Ayanna Pressley cruised to victory in Massachusetts in a stunning primary victory Tuesday, ousting a 10-term House incumbent while promising voters she would abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, create government-run health care and enact free college tuition.
Liberal activists said that platform helped energize voters, giving her a 17-point margin of victory over Rep. Michael Capuano, the second longtime Democratic lawmaker to fall in a primary this year to a more liberal candidate.
It’s also vastly different than the platform Democratic leaders are selling.
The competing agendas could become a problem should the party win control of the House in November, leaving liberal activists salivating over a list of left-wing priorities that party leaders haven’t agreed to.
“The people are demanding policies like Medicare for All, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and tuition-free college,” said Nasim Thompson, a spokeswoman for Justice Democrats. “If they don’t fight for these policies, they’ll get voted out. We’ve been seeing it happen in races all around the country. And this is just the beginning.”
Yet “Medicare for All,” Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders’ plan for universal health care, is nowhere to be found on Democratic leaders’ “Better Deal” platform, released over the last year.
Neither is abolishing ICE or ensuring free college. Instead, Democratic leaders offer less ambitious ideas, such as approving the Dream Act to legalize some illegal immigrants and more spending on school construction and teacher hiring.
Party officials whittled down their focus this summer to three main priorities: lowering health care and prescription drugs costs, investing $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements to create jobs, and cleaning up corruption in Washington.
“Our ‘For the People’ agenda is rooted in our commitment to help hard-working men and women and let them know we have their back,” Rep. Linda Sanchez of California told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “We are fighting for what they want, need, expect and deserve from their federal government.”
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said candidates across the Democratic roster are channeling the “For the People” agenda in swing districts.
“You’d be hard pressed not to find a candidate talking about the rising cost of prescription drugs, about the rising cost of health care,” Mr. Hammill told The Washington Times last week. “You’d be hard pressed not to find a candidate talking about stagnant wages, and you’d be hard pressed not to find a candidate talking about corruption and cleaning it up.”
Indeed, candidates from California to Indiana and Maine have latched onto some of the talking points, blaming the “rigged system” for putting special interests ahead of working-class Americans and blocking efforts to make health care more affordable and to curb the price of prescription drugs.
Some candidates have flat out rejected parts of the resistance wish list that helped Mrs. Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York transform into liberal titans that House leaders view as radioactive.
“I don’t support abolishing ICE,” Sharice Davis tells voters in an ad airing in Kansas, where she is running in the 3rd Congressional District against GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder and Libertarian Chris Clemmons, and been accused of joining the calls to do away with ICE.
Elaine C. Kamarck, a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee from Massachusetts, said Mrs. Pelosi and her congressional allies tailored their campaign platform toward candidates such as Ms. Davis who are going after seats in swing districts, not those running in safe Democratic enclaves.
“The role of the leadership is to broaden the base of the party and you broaden the base of the party by trying to compete in districts that you have not been able to win before, and there are a lot of competitive districts out there for Democrats this time,” Ms. Kamarck said.
Yet that pragmatic approach is clashing with the energy of the Sanders wing of the party.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley learned that lesson the hard way when Ms. Ocasio-Cortez rode a democratic socialist brand of politics to victory in June in New York’s 14th Congressional District, leaving Mr. Crowley with the unenviable distinction of being the first sitting Democrat to lose a primary this year.
Mr. Capuano became the second incumbent to fall with his defeat on Tuesday.
“The reality is that there are changing demographics that are going on in these districts,” Mr. Crowley said Wednesday at the press briefing with Mrs. Sanchez, where he credited Mrs. Pressley and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez with inspiring more minority, women and young people to vote.
“I look at this all in a very positive way for our party and this November, because that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, which endorsed Mrs. Pressley, said Democrats should take that lesson to heart and embrace the bold liberal agenda, not the latest iteration of the party’s campaign platform.
“I have yet to see someone flying the ‘Better Deal’ banner all over the [literature] that they sent out,” Mr. Sroka sad. “The ‘Better Deal’ was an improvement of what they put out in 2017, but to say that that platform is the one that is guiding people and candidates I think is untrue.
“The victories that are happening in 2018 are happening because candidates are running on a bold inclusive message that is big enough and visionary enough to resonate with voters,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Pressley, a Boston City councilor who served as an aide to former Sen. John Kerry, cast her race as a “fight for the soul of our party” and said voters are sick of being told that “that their issues, their concerns, their priorities can wait.”
“It is not just good enough to see Democrats back in power, but it matters who those Democrats are,” she said.
Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign tracker, said Democrats are replaying the civil war that played out between the tea party and the GOP establishment earlier this decade.
“I think the tea party was partially about purifying the Republican Party.” Mr. Gonzales said. “I see a similar sentiment with the progressive wing and the Democratic Party. I think these new Democrat members will push their party leadership to be bolder on issues. But we still don’t know how many of those new members there will be.”
Mrs. Kamarck said the liberal wing of the party could move the needle on their wish list if Democrats flip control of Congress but Mrs. Pelosi’s agenda likely will win out.
“They will hit reality,” she said. “There is no doubt about it. Everybody always does, and the reality of American politics is you live in a big tent of a party and you never get 100 percent of what you want.”