Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s hard-charging tenure as a headline-snatching member of “The Squad” has showcased her calling President Trump a “motherf——r,” publicly belittling Hillary Clinton and embracing an anti-establishment message that has transformed her into a liberal folk hero who is a curse on both parties.
She also has refused to endorse presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden.
But the splashiest Tlaib headline could come at her own expense in the Michigan primary Tuesday if her campaign goes down in flames against former Rep. Brenda Jones, the president of the Detroit City Council who has turned Ms. Tlaib’s political stardom against her.
“The thing that gives Brenda Jones a chance is the fact that she is well-known in Detroit, she has served on the City Council, and that would in many cases typically be something that is really valuable for a campaign like this, where voters are familiar with that person, they have seen them around town quite a bit,” said David A. Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University in Michigan.
Ms. Tlaib isn’t taking Ms. Jones lightly. She has attacked her rival for living outside of the 13th Congressional District, which includes parts of Detroit and the suburbs to the west, and has an electorate that is over 50% Black.
“It raises a question about carpetbagging,” Mr. Dulio said. “For Rashida Tlaib to level that attack tells me she is at least taking her challenger a little bit seriously.”
Voters on Tuesday also will be participating in primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Missouri and Washington.
Rep. William “Lacy” Clay Jr. is running for an 11th term and is facing off in the Democratic primary against Cori Bush, another far-left favorite, for the second consecutive time in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District.
Republicans, meanwhile, are keeping a close eye on the Senate primary race in Kansas, where Rep. Roger Marshall is locked in a tight battle with Kris Kobach for the party’s nomination and the chance to run for retiring Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat in November.
Mr. Marshall has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Kobach is a former Kansas secretary of state who lost his 2018 bid for governor after gaining national notoriety as a staunch opponent of voter fraud and illegal immigration.
He has long been a favorite of grassroots conservative activists and a vocal supporter of Mr. Trump.
Ms. Tlaib and the three other far-left freshman congresswomen who comprise The Squad — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — are getting a taste of what it is like to run as an incumbent after crashing onto the scene as high-profile insurgents in the 2018 midterms.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez cruised to victory in her June primary. Ms. Omar is favored to win her primary next week, and Ms. Pressley appears to have sidestepped a primary challenge altogether.
Ms. Tlaib likely faces the stiffest challenge.
Ms. Jones, on paper, appears formidable. After all, she has defeated Ms. Tlaib before.
Ms. Jones, who is Black, and Ms. Tlaib, who was born in Detroit to Palestinian immigrants, faced off twice in 2018.
Ms. Jones won the special election to fill out the remainder of John Conyers’ term after he resigned over sexual misconduct allegations. But Ms. Tlaib won the race to represent the Democratic Party in the general election and won the seat in the 116th Congress, which gaveled in on Jan. 3, 2019.
The rubber match Tuesday will play out under dramatically different circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted traditional campaigning and made it more difficult for challengers to connect with voters and raise their profiles.
It has caused real problems for Ms. Jones.
She entered the race in March and tested positive for COVID-19 in April.
She has tried to make up for lost time by arguing that Ms. Tlaib is more interested in chasing political stardom than standing up for her constituents.
“As Michigan’s 13th Congressional District Representative, Tlaib has worked hard to become an international rock star,” Ms. Jones said in a recent Twitter post. “Representative Tlaib has a huge war chest of nearly $2 million. The money in Rashida Tlaib’s war chest is mostly from people around the world.
“This means Tlaib is beholding to her money people, & not focused on the citizens of the 13th Congressional District,” she said.
Ms. Tlaib has developed a strong fundraising network of well-heeled donors, including in Southern California, and liberal activists who have rallied behind her fiery and combative style.
She raised over $3 million, compared with $165,000 for Ms. Jones.
Ms. Tlaib made nationwide news shortly after winning her seat when she targeted Mr. Trump, vowing to “impeach the motherf——r!”
The House ended up fulfilling that promise after Democrats impeached Mr. Trump on articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, though he was acquitted by the Senate.
Ms. Tlaib drew criticism from within her party during the primary race this year after she “booed” the mention of Mrs. Clinton on stage during a campaign event on behalf of Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
Mr. Trump boosted her national profile by casting the “Squad” as the face of the Democratic Party. He was hoping their brand of liberal politics could hurt Democrats and rile up his base for his reelection.
It has all turned Ms. Tlaib into must-see television. It helps explain why there is so much interest in the mere prospect of the 44-year-old losing her seat and so much at stake for the liberal movement.
“Rashida Tlaib has successfully changed the national debate on many fronts, from challenging corporate power to a more just foreign policy to fighting systemic racism in places like Flint, Michigan,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The corporate establishment and others who have zero interest in change oppose her, but she has a grassroots army on her side and will be more powerful after defeating these attacks.”
Edward Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster, said Ms. Tlaib is beatable but Ms. Jones’ has her work cut out for her because she got off to a late start.
“Rashida has been established in Detroit,” said Mr. Sarpolus, noting that Ms. Tlaib served in the Michigan Legislature before winning her House seat and cut her teeth as a grassroots activist for years.
The coronavirus has helped put an emphasis on grassroots organizing, which plays to Ms. Tliab’s experience as an activist, Mr. Sarpolus said.
“Brenda Jones does not have the team or the funds in place to take on a strong candidate like Rashida Tlaib,” he said. “So whoever takes on Rashida has to be a known quantity has to build the connection with the voters, and they can’t do it the day before the election.”
Mr. Sarpolus released a survey late last month showing Ms. Tlaib with a 28% lead over Ms. Jones and showing that nearly 4 in 10 voters didn’t know who Ms. Jones is or didn’t have an opinion.
A possible bright spot for Ms. Jones is that close to a quarter of primary voters remained on the fence.
If they all swing toward Ms. Jones, she has a chance, he said.