After Tennessee’s Cooper, how many more Democrats will liberal activists target?

Push to oust incumbents may slacken as ideas move into mainstream

Rep.-elect Cori Bush, D-Mo., speaks during a news conference on Nov. 19, 2020 with Democratic members of Congress where they called on President-elect Joe Biden to “appoint a corporate-free cabinet," among other demands.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep.-elect Cori Bush, D-Mo., speaks during a news conference on Nov. 19, 2020 with Democratic members of Congress where they called on President-elect Joe Biden to “appoint a corporate-free cabinet," among other demands. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 8, 2021 at 1:10pm

Longtime Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper became the latest House Democrat to face a serious threat from his left this week with the announcement that the progressive group Justice Democrats was backing his primary challenger. 

But after a steady stream of entrenched House Democrats have fallen to more liberal opponents in recent years, Cooper, a veteran member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, might not have a lot of company this cycle.

Democrats say they expect to see fewer primary challenges from the left as President Joe Biden moves progressive ideas into the mainstream and the party seeks to project a unified front and the GOP in disarray. 

“Our caucus is as united as ever,” said Tom Perez, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. 

More targeted strategy

One sign is the behavior of Justice Democrats. After recruiting and supporting dozens of candidates in 2018, including upset winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, the group adopted a more targeted strategy in 2020 that representatives say they planned to continue to pursue in the next election. 

Odessa Kelly, the community organizer challenging Cooper in the Nashville-area 5th District, is the first candidate to get a Justice Democrats endorsement for 2022. Spokesman Waleed Shahid said the group planned to endorse about the same number of candidates as the six it supported in 2020. 

Cooper, a fiscal conservative who voted against former President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package and used to keep a national debt clock in his congressional office, has long been a target of progressives who see government spending as a way to correct the inequalities of market economics. 

Cooper has softened some of his positions and successfully fended off a primary challenge from his left last year. He signed on to a 2017 “Medicare for All” bill and, though his name has been absent from subsequent iterations, he says he is still open to the idea of universal health care. And he supported the progressive Green New Deal after originally opposing it. 

Votes buck party

A 16-term veteran, Cooper has the fourth-highest seniority on the Armed Services Committee and chairs its Strategic Forces Subcommittee. He also has built a record of often voting differently from a majority in his party, according to data complied at CQ Vote Watch.

That was especially true during the final two years of the Obama administration. In 2015, he voted with his party 85 percent of the time, a party unity score that ranked him 179th out of 187 members whose votes were tracked. In 2016, his party unity score of 82 percent ranked him 184th out of 189 Democrats. 

Cooper expressed confidence in a statement this week that he would be renominated, citing the 250,000 votes he received in November, which he said was a record. 

[Competition is good,” he said. “My work in Congress is not done. We are making real progress under the Biden Administration, bringing home huge dollars for everyone in the Nashville area, rolling out vaccines, and even starting to cut childhood poverty in half. I am helping Nashville’s schools and businesses reopen safely. And Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi just gave me the high honor of a seat on the Intelligence Committee, where I protect our nation’s secrets and help keep our country safe.”

District in flux?

How the race will turn out may depend on how Tennessee’s districts are redrawn after results of the 2020 census are released later this year.

“Democrats need to focus on keeping the Nashville congressional district because, unless we persuade the state legislature now, there may be no district for any Democrat,” Cooper said. “We also need to keep our legislature from following Georgia in suppressing the vote with Jim Crow laws and rolling back the progress that Nashville is making.”

But Kelly, a 13-year employee of the Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation Department who founded a nonprofit advocating racial and economic justice, also has momentum on her side. Her campaign reported that she raised more than $100,000 from almost 2,000 donors across the country in the two days since announcing her bid, one of the most successful campaign launches in Justice Democrats’ history.

“The support has been so humbling, and it’s the people in our district putting their trust in me that really inspires me,” Kelly said. “To those of you who are stressed and struggling — but willing to give me $20 to fight for real change — I see you, I’m grateful for you, and this campaign is for you.”

Ocasio-Cortez, the first Justice Democrats-endorsed candidate to win a primary, raised just $60,000 in her first six months of the 2018 cycle in her ultimately successful challenge to Rep. Joseph Crowley. New York Democrat Jamaal Bowman, who beat longtime Rep. Eliot L. Engel in a primary last year, took a week to hit the $100,000 mark after he announced his campaign, the Kelly campaign pointed out in a press release. 

“One by one, we are building a mission-driven team of Democrats in Congress focused on progressive change and delivering results,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats. “It takes a nationwide small donor army to compete with the corporate PACs, and Odessa’s incredible start shows that we have the momentum and that our movement is building.”

In total, seven Justice Democrats-backed candidates have won their elections since 2018, when Ocasio-Cortez’s win raised  questions of a “civil war” within the Democratic Party. 

But with Ocasio-Cortez and other new progressive members who have followed her into office taking prominent positions within the party and raising significant amounts of money for their colleagues, the Democratic Party is becoming more hospitable to ideas that, until recently, were considered toxically liberal. Ocasio-Cortez, a prolific fundraiser, recently made $5,000 donations to several vulnerable House Democrats, Politico reported. 

Driving turnout

“These new members have passionate followings among their ranks,” said Perez, who was among the first in the party establishment to embrace Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. “They are helping to enhance turnout not only in their own districts, but elsewhere. And they are working very successfully with Speaker Pelosi and with people across the ideological spectrum within the Democratic Party.”

Shahid pointed to the call for a $15 minimum wage, which has long divided the party but was included in the House-passed version of Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package. The provision was not included in the final bill that Biden signed in March after the Senate parliamentarian ruled against it. 

But other progressive ideas made it through, such as a child tax credit Democrats are hoping will become permanent. And the next big package on Biden’s agenda, a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, includes other progressive priorities, such as money to combat climate change and to address racial inequalities, though progressives say the plan doesn’t go far enough and some of their favorite provisions could get stripped. 

“You have to draw a connection between Joe Biden moving in a progressive direction, as a response to the party moving in a more progressive direction as a whole, partly due to the success of these primary challengers,” Shahid said.“There’s a dynamic with Joe Biden that even his team has acknowledged that, because he is an older white man who has made his career as a centrist, once Joe Biden adopts ideas, they become less progressive in the eyes of many people.”

But progressives still see primary challenges as an important tool in their arsenal. 

Shahid and other Democrats attributed Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s willingness to listen to progressive demands to his need to steel himself against a potential primary challenge. The New York Democrat is up for reelection next year and Ocasio-Cortez has reportedly considered a bid against him. 

Watching for action

Neal Carter, a Democratic strategist and a principal at Nu View Consulting, said progressives who have so far held off on announcing runs in 2022 might come off the fence if they sense that congressional leaders have stopped pushing for their priorities. High on that list, he said, is the call for “Medicare for All.” 

“If enough moderate Democrats in the House and the Senate balk, there is potential for a lot more progressive candidates who lost primaries in previous cycles to run again,” he said. “What’s stopping them?”

And Shahid pointed out that primary challenges don’t only serve to change the party platform, they also make Congress more ethnically and economically diverse. 

Still, progressives have to be strategic. 

“I think what the Justice Democrats network shows is: If there is someone who has a compelling progressive issue and has the grassroots mobilization and has that burning fire, then there’s a network to support them to break them into politics,” said California Rep. Ro Khanna, was was first elected in 2016 by defeating a fellow Democrat and has since become a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Khanna said that does not mean, however, that activists have carte blanche to go after incumbents.

 “It’s still very hard to do. But what it does do is allow this incredible grassroots talent that is out there to have a shot where they probably wouldn’t have had a shot without that organization,” he said.

Kate Ackley and Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.