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Anatomy of an upset: How progressives learned to embrace traditional tactics

Liberal group’s super PAC helped Cori Bush win in Missouri two years after she lost by 20 points

Cori Bush gestures as she completes her ballot on Tuesday at Gambrinus Hall in St. Louis.
Cori Bush gestures as she completes her ballot on Tuesday at Gambrinus Hall in St. Louis. (Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

Activist and nurse Cori Bush pulled off one of the biggest primary upsets of the election cycle on Tuesday. While the Missouri Democrat’s win showed that voters are clamoring for change, her victory also demonstrated that progressive insurgents and their liberal allies are embracing traditional campaign tactics — and it’s working.

Bush’s shocking defeat of longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay in the St. Louis-based 1st District, after losing to him by 20 points in 2018, shows that primary challengers have figured out how to raise the money necessary to compete and spend it strategically to reach voters. That shift has also collided with political upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.

“It’s a great example just how much pretty basic ‘block and tackle’ campaign stuff matters,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, which conducted polling for progressive group Justice Democrats, which endorsed Bush in the race.

“The [progressive] movement actually winning ends up being a bit less sexy,” McElwee said. “It’s mostly good strategic investments at the right time.”

Back to basics

Progressives have long decried the influence of money in politics, but unsuccessful primary challenges have shown that money does matter in campaigns.

“I think there was a longtime belief in progressive circles that money had some sort of moral value,” McElwee said. “And it doesn’t. It has strategic value.”

In May, Justice Democrats launched an independent expenditure arm, which cannot coordinate with campaigns but can spend unlimited amounts to boost its preferred candidates. Justice Democrats saw the role played by outside groups such as EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, in helping Jessica Cisneros come close to defeating Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in a March primary. After Cisneros’ loss, Justice Democrats turned its attention to former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman’s primary against longtime Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel in New York.

“What I continued, our team continued, to ask ourselves was, ‘Are we doing everything we possibly can to … help Jamaal win?’” Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas said.

“There was no EMILY’s List in Jamaal’s case. There was no Hail Mary,” she added, so the group launched its own outside spending entity.

That independent expenditure arm hit the airwaves in Bowman’s race, partnering with the Working Families Party to quickly turn a damaging hot mic moment from Engel into a TV ad. Bowman went on to win.

The group also spent $150,000 on TV ads to bolster Bush in her race against Clay, once again demonstrating progressives’ willingness to spend sizable amounts of cash. In the final days of the primary, Bush and Justice Democrats’ independent expenditure arm spent nearly three times more than Clay’s campaign on the television airwaves, according to advertising data the Bush campaign shared with CQ Roll Call.

“Right now, we have to operate within the system that we have,” Rojas said. “We held ourselves to our own standard of no corporate PAC, no corporate lobbyist money across the organization.

“We’re using traditional methods in the most progressive way possible,” he said.

Meeting the moment

Bush’s campaign was able to launch its own television and radio ads, along with billboards and mail pieces, thanks to a surge in fundraising.

In her 2018 race, she raised $177,000. This time, Bush raked in roughly $800,000 by Tuesday’s primary, according to her campaign manager, Keenan Korth. Bush’s latest campaign finance report shows fundraising only up to July 15, with a total of $569,000 raised.

“That allowed us to do a lot more to get Cori’s name out there, which I think is one of the biggest obstacles … for progressive challengers, especially ones that are going against longtime incumbents,” Korth said.

Korth said the fundraising boost was due to a combination of Bush building on her 2018 run and leveraging a higher profile from appearing in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House.” Allies such as Justice Democrats and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tapped into their lengthy email lists to send donations Bush’s way.

The political environment also shifted dramatically since Bush’s 2018 run, with the pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color and Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

In 2014, Bush helped organize Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which is in the 1st District, after Michael Brown was killed by police. Her campaign and her allies emphasized her roots in the movement during her 2020 race.

It’s a message that resonated in the primary as it had in the Bowman-Engel contest, where Bowman, a Black man, talked about his own encounters with police.

Clay’s defeat stood out since he is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Ferguson resident who pushed for changes to federal policy on policing. Among other things, Bush’s campaign focused on him receiving support from corporate PACs and challenged his commitment to the district.

“The core message is the current establishment is not doing enough to either address the coronavirus pandemic and economic uncertainties, and they’re not doing enough to rein in police violence,” McElwee said. “And progressives have something to say on those issues.”

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