abzug, who brought the dynamism of the feminist movement to Congress with her message that “a woman’s place is in the House,” arrived on the national stage after beating a New York Democratic incumbent in a 1970 primary.
Ron Dellums, one of the most principled advocates for peace ever to sit in the U.S. House of Representatives, won his seat by beating a California Democratic incumbent in a 1970 primary.
Elizabeth Holtzman, an essential defender of the system of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights during her time in the Congress, came to Washington after defeating the dean of the U.S. House of Representatives in a 1972 Democratic primary in New York.
These historic figures are only a few of the Democrats who came to Congress not as the choices of party bosses but as champions of the grass-roots activists who opposed entrenched Democrats. Many of the most dynamic figures in the Democratic Party got their start by taking on incumbents in primaries. Even some of those who do not succeed in their primary challenges go on to big things — Barack Obama’s first bid for federal office was a 2000 primary race against Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush.
Primary challenges to incumbents have historically been the avenue by which bold young Democrats get a chance to reform not just their party but the political process. Unfortunately, change scares party bureaucrats who seek to maintain their own grip on power and the status-quo strategies that benefit them and their cronies.
So it is not all that surprising that, as a new generation of insurgent reformers steps up in the Democratic Party, the defenders of politics as usual are worried. Leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are apparently uncomfortable with the fact that many of the most dynamic new members of the House — including California Congressman Ro Khanna, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — beat Democratic incumbents in primaries. And they worry that more incumbents will be challenged in 2020.
No matter what the self-serving spin that may be attempted by the insiders and their amen corner in the media, this is the explanation for why the DCCC said it will not grant contracts to pollsters, strategists and communications specialists working with Democrats who mount primary challenges to incumbents in 2020. And this is why responsible Democrats are objecting to the DCCC’s move.
"This runs counter to anything that would be considered democratic in a small 'd' sense," says Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chair Mark Pocan, D-town of Vermont. "It sends the wrong signal to all the young people, all the people who are getting involved in politics, that the Democratic Party should be trying to attract."
Pocan, who is widely recognized as one of the most politically savvy Democrats in Washington, has worked closely with the DCCC over the years. But he said the latest move by the campaign committee "does nothing positive toward advancing the goal that the DCCC says that it seeks to achieve, which is electing more Democrats to the House."
Pocan and CPC Co-chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., want the DCCC to reverse course. But, so far, DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., is giving no ground. "We've got a policy that the caucus supports, the leadership supports, and it plays the long game," said Bustos. Jayapal countered, "It is not playing games for the Democratic Party to be inclusive of all its members' perspectives."
Ocasio-Cortez, who decried the DCCC rule as a “blacklist+boycott” policy, warned that it is “extremely divisive (and) harmful to the party.”
Activists for economic and social and racial justice are aghast at the new rule. “Competitive primary challenges are a way to give black voters the power to hold incumbents accountable in their communities. And primary challenges are how black people have been able to lift up issues like police misconduct, voting rights and access to education in recent elections,” said Rashad Robinson of the group Color of Change. “We reject the DCCC's new divisive policy, and will challenge any elected official ... who doesn’t stand up for black people.”
The critics of the blacklist are right. The Democratic Party cannot afford to narrow its options at this point. In order to define itself as more than just “not the GOP,” the party has to become more boldly progressive, more ideologically energetic and more diverse. The smart strategists know this. That’s why a number of them have joined Rebecca Katz, the founder of New Deal Strategies, in announcing that they will not let the DCCC intimidate them. "As a loyal Democrat and proud progressive, I believe that we don’t just need more Democrats in Congress — we also need better Democrats in Congress,” said Katz. “I won't hesitate to work with progressive candidates challenging incumbent Democrats who are out of touch with their constituents. If that means getting blacklisted by the DCCC, then so be it.”
This willingness on the part of activist groups and strategists “to work on progressive primary challengers to incumbent, out-of-touch Democrats this cycle” represents an “unprecedented” rejection of the DCCC’s heavy-handed approach, argued Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas.
Pocan hopes that leaders of the campaign committee will take notice. "There are many things the DCCC does to help Democrats get elected," he said. "This is not one of those things."
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.