- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2022

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta is sprinting to the left in the Democratic nomination race for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania and providing voters with a glimpse of the far-left agenda in this year’s election cycle.

Mr. Kenyatta, who is Black and gay, is promising to abolish the Electoral College, pack the Supreme Court, eliminate the legislative filibuster, pass “Medicare for All,” tax the rich, cancel student debt, make protecting Roe v. Wade a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees and put a moratorium on fracking permits.

He is steering clear of familiar slogans such as “defund the police” and “abolish ICE,” which have hurt Democrats in recent elections, and is taking a more reserved stance on criminal justice and immigration.

“There are pundits who say Pennsylvania is just not ready to elect an openly gay, Black guy from North Philadelphia,” Mr. Kenyatta said in a recent debate. “But let me tell you something: Pennsylvania is more ready for a new day, fresh vision, new leadership than the cynics would have you believe.”

From coast to coast, far-left candidates trying to change the Democratic Party from the inside out are testing the same basic message.

These congressional candidates are navigating a political landscape that looks a lot different from what it did in 2018 and 2020, when President Trump energized liberal grassroots activists to vote against Republicans.

With President Biden at the helm, the U.S. is now grappling with rising crime, unprecedented chaos at the southern border, coronavirus supply chain issues, a war in Ukraine and soaring inflation that is hitting Americans’ wallets at the pump and in grocery stores.

Mr. Biden’s approval rating is underwater, stirring fears in the Democratic ranks that they are walking into a bloodbath at the polls in November.

The party establishment is also worried that the liberals’ message will make matters worse.

The far-left message will be tested next month when Mr. Kenyatta and another far-left candidate, state Rep. Summer Lee, who is running for the House in a Pittsburgh-area district, are on Democratic primary ballots in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Kenyatta is an underdog in a race that also features Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, another liberal favorite, and Rep. Conor Lamb, who is offering voters a center-left alternative.

Also next month, voters in southwest Texas will decide the fate of liberal Democrat Jessica Cisneros in a primary contest against more moderate Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar.

From there, the primary calendar picks up speed.

Liberals remain optimistic about their prospects.

“Progressives and all Democrats are united around popular economic policies that help families with everything from child care to lower-price prescriptions to higher-paying jobs,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. 

“Progressives also want billionaires like Elon Musk who avoid taxes to finally pay their fair share and for price-gouging oil companies to stop ripping people off at the pump,” he said. “And we have to be willing to call out Republican politicians who supported the insurrection against America — and define our party as the only small-d democratic party.”

The past two election cycles produced a fresh cast of far-left firebrands — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Cori Bush of Missouri — who formed the “Squad” on Capitol Hill and have pressed Democratic leaders to move further to the left on policy.

Liberal activists are convinced that their pet issues are popular among key parts of the coalition that fueled Mr. Biden’s win: young voters and voters of color, though Mr. Biden has shed support among both groups in recent polls.

Kaitlin Sweeney, a spokeswoman for Democracy for America, said her organization remains focused on “economic justice, climate change, student debt relief and criminal justice relief.” 

“I think 2022 is just a larger scale for us,” Ms. Sweeney said. “When you look at a lot of the folks who are pushing the agenda in Washington, they weren’t in Congress four years ago and two years ago.”

“What we have achieved in the last four years has been showing the party that progressive ideas can win,” Ms. Sweeney said.

Asked about how fewer candidates are emphasizing “defund the police” and “abolish ICE” this go-round, Ms. Sweeney said the overall focus on criminal justice has not changed.

“Hashtags come and go,” she said. “Fundamentally the work stays the same.”

Less than seven months from Election Day, Democrats face an uphill battle in defending the House and the Senate.

Liberals blame Republicans and two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — for blocking efforts to scrap the legislative filibuster to pass an overhaul of election laws and killing Mr. Biden’s $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate package.

They are convinced the party’s fortunes would brighten if Democrats shared a bolder vision with voters. 

Republicans say Mr. Biden’s problems are the result of hitching his wagon to far-left activists.

Some Democrats have raised similar doubts. In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Mr. Kenyatta faced pushback in a debate this week from his top rivals, Mr. Fetterman and Mr. Lamb, over his support for abolishing the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court.

“If we were starting our society over again from scratch, it would make sense not to have an electoral college, but we have one and to get rid of it you would have to amend the Constitution,” Mr. Lamb said. “Anybody who doesn’t know how difficult that is, just look it up.

“It is not happening,” he said. “It makes this discussion completely academic in my view.” 

Mr. Kenyatta said Democrats should not be afraid of doing hard things.

“That does not make a lot of sense,” Mr. Kenyatta said. “The Constitution has mechanisms by which it can be changed because our founders understood it was a living, breathing document.

“I’m running for the U.S. Senate because there is a lot of stuff that we can change, and that is what we should do as Democrats,” he said. 

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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