Democrats in Washington have sought to prevent a progressive insurgency and cluttered California primaries from imperiling their chances of retaking the U.S. House.
The effort will be tested over the next two weeks, including during a runoff election in Texas on Tuesday, a content that has exposed tensions between the party’s establishment and its emboldened left wing. Next follows primaries in California on June 5 where the crowd of Democratic candidates in some districts risks splintering votes and handing victory to Republicans in November.
The Democratic establishment faced a rare defeat last week at the hands of a progressive upstart, when political newcomer Kara Eastman bested a party favorite in a primary race for a swing district in Nebraska.
“We see Kara’s victory as the tip of the iceberg, with more primary and general election victories to come,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Eastman in the race to represent much of the Omaha metropolitan area.
“The Democratic establishment sometimes seems to have a warped view of what makes a candidate viable,” Green said. “Voters want to be inspired.”
Eastman’s win alarmed some Democrats. Although Green’s group and Our Revolution, a spin-off of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, are backing just a fraction of the hundreds of Democratic candidates running this year, some, like Eastman, are in districts that are prime targets for the party to flip from Republican control.
Given the narrow margin Democrats have to get a House majority — a net gain of 23 seats among the 435 in the chamber — every opportunity counts. After Eastman won the Democratic primary, the House campaign analyst at the nonpartisan Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed the race rating for the Omaha-based district to “lean Republican” from “toss-up.”
A similar struggle looms in Texas. The battle there is over an affluent Houston-area district represented by Republican John Culberson. Democrats targeted the seat after Hillary Clinton won it narrowly in 2016.
Progressive activist Laura Moser is battling lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. The contest grew bitter after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee intervened by shopping opposition research against Moser, apparently out of concern she can’t win the general election. The move backfired. Moser, who’s endorsed by Our Revolution, rallied support from liberal groups and forced Fletcher into a runoff as the other five candidates split the Democratic vote.
“As we saw in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, Democrats who fit their districts and have deep records of service win tough races,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said, referring to moderate Democrat Conor Lamb’s recent victory in what had been a GOP district. “The primaries have thus far yielded uniquely strong nominees who are taking the fight to Republicans.”
Another Our Revolution candidate, Rick Trevino, narrowly forced a runoff Tuesday against Gina Ortiz Jones in a Republican-leaning Texas district now represented by Republican Will Hurd.
Other Democratic primaries similarly pit establishment favorites running on safe, poll-tested issues like rising health care costs and opposition to the Republican tax cut against fresh faces with more progressive ideas.
California’s Dianne Feinstein, 84, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, faces a challenge a week from now from Kevin de Leon, the president pro tempore of the State Senate, who’s running on single-payer health insurance.
Another veteran lawmaker, Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney, 72, faces a challenge in New York’s June 6 primary from 34-year-old lawyer Suraj Patel, who’s running on legalizing marijuana, Medicare-for-all, and tuition-free college. And Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, is challenging Massachusetts Rep. Michael Capuano from the left in a heavily Democratic district in September.
“It’s a vast change from a world where Democrats either ran on nothing or ran on the same stale ideas of the last 20 years, to see current candidates running on big ideas like Medicare-for-all, a jobs guarantee, and other very pro-worker policies,” Green said. “The center of gravity is definitely moving in the Democratic Party.”