Welcome to the first issue of Primaries for Progress. Let’s start by telling you about what we’re doing here. Primaries for Progress is a project of Data for Progress with the goal of shining a much-needed spotlight on, you guessed it, primaries. A quick word from Sean McElwee, editor-in-chief of Primaries For Progress:
“This election cycle will feature an unprecedented number of primary challenges, at all levels of government. It will be easy for the casual observer to become overwhelmed and will be difficult to suss out which challenges are viable and which aren’t making traction, which are true progressives and which are grifters. That’s why I’m proud to announce Primaries for Progress, a newsletter that will provide on-the-ground intel on primaries across the country. Here you’ll have access to the insights of Data for Progress and a stellar team of election watchers. As always, the goal is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it, so we’ll also provide strategic advice to donors looking to make the biggest difference in Red to Blue and Blue to Blue races.”
And that’s about as good a description as I could write. Hi, I’m one of the two regular authors of this newsletter, Opinion Haver. That’s, well, a name I picked on a whim a while back on Twitter, and it’s stuck (you can follow me @AsInMarx, but be warned that I have a lot of bad tweets). Nick Tagliaferro is the other author. He’s the one who stuck me with writing the intro post, so I’m not linking his Twitter. Also, who uses their name as their handle? Bor-ing.
(Nick here. My tweets are even worse than his, but I crave validation. Please follow me @NickTagliaferro and I guarantee you will hate my tweets.)
Anyway I’m a physics major and data guy who found his way to politics from that side of it, while Nick comes from the campaign work aspect of things. We’re both lefties who, see, uh, room for improvement in some of the elected officials the bluer districts have, and so we’re going to be covering that here. The Senate and the House are obviously the big ticket items, but we’re not going to ignore state legislatures or county and municipal offices. In fact, this issue touches on a couple state senate races in Virginia, and I may or may not be authorized to tell you that we have a big Virginia project coming up soon.
We’ll publish a free newsletter every week as well as a deeper dive for paid subscribers.
At any rate, I hope you’ll join us. I’m certainly excited for it.
As the news of Ralph Northam’s blackface picture and the ensuing scandal spread, basically every Democrat in the country (even Strom Thurmond/Jesse Helms apologist and literal school segregationist Joe Biden) called for his resignation. Every Democrat, that is, except for one: Dick Saslaw, the state senate minority leader. Instead, Saslaw...waxed nostalgic about his Army days?
“While it’s in very poor taste, I would think no one in the General Assembly would like their college conduct examined. I would hate to have to go back and examine my two years in the army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and was a handful, okay? His life since then has been anything but. It’s been a life of helping people, and many times for free.”
(Uh...Dick, my dude, what were you doing in the Army?)
Saslaw’s boys-will-be-boys defense of bigotry would be bad enough if it were sincerely about forgiving the past, but it’s not: Saslaw has no problem with bigotry today, and he practices it himself. He has a well-documented aversion to Muslims serving in public office.
When Atif Qarni, a Muslim, ran for a blue state senate seat in 2015, Qarni claimed local party leaders had told him a Muslim could not win; when pressed, he named Saslaw as one of those party leaders. Saslaw’s 2019 primary opponent is human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb, the first Muslim woman elected to the Democratic National Committee. Saslaw claimed that Taeb could not win in a majority-white, majority-Christian district because of her faith and ethnicity. (Taeb is an Iranian immigrant who fled the Iran-Iraq war as a young girl in the 1980s.) Not only is that assertion built on racist, incorrect assumptions (Reps. Ilhan Omar and André Carson, both Muslim, would be quite surprised to learn that they can’t win majority-white districts like their own), it shows how out-of-touch Saslaw is with his district—it’s not even 40 percent non-Hispanic white.
As if Islamophobia wasn’t bad enough, Saslaw also opposes the impeachment of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a man accused of rape by two different women. His justification? Impeachment is only for crimes that occur while an elected official is in office—even if a past offense as grave as rape is only discovered during the elected official’s tenure. Under Saslaw’s rule, all you have to do to avoid consequences for your past actions is to avoid getting caught until after you’ve taken the oath of office.
Yasmine Taeb is running a vigorous campaign, with the support of numerous local and national progressive activists and groups, because she opposes all of the horrible things Saslaw supports or excuses. Taeb offers a sharp contrast to Dick Saslaw’s dated worldview and corporate-flavored politics, and the voters of Virginia’s 35th State Senate district have a clear choice in June’s Democratic primary.
South of San Francisco lies California’s 18th congressional district, held by the low-profile Anna Eshoo, in office since 1992. It came as a surprise to many, then, that Rishi Kumar, a Saratoga (pop 31,000) city councilman, filed to run for Eshoo’s seat. Kumar is an immigrant from India who made his career in Silicon Valley and has served on the Saratoga City Council since his first election in 2014. Eshoo isn’t the type to make too many waves, and there’s no obvious angle from which she’d be facing a primary. She also hasn’t announced her retirement (and the chatter is that she’s very much running again, something Kumar knew going in). Eshoo, at 76, isn’t particularly old for Congress, nor is she in bad health. Kumar is younger, but not young enough for youth to be a selling point.
One thing Kumar does have going for him is money. He’s a Silicon Valley executive who has political connections in his high-income city. That should be good enough for some seed money. It’s also been said that he’s going to be tapping into the same Silicon Valley Indian-American donor community that helped Ro Khanna out during his expensive battles with Mike Honda. Kumar seems poised to run as a movement progressive type, contrasting himself with the more establishment Eshoo.
Because it’s California, we have to consider the “top two” system, where all candidates run on one ballot in the June primary, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to November. In a typical election, we can expect the partisanship of CA-18 to be about 3:1 Dem:Rep. For us, the good news is that we don’t have to worry about a top two lockout. For Kumar, the good news is that he doesn’t have to do particularly well on the primary to advance, probably getting ⅓ of the Dem vote at most. But the good news for Eshoo is that the conventional wisdom says it’s harder for primary challenges to succeed the larger the electorate. CA-18 was also particularly Feinstein-friendly, though some of that may have been due to Feinstein’s San Francisco roots.
2014 was a bad year for Colorado. Minority turnout hit rock bottom and the suburbs had yet to make their post-Trump left turn. Cory Gardner’s inability to get more than a narrow win that year is very much bad news for him in 2020. Even if it’s merely an okay year for Democrats, he’s likely a dead man walking, something he’s tacitly acknowledged by forgoing even perfunctory passes at moderation à la Mark Kirk. Any Democrat who makes it through the primary should be able to win this race, which is an opening for Crisanta Duran. Duran is a young, progressive Latina who was nevertheless friendly enough with the establishment to become speaker of the Colorado state house in the 2017-2018 sessions. With centrist former Gov. John Hickenlooper out of the race (and in Iowa, gross), and Duran out of the legislature due to term limits, she’s a natural candidate for Senate.
This week she announced she’s running...for CO-01. Yeah, that’s a puzzler for us too—but regardless of Duran’s motivations, it immediately makes it one of the most interesting primaries for the House.
The 1st is more or less conterminous with Denver and is represented by Diana DeGette, who’s held the seat since 1996. During that time Denver has become younger, more diverse and far more progressive. She’s not bad ideologically but she’s not a progressive leader. We’ve barely heard of her, and we’re terminally online political junkies. By 2018, activists felt she was disconnected enough from her district for one of their own to challenge her in a primary. Saira Rao clocked a respectable 32 percent as a political no-name, making it clear that someone like Duran certainly has an opening. A possible analogue to Duran might be Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley circa 2017; she ran to the left of an already-liberal Democratic incumbent, infused her message with calls for generational change and minority representation, and ended up flattening a venerated local institution—except DeGette may have even less local support.
On Valentine’s Day, a New York Times article sent ripples through the New York congressional delegation. The bombshell article indicated that at least seven New York Democrats are in danger of serious primary challenges in 2020.
Normally, swing seats should be left alone, but New York’s 3rd district, which includes parts of Queens and Long Island’s affluent, diverse North Shore, has a clear Democratic lean, voting for Obama twice, giving Clinton a clear 52-45 majority, and easily reelecting solid liberal Steve Israel even in the doldrums of 2014. Incumbent representative Tom Suozzi’s various centrist antics have pissed off local activists enough that one is mulling a challenge at the urging of progressive groups.
Rob Zimmerman, a fundraiser and DNC member, isn’t exactly an anti-establishment left-winger, but like many local Democrats, he’s fed up with Suozzi’s conservatism on immigration—the congressman went on Fox and Friends to praise ICE and express openness to “some sort of physical structure” (unless we’re talking a picket fence, that means a wall) at the border. Zimmerman also takes issue with Suozzi’s vice chairmanship of the incredibly shitty “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a useless Joe Lieberman/No Labels group that briefly tried to install a conservative alternative to Nancy Pelosi, and whose philosophy is best summed up by that one dril tweet. Zimmerman supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
New York’s 4th district covers the western South Shore of Long Island, and it leans Democratic, voting for Hillary Clinton and twice for Barack Obama. Kathleen Rice, the current incumbent, seems to be unaware of this; she wrote an op-ed slamming the Iran Deal, refuses to take a stance on marijuana legalization, and was a key figure in the failed push to install a conservative speaker in place of Nancy Pelosi. Polling indicates the Pelosi stunt and her opposition to the Green New Deal may be weakening her position, and you know polling doesn’t happen without somebody planning something. Progressive Nassau County legislator Kevan Abrahams, an ally of organized labor who lost the 2014 open-seat primary to then-Nassau County DA Rice, is considering another run.
New York’s 9th district covers parts of Brooklyn, including Park Slope, Crown Heights, and Flatbush. As a whole, the district is predominantly black, but rich white transplants are gentrifying it quickly. In 2018, it came close to throwing out longtime congresswoman Yvette Clarke in the Democratic primary in favor of Adem Bunkeddeko, an organizer and the son of Ugandan refugees who challenged her from the left. Clarke’s service in Congress has been so lethargic and low-profile that it won Bunkeddeko the Times’s endorsement in the primary. Bunkeddeko is now considering a rematch.
New York’s 10th district stretches from Manhattan to Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler represents it, and he could face a challenge from Lindsey Boylan, an adviser to Andrew Cuomo. For what it’s worth, #Resistance billionaire Tom Steyer has made the very good point that Nadler could have initiated impeachment proceedings already, and he’s running ads against Nadler for that reason.
New York’s 12th district stretches from Manhattan’s moneyed East Side to Queens. Entrenched incumbent Carolyn Maloney once questioned the CDC about a supposed link between vaccines and autism; she also introduced an anti-vaxxer bill back in 2006. More recently, her hawkishness showed in her opposition to the Iran deal. She faced a well-funded challenge in 2018, but fended it off easily, winning by nearly 20 points. Her victory is less impressive in light of the media scrutiny faced by her challenger: Suraj Patel, who faced accusations of being too new to the district after it emerged that he voted in Indiana in 2016 and was criticized for using Tinder to canvass voters. He’s considering running again, but this time may face a competitive field, with local rumors that Dawn Smalls (a recent public advocate candidate) also looking at the district.
New York’s 15th district is located in the Bronx; it’s heavily Latinx and most of the remaining population is black. Rep. José Serrano hasn’t done anything wrong, per se; he just hasn’t done anything, period. That may earn him a challenge from 30-year-old New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, an openly gay Afro-Latinx progressive first elected at the age of 25 who is publicly considering the possibility. There have also been rumors that Michael Blake, who performed well in the Bronx during the recent public advocate race, is looking at the district, as well as several others.
A majority-minority district including a substantial portion of the Bronx, represented by an entrenched old white guy in House Democratic leadership: am I talking about NY-14 back when Joe Crowley had it? Nope. It’s New York’s 16th, a Bronx-and-Westchester-County district represented by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel. Engel is another hawk who voted to invade Iraq and opposed the Iran deal; he also applauded the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You may remember that move because of the embassy-opening ceremony, at which the Trump administration had a bunch of virulently anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and, uh, apparently anti-Mormon bigots offer prayers. (They all happened to be crazy-ass evangelical megachurch TV pastors, so presumably Mike Pence brought them). Local progressives are understandably displeased with Engel, and a primary may be in the works.
Virginia state Sen. Monty Mason is a boring, standard Democrat on most issues. He takes money from Dominion Energy, the state’s monopolistic, price-gouging utility company ($3,000 over the course of his career, $1,500 of it this election cycle); he also voted against a ban on Dominion double-charging the Virginians trapped in their monopoly. Aside from his fealty to a predatory utility giant, he hasn’t done much of note, good or bad...or so we thought. The Flat Hat, the College of William & Mary’s student paper, dug through old yearbooks in the wake of Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal. What they found about Mason, a William & Mary alumnus, year was damning:
“When Virginia Senator Monty Mason ’89 (D-Williamsburg) was an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, his fraternity — Pi Lambda Phi — organized annual mock “slave auctions” to raise money, as the 1989 edition of the College’s yearbook, the Colonial Echo, reveals. Mason is pictured and named in the yearbook on the Pi Lambda Phi page as part of a group fraternity photo, alongside descriptions of these auctions.”
Mason, who was president of the fraternity in 1989, claimed the fraternity described the fundraiser as a “pledge auction” rather than a “slave auction,” which was a flat-out lie: the Flat Hat reporters found instances of Pi Lambda Phi and other fraternities describing the fundraiser as a “slave auction” from other yearbooks published during Mason’s time at the college. While the scandal hasn’t gotten the same national attention as Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal, Atty. Gen. Mark Herring’s separate blackface scandal, State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment’s racist yearbook scandal, or the multiple allegations of rape against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the condemnation from local Democrats and student leaders was swift. The leadership of William & Mary’s Young Democrats chapter called on Mason to resign, and further said that he would not be invited back to any William & Mary Young Democrats events. (Mason lives in town and is active in the college’s administration.) Student government leaders also condemned Mason’s racist actions.
Mason represents a safely Democratic seat covering parts of Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, York County, and James City County, as well as all of Williamsburg. The filing deadline is March 28.
Shitty Dem of the Week
Shitty Dem of the week is a special feature where we single out one particular Democrat who needs to go, regardless of whether they have a challenger. The write-ups get long (trust us, we have a few in the wings), and we’ve decided to make them paid subscriber content. For our inaugural issue, we’ve got a doozy: Henry Cuellar
Let’s begin our look at Cuellar with two percentages: twenty percent and sixty-nine percent. The first is how much Hillary Clinton won the district by against Donald Trump, about the same as the state of New York. That 20 percent means that only a Democrat could win this district, and all that follows should be viewed through that lens. 69 percent is for how often he voted with Donald Trump in the last Congress. Even the most reelection-minded squishes in red districts voted against Trump a majority of the time, and Cuellar is in a safe seat.
What does that 69 percent look like in practice? I It looks like a deep refusal to align with Democratic values on issues big and small, from the surveillance state in the Bush era, to healthcare in the Obama era, to immigration in the Trump era. Advocacy group after advocacy group, on issue after issue, puts him at or near the bottom on the Democratic Caucus. But it also looks like more than issues. He’s spent his entire career supporting Republicans, from George W. Bush in 2000 to John Carter, a Tea Party congressman, in 2018.
Oh, and he might have fired an aide for being pregnant. He’s just terrible, in every way you could imagine a Democrat being, and some ways you wouldn’t. We’ve detailed those ways in our full write-up for subscribers.
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