Progressives had a big night in their drive to remake the Democratic Party — when their candidates weren’t getting washed away in a flood of super PAC money.
There was more outside spending in Tuesday’s Democratic House primaries than in all of their 2020 primaries combined, much of it used to boost moderate Democrats or bash progressive ones. But progressive candidates in several key races showed they could survive the deluge.
Summer Lee, who rallied with Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, is hanging on to a narrow Democratic primary lead for a deep-blue seat based in Pittsburgh, where she faced $2 million in negative spending against her. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), one of only two incumbents endorsed so far in 2022 by President Joe Biden, is trailing badly in his redrawn district to Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an Elizabeth Warren-backed challenger who was outspent on TV 11-to-1 by Schrader and his allies, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm.
And this week’s marquee Senate contest was a crowning achievement for the left: John Fetterman, a Sanders supporter who shuns intra-party labels altogether, beat out moderate Rep. Conor Lamb for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania.
There were notable losses for the progressive wing, as well, in North Carolina and Kentucky, where a trio of more moderate Democratic House candidates won primaries — with significant super PAC support. But overall, the results represented a step forward in progressives’ bid to reshape the Democratic congressional caucuses with new faces and more left-leaning policy views.
“We have to be really strategic in our resources, and we didn’t have the capacity” to compete in the two open North Carolina races, said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a left-leaning group which instead spent nearly $1 million to back Lee in her primary.
“Success begets success, so moderates were emboldened by Shontel Brown’s victory [in Ohio earlier this month], and Summer Lee will embolden Jessica Cisneros and Kina Collins,” Shahid continued, citing a pair of progressive challengers running against incumbents in the upcoming Texas and Illinois primaries.
Democratic primaries have been shaped this year by a record-breaking amount of spending — more than $53 million already, according to OpenSecrets, with months more to go in primary season. The cash is flowing through a number of new super PACs. One of the biggest spenders is backed by AIPAC, while another is supported by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. The most prolific spender so far is funded by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.
“They seem to have an unlimited amount of money, so they may keep tossing it around,” Warren told POLITICO. The Massachusetts senator endorsed several of the winning candidates Tuesday, including Oregon state Rep. Andrea Salinas, who weathered $13 million in outside spending from Bankman-Fried’s super PAC and other groups in favor of her principal opponent, Carrick Flynn. But Salinas won the primary, and she could become the first Latina to represent Oregon in Congress if elected in November.
“Voters seem increasingly immune to the effect of dollars, and more alert to messages and the real people who show up and knock on the door and say, ‘I’m here because I believe in this candidate,’” Warren continued.
The power of outside spending will continue to be tested as these forces clash throughout the 2022 primary season.
Next week, a key test of progressive strength comes out of the Texas runoffs, where Cisneros is trying to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the lone anti-abortion rights Democrat left in the House, who still enjoys the support of House leadership and a range of moderate outside groups. Cisneros’ critics have already dumped more than $1.2 million against her, arguing that she’s too liberal for a battleground seat that Biden won by 7 points in 2020. But pro-Cisneros spending, from the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List to the Working Famlies Party, has also come in, totaling $2.1 million.
Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said progressives “don’t have time to spike the ball and do a victory dance” instead of “putting our heads down, focusing on Texas.”
Mitchell noted that Tuesday night’s victories “are an indication that our strategy is working … but we can also do math, and we understand what it means when people are making seven-digit buys” against progressive candidates.
Even more of that type of race is on the horizon, including member-versus-member primaries and open-seat battles in Illinois, California, New York and Florida.
“We got to stop these super PACs from coming into Democratic primaries,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a leading progressive in the House. Asked how the left can do that, he said: “More voices, calling them out and more condemnation where it becomes an albatross to be accepting support from them.”
Salinas’ allies, for example, were quick to condemn the rash of spending from Bankman-Fried’s super PAC in Oregon. Progressives have decried spending by pro-Israel groups in various races.
In August, Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens will square off in a Michigan primary, after they were both drawn into the same district. Levin, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, while Stevens has been backed by Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC that backs more moderate candidates.
Democratic moderates, for their part, argued that “it was an even split last night,” said Matt Bennett, founder of the center-left group Third Way. Bennett said some of the candidates whom progressives claim as their own, like McLeod-Skinner in Oregon, “are not going to do or say things that make it harder for Abigail Spanberger to win her race,” citing the Virginia congresswoman who blamed left-wing rhetoric for costing battleground seats in 2020.
And some establishment incumbents and their allies brushed off the suggestion that the downfall of moderate candidates — potentially including one incumbent — would portend badly for their own primary battles. Longtime Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said he is confident he will beat back a challenge in Chicago from Collins, who is endorsed by the Justice Democrats.
“I’d be willing to bet you that many of the people in my district don’t even know what went on with Kurt Schrader,” Davis said. “I have a hard enough time trying to keep them knowledgeable about what we’re doing.”
And moderate Democrats are heartened by state Sens. Don Davis and Val Foushee’s congressional primary wins in North Carolina, who both ran to the middle against progressive opponents and easily secured their nominations on Tuesday night.
“If you look at the overall trend — like Shontel Brown in Ohio, like the two races in North Carolina, like the race in Kentucky — I think we’re going in a more moderate direction,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is working with the Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC, which has spent on behalf of more moderate candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas. “But that doesn’t mean specific progressives won’t win, and in Summer Lee, you’ve got an extremely talented candidate.”
Protect Our Future, the Bankman-Fried super PAC, racked up two Democratic primary wins last night with Foushee in North Carolina and state Sen. Morgan McGarvey in Kentucky. In Oregon, though, they spent $11.4 million to boost Flynn, who ultimately lost to Salinas. But the massive and unsuccessful expenditure isn’t deterring the group from staying involved and spending more money in Democratic primaries going forward, according to a person familiar with the group’s thinking.
Even so, Salinas said in an interview with POLITICO that she hopes “people look at my race and know that we don’t need to spend gazillions of dollars that could go to other, better uses.”
“I was outspent 12-to-1, 14-to-1 — I don’t know the actual number,” Salinas continued, “but hard work, talking about the issues, integrity of the candidate will pay off.”