A new generation of liberal Democrats is entering the political arena with a rush of candidates looking to oust the party’s old guard this year.
Justice Democrats, the political action committee that helped elect “The Squad” — the ultra-liberal group of six congressional House members led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — is mobilizing around a new slate of candidates running primary challenges this year against several incumbent Democrats.
The new faces are younger and more diverse, and back far-left policies, like the Green New Deal and universal health care, that more moderate members have mostly declined to endorse.
“We need a new generation of diverse, working-class Democrats to build a bloc that will vote together and help build the movement,” Justice Democrats’ website reads. “We recruited and helped AOC pull off one of the biggest upsets in American history, but the top of the Democratic Party is still disproportionately wealthier, whiter and more male than the base.”
It’s a battle for the heart of the Democratic Party and a test of whether voters are ready for a dramatically left-wing vision for America.
This year, the battle is playing out against a bleak election cycle in which House Democrats are expected to struggle to hold onto the majority.
Justice Democrats is backing at least six candidates running for open seats or in primary challenges against longtime members of their party.
Odessa Kelly, an openly gay Black Nashville activist, was the first major primary challenger to announce her candidacy for the 2022 cycle.
Ms. Kelly is taking on longtime Rep. Jim Cooper, who has represented his middle Tennessee district since 2003. He is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition.
“When I looked at the reflection of who I am, as a civil servant, as an organizer, as a Black woman, as a gay woman, as a mother, as a person who is desperately trying to get some of this pressure off of my life, I said, the only way that this happens is if I start seeing and hearing people in leadership who look like me and have the same set of perspectives as me, and that is not Jim Cooper,” Ms. Kelly told The Discourse Blog.
Other members who must fend off challenges include New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Illinois Rep. Danny K. Davis and Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is considered among the most conservative Democrats in the caucus.
The new crop of candidates has their work cut out for them. At the ballot box so far, the pace of the far-left takeover of the party is still more evolution than revolution.
Liberal members are becoming increasingly influential in the Democratic Party, but their ability to win elections is still weaker than more moderate members, said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Northeastern University.
“If you look at how progressive candidates fared in the 2018 and 2020 cycles, some did better than others, and the overall record is mixed,” Mr. Panagopoulos said. “It’s not the case that progressives have taken over the Democratic Party or are winning handily over more moderate candidates in the party, even if their influence remains strong.”
In 2018, Justice Democrats endorsed 65 non-incumbent candidates for the House, mostly for open seats. Of those, 24 candidates made it to the general election. Only seven won seats, according to data compiled by the left-leaning Brookings Institute.
In 2020, Justice Democrats endorsed eight candidates, including three primary challengers against moderate incumbents. Only Rep. Marie Newman won her race, ousting former Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat who often broke with his party on abortion rights.
Jonathan Krasno, a political science professor at Binghamton University, said Mr. Lipinski’s loss last year was a result of changing party values that no longer fit the mold of the lawmaker’s stances on certain social issues.
“Dan Lipinski is a good example of somebody who was in a difficult situation because he was out of step with the party and out of step with his district,” Mr. Krasno said. “I don’t know that I think that moderates are out of business in the party, like nobody’s trying to purge anybody, but this is the way competition plays out. You take positions that people don’t like, and they have the right to run against you.”
Rep. Mark Takano, California Democrat and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he welcomes more liberal members to run for office and hopefully get elected, adding that he sees progressive values as the path forward for the Democratic Party.
“I’d like to see more progressive members, but what drives the progressiveness is really the public will,” Mr. Takano told The Washington Times. “We’re seeing that at the grassroots level across the country on issues. I think the American public in many ways is aligned with a more progressive Congress.”
Rep. Sanford Bishop, Georgia Democrat, disagrees.
Mr. Bishop, a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said much of the electorate is still middle-of-the-road, even if the left-wing members of his party have a more amplified voice.
“Our party, as well as the country, is more centrist,” Mr. Bishop said. “Progressives seem to get a lot more press because I guess it’s more exotic and exciting. It sells more newspapers. But by and large, the country is center-based, either center-left or center-right. We’ve got some people who are far-right, some people who are far-left, but most of America is in the center.”