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The next Joe Crowley? Not us, these high-profile Democrats say

List of progressive primary challengers keeps growing

Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal is the latest longtime Democratic incumbent to get a progressive primary challenger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal is the latest longtime Democratic incumbent to get a progressive primary challenger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats in Congress who have been living for months with the threat of primary challenges are getting their first sense of actual danger, with a string of progressive candidates announcing campaigns in recent weeks against some of the most entrenched and high-profile members.

Targets include House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, who has represented Western Massachusetts since 1989. His challenger, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, launched a much-anticipated campaign Monday.

Neal is just the latest big-name incumbent from a deep-blue district to be targeted by progressive groups this cycle, as Democrats grapple with the twin tasks of opposing President Donald Trump and quelling internal calls for the party’s establishment to cede power to a younger, more diverse generation of leaders.

Those tensions erupted during the 2018 midterms, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts toppled longtime incumbents Joseph Crowley and Michael E. Capuano, respectively. Progressive groups and party leaders agree that the coming election will show whether those victories represented an anomaly or a trend.

Party insiders say incumbents, put on notice by last year’s upsets, have prepared with steady fundraising and frequent appearances in their districts.

“The Democratic incumbents who lost primaries in 2018 were canaries in the coal mine, and now every Democrat in the House who even hears a whisper of a primary challenge buckles down,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2012 and 2014 cycles. 

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‘More authenticity’

Progressive groups say strategies that have worked in past elections won’t be enough this time around.

“Voters have gotten to a place where they want more authenticity,” said Wilnelia Rivera, a Democratic consultant from Massachusetts who worked on the Pressley campaign and the Morse exploratory committee. “They don’t want more of the same.”

Progressive leaders who spoke to CQ Roll Call said they are particularly interested in taking down committee chairs and party insiders who they say have not been aggressive enough in their opposition to Trump or their support for such progressive policies as the Green New Deal or “Medicare for All.” 

That list includes House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, whose challenger Lindsey Boylan has hammered him for his  reluctance to launch impeachment proceedings, and 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri, a longtime member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Clay faces a rematch with Cori Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist who’s one of five candidates for the House or Senate endorsed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped Ocasio-Cortez mount her campaign last year.

Several targeted incumbents said they were not concerned, however.

“The people in my district know me, and they’ve elected me, and they’re going to do it again,” said New York Rep. Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. One of his challengers, Jamaal Bowman, is also backed by Justice Democrats

Engel said he has not done anything special to appease progressives.

“What’s funny, I’m on the left,” he said. “I’ve always been a Democrat, and I’ve always been a progressive Democrat.”

Moving left

Engel spoke as he was leaving the House floor last week after siding with progressives — and against a more cautious Speaker Nancy Pelosi — in an attempt to force the House to take up articles of impeachment against Trump.

Progressive groups, who have made impeachment a rallying cry, cite growing support for such measures as a sign that members are getting worried about their job security.

Enegel was one of 95 Democrats to vote against putting aside, or tabling, an impeachment resolution. Of them, about two-dozen members, including Eliot, had not previously called for impeachment or launching an impeachment inquiry.

Another incumbent facing a progressive primary challenger, Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, co-sponsored the Green New Deal, a signature piece of progressive legislation proposed by Ocasio-Cortez.

Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, called Markey’s work on the bill a “case study” of what happens when outside groups pressure party insiders.

“He is fighting more than a lot of other Democrats for the full scope, scale and urgency that tackling climate change requires,” she said.

But that hasn’t stopped Boston labor rights lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan from seeking Markey’s seat.

“My experience as a worker’s rights lawyer, as a woman, as a mother, as a political outsider gives me a perspective that I think is what we need in Congress now,” Liss-Riordan told Commonwealth Magazine in May. “We don’t have enough women in Congress. We need more women in the Senate.”

Markey, who has been in Congress since 1976, said the only thing he can do to avoid becoming the next Joe Crowley is to work to be “the strongest possible advocate” for the people in his state.

“My job is to just work as hard as I can so that, on the issues that are most important to people, they know that they have a fighter,” he said.

Local ties

David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, said he had not seen much evidence that incumbents are making defensive moves to the left.

“They seem more likely to be doubling down on their existing profiles and saying that’s what their districts really want,” he said.

That seems to be the case for Neal, who has developed a reputation during his 30 years in office as an old-school politician who likes to make deals, doesn’t mind bipartisanship and shuns the media spotlight.

That style has irked many on the left. As chairman of the Ways and Means panel, Neal has been at the forefront of the House Democrats’ efforts to obtain Trump’s tax returns. Progressives say he hasn’t acted quickly enough.

Before he launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, California billionaire Tom Steyer sought to pressure Neal by funding billboards in Massachusetts that read “Rep. Neal, Get Trump’s Taxes Now.”

Now Morse, who is 30 and openly gay, is betting that he can convince voters that Neal is out of touch, saying on Twitter the district needs someone “who will change how Washington works.”

Neal has been in progressives’ sights before. He easily dispatched a primary challenge from the left last cycle with 71 percent of the vote. Local political observers expect him to be a formidable opponent in 2020 as well.

Unlike the districts now represented by Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, which have seen demographic shifts in recent years, Neal’s 1st District is more stable.

Voters there know his name and appreciate the federal projects he has brought to the district, such as the restoration of a historic train station in Springfield completed this year, said Matt Szafranski, founder and editor-in-chief of the blog Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight. 

“That would make any opponent of his struggle, regardless of the resources they might be able to claim,” Szafranski said. “I’m not going to say there is no path to beat him. But it is a very hard thing to overcome.”

Neal’s campaign pointed to his record, saying in a statement that the congressman fought to ensure that people of the region got their “fair share” from Washington.

Still, Hopkins, of Boston College, said that regardless of how heavily the odds weigh in their favor, incumbents would be wise to remain vigilant.

“In retrospect everyone was full of ideas about why Joe Crowley should have taken that challenge seriously,” he said. “You didn’t have a lot of people saying that six months before, or a year before.”

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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