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Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay ousted by Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush

Clay is third Democrat ousted by progressive primary challenger this year

Missouri Democrat Cori Bush leads a protest against police brutality in University City on June 12. Bush won Tuesday's Democratic primary in the 1st District, ousting Rep. William Lacy Clay.
Missouri Democrat Cori Bush leads a protest against police brutality in University City on June 12. Bush won Tuesday's Democratic primary in the 1st District, ousting Rep. William Lacy Clay. (Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images file photo)

Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay lost the Democratic primary Tuesday to nurse and Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush, a stunning defeat for the scion of a political dynasty that has represented the St. Louis-based 1st District for more than half a century. 

Bush was leading Clay 49 percent to 46 percent when The Associated Press called the race at 11:18 p.m. Central time.

Clay, 64, is the third Democrat this cycle to lose his seat to a challenger more plugged in with the party’s most progressive wing.

Clay’s defeat stands out because he is a Black lawmaker who focused on civil rights issues throughout his 10 terms in Congress. His father, William L. Clay, was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Both candidates supported progressive causes like the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.” But Bush argued that it was time for a change and criticized Clay for taking campaign contributions from political action committees and corporations. 

Those points resonated in the majority-Black 1st District, where a national reckoning on police relations with Black people was sparked by the 2014 protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Clay’s hometown. 

“This is a huge upset and another groundbreaking win for our movement against a corporate-backed political dynasty,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of progressive group Justice Democrats. “Cori is the fifth challenger backed by Justice Democrats to unseat an incumbent. She organized a movement through pepper spray and rioting police in the streets of Ferguson.”

Bush, 44, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2016, also challenged Clay in 2018.

She befriended now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during that campaign and became the first candidate to win an endorsement from Justice Democrats, who had helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to a primary upset in New York that year. But Bush lost to Clay by 20 points. 

She rebounded with an appearance in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” a sympathetic portrayal of progressive women who waged primary campaigns in 2018. 

She credited the film with helping her become a fundraising force against Clay. She outraised him during the most recent fundraising quarter, which ended in June, but still trailed overall, with $569,000 raised and $127,000 in the bank as of July 15, compared with Clay’s $743,000 raised and $389,000 on hand. 

She also had the support of a range of progressive leaders, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and benefited from $100,000 in outside spending from Justice Democrats in the week before the election. 

Spending from the group was considered pivotal in Jamaal Bowman’s primary win over longtime Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel in New York’s 16th District in June.

Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay was defeated in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in the 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Over his 10 terms in the House, Clay has been a vocal critic of the Pentagon providing surplus military equipment to local police forces, saying small departments aren’t properly trained in their use. He sharply criticized President Donald Trump for rescinding an executive order he had worked on with President Barack Obama to limit the flow of such equipment.

Clay, alongside Rep. Ro Khanna of California, introduced legislation on Aug. 9, 2019 — the fifth anniversary of Brown’s death in Ferguson — to create a federal standard requiring use of force to be used as a last resort. 

The measure was included in a sweeping package of policing legislation passed by the House after weeks of uprisings and protests in reaction to the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. 

Clay serves on the House Financial Services, Oversight and Reform, and Natural Resources committees and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

His critics said he rode his famous father’s coattails to Congress and was too often absent from the district.

Other House Democrats defeated in primaries this year included Engel and Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. Kansas Republicans on Tuesday also rejected Rep. Steve Watkins’ bid for the nomination for a second term, making him the fourth Republican defeated in a primary or convention this cycle.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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