Clay Faces Next Test From Left

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will stump for the Missouri congressman's challenger this weekend.

Rep. William Lacy Clay speaks during a church service at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Mo. on Jan. 18, 2015.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
July 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley’s primary loss sent a shockwave through the party, but one of the next liberal targets doesn’t sound all that shaken.

“This is the heartland. This is not the Bronx,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri. “We don’t have a problem with low turnout in primary elections, and we won’t have one this time.”

Clay, who has represented St. Louis and its northern suburbs since 2001, faces a vigorous challenge in the 1st District from Cori Bush, a registered nurse and ordained pastor who is involved in a number of community organizations and led protests after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Bush lost her first run for office in the 2016 Senate primary and lags far behind Clay in money, but she now wields the endorsement of the freshest face in the progressive movement—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose campaign appearance this Saturday for Bush comes less than a month after she defeated Crowley.

Bush is one of three challengers to a House incumbent supported by Ocasio-Cortez, who prevailed despite being badly outspent. The others are Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is challenging Rep. Michael Capuano, and Chardo Richardson, a veteran and local ACLU chapter president, who is taking on freshman Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida. Richardson is a board member of Brand New Congress, which has endorsed Ocasio-Cortez and Bush.

Bush, who picked up an endorsement from Our Revolution on Monday, also faces a fundraising gap, but her situation appeared far more dire as of June 30—when she had less than $5,000 on hand. Bush campaign manager Kirk Clay, of no relation to the congressman, told National Journal that Bush has raised $25,000 in the past two weeks.

William Lacy Clay’s fundraising doesn’t read like an incumbent on the run: He brought in just $83,000 in the second quarter and had $327,000 on hand. While most observers of the district said Bush would take a significant percentage of the vote, Kenneth Warren, a political-science professor at St. Louis University, was extremely skeptical and said it would take a “miracle” for her to win.

One former state legislator said the congressman stepped up to the challenge in his redistricting-forced primary against fellow incumbent Democrat Russ Carnahan: “When he had to do something in 2012, he knew what to do. He came home and worked.”

But Bob Hilgemann, chairman of the St. Louis City Democratic Central Committee, compared Clay’s effort unfavorably to 2016, when the incumbent faced a competitive primary against state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who was also a Ferguson protest leader.

“I haven’t seen him in town that much in the past three months,” Hilgemann said.

There’s significantly less policy daylight between Bush and Clay than Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley. Clay is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and supports a number of progressive priorities, including Medicare-for-all.

In an interview with National Journal, Bush emphasized her refusal to take corporate PAC money, a distinction that Clay dismissed by saying it doesn’t affect how he votes.

Clay highlighted Bush’s affiliation with and endorsement from Justice Democrats, the PAC founded by progressive activist Cenk Uygur and a number of Bernie Sanders campaign alumni, saying voters will hold the support of the non-St. Louis-based group against her. Justice Democrats candidates, of whom Bush was the first ever to be endorsed, reject corporate PAC donations.

Clay also alleged Bush’s fundraising reports failed to fully disclose where her donations came from or what she spends them on.

“She doesn’t disclose things like yard signs, billboards, T-shirts, stickers. ... I’m just curious if she’s been following our federal election laws,” he said.

Bush’s campaign responded in a statement: “As a campaign that has refused to take corporate dollars, we are proud of the outreach work and support that we have received to this point and that will be reflected on Election Day.”

The two candidates have not debated, and Kirk Clay said there are none planned.

“We’re the challenger, and we’re looking for opportunities to be on stage with the incumbent,” he said. “I’m not positive an incumbent will welcome that.”

Besides translating progressive enthusiasm into votes, what the race may come down to is the power of both the Clay name—the congressman took over the seat from his father—and whether Bush’s personal story can outweigh a significant fundraising gap.

Multiple people, including Justice Democrats spokeswoman Nasim Thompson, said Bush’s “lived experience” as a former homeless single mother and survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault would make her an effective advocate for the district.

“It’s one thing to vote decently, it’s another to fight for those things,” Thompson said. “It’s not about [the Clay family legacy] anymore. The voters want a fighter.”

Clay is pitching a similar line as some other longtime Democrats facing challenges from the Left.

“The voters understand the choices they have and the politics of Congress as far as seniority is concerned,” said Clay. “I’m confident they’ll stick with the senior member of the delegation.”

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