A message from Editor-in-Chief Sean McElwee:
“If you're a Democrat in a district Clinton won, your chance of losing a general election, barring a scandal, was close to zero. The same will be true in 2020. And yet, there is an incredible amount of ideological variation among Democrats in these seats, ranging from Henry Cuellar (Clinton+20) who votes with Trump 69 percent of the time and opposes abortion rights, to Peter DeFazio (Clinton+0) who votes with Trump a fifth of the time and supports Medicare for All.
That means that there are enormous possibilities to move the party left, with very little possibility of a partisan backlash or costing Democrats a seat.
Primaries for Progress doesn't criticize Democrats from a place of malice - we want the party to be stronger. We reject the idea of building a third party and we also believe that the progressive left should be committed to fighting for ideological and descriptive representation in the Democratic Party. As AOC and Ayanna Pressley showed, these values are not at odds.
It also means that we do not support primaries that risk costing the party a seat. We are not fans of Collin Peterson, but we see little to be gained from primarying him. To be clear, primaries are not the only tool of persuasion progressives can use, and swing seat Democrats should not be immune from criticism (David Nir has a good thread on why swing seat Democrats deserve criticism for backing right wing motions to recommit). We should persuade aggressively these Democrats that bowing to conservatives will not lead to electoral strength.
Lastly, though this newsletter is primarily concerned with primaries, we will continue to encourage readers and friends to contribute to down-ballot red to blue races (as we did last cycle with Give Smart).
We look forward to building a strong, progressive Democratic Party.”
Introducing The Progressive Virginia Project
This year, the entire Virginia state legislature is up for election, along with a handful of quiet but impactful local offices. Democrats are currently favored to take the House of Delegates and State Senate, which means the next session has enormous potential for ambitious progressive policies like a state-level Green New Deal.
But that won’t happen if Dominion Energy continues to run the state. We need progressives to replace corporate Dominion Energy allies in the House of Delegates and State Senate.
That’s why we’re launching the Progressive Virginia Project, to support four progressives in Virginia’s upcoming primaries.
Click here to donate to four progressives fighting for a Green New Deal in Virginia. (No money will go to Data for Progress or Primaries for Progress).
Read about the full slate at Data for Progress. We’ve extensively vetted all of the candidates to ensure you’re only contributing to viable candidates who will move Virginia towards a progressive future.
Tulsi Gabbard officially launched her presidential campaign a few weeks ago. If you didn’t hear about it, you must feel silly—after all, it was so well promoted that literally hundreds of people watched. This, of course, followed her putting off her launch haphazardly for months, and then just sort of mentioning it in an interview. This unplanned campaign announcement caused some of her staff to quit the campaign, pushing her back into the familiar sphere of the various members of the Gabbard family political/religious network, about which there are still a myriad of unanswered questions. Other questions about this campaign include whether she’s still running for Congress.
It’s deceptively easy to think she’s retiring. After all, she’s running for president, and in terms of local politics she’s begun by doing her best to piss off the most well-liked and powerful woman in Hawaiʻi politics, Mazie Hirono. So it’s tempting to say she’s done with Congress.
But then again, there’s precedent for an intense, politically heterodox House member pissing off leadership by running a weird, shambolic presidential campaign that attracts a devoted fanbase (including a not-insignificant contingent of white nationalists) and yet still easily beating back a primary challenger to get reelected. So unfortunately it looks like we can’t sleep on this one.
State Senator Kai Kahele announced his campaign for the seat only ten days after Tulsi went national, and this week his campaign got a huge boost in the form of two big endorsements. The first is Neil Abercrombie, Governor from 2010-2014 and HI-01 congressman, 1986-1987 and 1991-2010. Abercrombie lost the primary during his reelection campaign to current Governor Ige, but isn’t without supporters. The second is John Waiheʻe III, governor from 1986-1994, who oversaw a boom in the tourism industry and foreign relations overall. These men come from different parts of Hawaiʻi politics, and their co-endorsement is a sign that people within the party are finally getting serious about getting rid of Gabbard. Unions were right about Gabbard early on (as they often are), with the Hawaiʻi State Teachers’ Association endorsing a progressive primary challenger to her in 2018.
Dick Saslaw just won’t quit being awful, now will he? If you read the The Case Against Henry Cuellar that we sent out on Friday, you’ve already seen this (and if you haven’t, I’d recommend you do-it dredges up Henry Cuellar’s history in a way that we certainly hadn’t seen done when it was being researched). Normally we’ll put all the news in the newsletters, and let The Case Against stand on its own, but we got tipped off to something on Thursday and it couldn’t wait.
In a truly bizarre speech on Sunday, alleged rapist Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax compared himself to lynching victims, a shameless move most famously taken by Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, and R. Kelly. Why is that such a disgusting comparison to make? Here’s Vox’s P.R. Lockhart:
“…both of the accusations against [Fairfax came] from black women, a group whose claims had no bearing on lynchings, which were spurred by accusations made by white men and women.”
Primaries for Progress has recently obtained a video taken from the floor of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday, including Fairfax’s entire speech. Immediately after Fairfax completes his speech, Saslaw can be seen giving the Lieutenant Governor a vigorous thumbs-up. (The quality of the video isn’t the greatest, but we’ve confirmed from the Virginia Senate’ seating chart that Saslaw, who sits in the center of the first row, is the one giving the very animated thumbs-up. He has white hair, if you’re having trouble picking him out of the crowd.) Skip to about 7:30 if you don’t want to listen to the offensive rantings of an accused rapist. (Or, if you want to watch the entire 49-minute state senate session, watch the video from February 24, 2019 on the Virginia General Assembly’s website; if you prefer to watch the video there, you can skip to 38:00 and watch for 30 seconds to see the thumbs-up.)
Saslaw has a progressive opponent, human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb, in the Democratic primary on June 11. Donate to her here.
Following the lead of several major cities and the state of Maine, the Hawaiʻi State House has voted to institute ranked choice voting. If you’re unfamiliar, ranked choice voting has voters list the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and in the event no candidate has a majority, reassigns votes from the lower scoring candidates until someone does have a majority. (This 70-second video does a great job demonstrating it intuitively). This means that a candidate needs a majority to win and can’t rely on factionalism in a divided field.
Just on simple policy grounds, this would be good news for Hawaiʻi, considering the state is all about factional politics. But it’s good news in particular for anyone who’s dissatisfied with the current representative of HI-01, Ed Case. Case is a Blue Dog in a deep blue district, and a white guy representing one of the few Asian-majority districts in the country (51 percent Asian and 19 percent white). Case’s dealing with that reality has been, uh, awkward.
Case has run for HI-01 twice, in 2010 and 2018, and failed to secure a majority of the vote both times, but in 2018 this was good enough to get him to Congress.
Case doesn’t have a challenger as of now, but in the primary-friendly environment of Hawaiʻi, this could seriously alter the dynamics at play.
When Einstein theorized about time dilation, he could not possibly have foreseen the way the Trump era makes even recent news cycles seem like they should be in history books by now. So when you hear the sentence “Barbara L’Italien considers challenging Seth Moulton over his attempted overthrow of Pelosi”, it may seem like I’m dredging up ancient historical documents, but our research team checked the calendar: the initial speaker fight, and L’Italien’s subsequent interest in a primary challenge, is from only a bit more than two months ago.
If you need a refresher, because every news cycle is now an eon unto itself, in late 2017, MA-03 representative Niki Tsongas announced her retirement. The field soon developed and splintered into a million pieces, with multiple great progressives running, the most progressive probably being Barbara L’Italien, a state senator from a swingy district. Unfortunately, because only two moderates ran, one of them (now-Rep. Lori Trahan) won, with 21.7 percent of the vote. L’Italien came in a respectable 3rd, and earned a lot of union endorsements along the way. She had some of the most geographically balanced support among the candidates, suggesting an appeal beyond hometown advantage.
Fast-forward to December 2018, when Seth Moulton is trying to convince a small army of awful conservatives (like Dan Lipinski) and, uh, “idiosyncratic personal brands” (like Marcia Fudge) to replace Nancy Pelosi with nobody, and then replace nobody with somebody who Seth Moulton wouldn’t name but might be Seth Moulton. This plan sounded a lot better in his head, I’m sure. L’Italien gets tired of this and says she’s considering challenging him. That’s not totally crazy, considering her state senate district is split between MA-03 and MA-06. The news goes quiet after that.
Then on Thursday, L’Italien confirms that she’s still looking at the challenge, and she adds a dead-accurate line about Moulton to boot:
“From the moment he became congressman he’s been looking elsewhere and
clearly has set his sights on the presidency.”
Which, considering Moulton is spending his time doing events in other states that presidential contenders are also doing...spot on diagnosis. Seriously, is there a mediocre white guy who’s not running for president?
Speaking of MA-03, Lori Trahan won with 21.7 percent of the vote, by just 122 votes, and is still getting settled in, so she probably doesn’t want the headlines she’s getting about how she funded her 2018 bid. The CliffsNotes version of the complicated scandal is that in her 2018 primary, Trahan dramatically outspent her rivals in the final days of the campaign before winning by 145 votes, and it seems like her late surge was powered by a $371,000 loan that still doesn’t make sense. She’s amended her campaign finance filings four times and offered explanations about the multiple sources of that loan, but there’s still about $300,000 unaccounted for, and experts are not convinced. Usually this isn’t the kind of thing that becomes criminal, but if this kind of scandal could be a big boost to a potential primary challenger to a candidate who won a quarter of the vote to barely win a fractured primary.
New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell probably wasn’t expecting a real primary. Sure, he took down a more progressive Democrat in 2012 when he emerged victorious over Steve Rothman in the incumbent-on-incumbent primary; sure, the local machine is in flux, with the state party chair battling to keep his seat and with key Pascrell allies losing patronage jobs. He’s made his share of enemies. But incumbent challenges in New Jersey just don’t happen.
Why? New Jersey has a weird system, colloquially referred to as “the county line” or “the party line.” In almost all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, the local Democratic and Republican party committees have the power to award a special designation on the primary ballot to their preferred candidates. The county line is quite powerful, because it’s often the only ballot line with a full slate of candidates, and it’s generally where incumbents end up. Additionally, the local party machines are very, very good at getting people to vote a straight ticket in the primary, especially so in urban counties like Pascrell’s native Passaic. The fact that Bob Menendez barely cleared 60 percent and even lost some counties in his 2018 primary despite having every single line (and a very weak opponent) showed his incredible unpopularity. Politicians with the county line just don’t lose, without being Bob Menendez.
Take the 2018 nomination for NJ-07. Banker Linda Weber, who once seemed like a clear favorite, dropped out months before any votes were cast. A series of surprising losses at county conventions gave the lines to Obama State Department alum and human rights activist Tom Malinowski, and thus made it clear who was going to win the primary, prompting Weber to realize she had no path forward. Two seemingly-serious candidates stuck around for the primary, and they *combined* for less than half of Malinowski’s vote share. (Malinowski went on to beat Rep. Leonard Lance.)
For an incumbent to lose the county line, an opponent usually has to win over a wide range of party insiders and local elected officials, not just by peeling away some key allies, but convincing the entire machine to jump ship. And in famously parochial New Jersey, that’s an even tougher task than it sounds like.
So why might Pascrell be in danger, then? There are signs that he’s on thin ice with key party players. The biggest and most concrete sign came last week. In New Jersey, county freeholders (the state’s version of county councilors) are generally very powerful within the county party, and if they aren’t, they won’t be making big decisions that go against the party’s wishes. Last week, Passaic County Freeholders voted 5-2 to change their County Counsel (it means county attorney-New Jersey doesn’t abide by your conception of “sensible naming conventions”). This is a big deal because the current counsel, who very much wanted to stay on, was William Pascrell III, son and potential political heir of Bill Pascrell.
Pascrell also actually has a challenger, and not some obscure “activist”. It goes without saying that challenging a congressional incumbent is generally something anyone with a potential career ahead of them is talked out of (unless the machine has a score to settle with the incumbent; the more cutthroat machines will happily knife incumbents over a $5,000 economic development grant or whatever). Meet Zinovia Spezakis, Director of Ecoletro, Inc, a green-friendly chemical company headquartered in the district. She’s been active in the business and environmental scene, and, most importantly, has filed for NJ-09. Spezakis tells the newsletter she plans to run a progressive race and center the Green New Deal.
“I’m running because our current leadership, despite acknowledging that climate change is real, lacks the urgency to address it. They will be long out of office by the time my children, and their children, have to face the most devastating effects of a warming world. I am in full support of the Green New Deal,” she tells the newsletter. “The Green New Deal is bold and ambitious and exactly what we need at this moment. By addressing climate change with thoughtful policy, we can address issues around infrastructure, the economy, social justice, income inequality and healthcare.”
The pressure may be getting to Pascrell, who just signaled his support of the Green New Deal this morning.
At this point it’s unclear what’s going to happen next, and indeed the power players involved may still have yet to hash out some key decisions behind closed doors. So definitely keep an eye on this one. We’d also like to note that Pascrell, like Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano, is an old white guy representing an immigrant-heavy, majority-minority district. New Jersey’s 9th includes Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Secaucus, and Fort Lee. Yes, the Bridgegate place. (Although, and this is Nick here: speaking as a New Jersey dirtbag who’s driven through Fort Lee, I’m genuinely impressed that Chris Christie found a way to make Fort Lee traffic worse.)
It feels like we just wrote about irritating conservative Kathleen Rice...because we did, last week. (If for some reason you didn’t read our last newsletter, you might have heard of Rice from her role in the failed attempt to replace Nancy Pelosi with a conservative Democrat). With polling indicating Rice might be in trouble, and with Nassau County Legislator Kevan Abrahams considering a primary challenge, you’d think Kathleen Rice would maybe be more careful from this point forward...of course I’m kidding, she’s absolutely not gonna change.
She held a town hall in her district last week, and we found some nice footage. In two memorable moments, she:
-trashed the Green New Deal because “how are you gonna pay for it?” when asked about it by a mother concerned about her daughter’s future and begging Rice to take action on climate change (start at 12:30)
-defended her vote to gut Dodd-Frank, making us more vulnerable to another 2008-style crash (start at 29:00).
In another bit of footage from the same event, she said Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sound the same. Yeah, really, she said that, and she didn’t seem to be joking. This video’s shorter, so you’ll wanna watch the whole thing.
Yup, a sitting Democratic member of Congress from a blue district compared a Latina leftist who campaigned on healthcare for everyone and taxing the rich to a racist white man whose two significant legislative pushes were taking away people’s healthcare and securing a tax handout for the rich. And this is somehow in character for her.
There’s only one question we have after all this: can’t we do better?
The Case Against Dick Saslaw
The Case Against 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 this issue we’ve got Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw.
Dick Saslaw, the minority leader in Virginia’s state senate, was the lone Democrat to defend Ralph Northam during the governor’s blackface scandal, has a long history of thinly-veiled Islamophobia, and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Energy, the state’s price-gouging, monopolistic utility. But just saying “Dick Saslaw is a blackface-enabling Islamophobe bought and paid for by Dominion” doesn’t do it justice.
As the news of Ralph Northam’s blackface picture and the ensuing scandal spread, basically every Democrat in the country called for his resignation...except for Saslaw. No, 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.
Dick Saslaw’s Islamophobia goes back years. 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. (By the way, his district isn’t even majority-white, and it hasn’t been for years.)
When the Virginia Democratic Party criticized a Republican state senator for being friendly with Dominion, the mega-utility immediately dispatched an executive to send Saslaw an indignant email. Saslaw apologized—and said the state party should have been more appreciative of Dominion’s generous financial support of him.
If you’re a subscriber, you’ll be seeing the rest of this on Friday. Meanwhile, if you’d like to donate to Yasmine Taeb, his primary opponent, just read on.
Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom of the newsletter. We get it - we’re engrossing writers. But up top? When we included that bit about the Progressive Virginia Project? That’s something we really hope you check out. Right now, and for a while in the future, Virginia is your biggest opportunity to change the ideological landscape of the Democratic Party, and we hope you’ll take the chance.