Against the Grain

The Five Top Democratic Primary Targets

Moderate House Democrats are facing the wrath of progressive groups, who are working to recruit primary challengers to move the caucus leftward.

Rep. Henry Cuellar with the media after a bipartisan meeting with President Trump on Sept. 13, 2017
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Jan. 22, 2019, 8 p.m.

House Democrats are facing the prospect of a divisive year ahead, working to avoid messy primaries that lay bare the deepening ideological divisions within the party. Outside progressive groups, emboldened by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset over Speaker-in-waiting Joseph Crowley, are preparing to target members who occasionally veer from left-wing orthodoxy. And after a midterm election when outspoken progressive candidates fared poorly in swing districts, leading operatives within the movement now recognize that the more effective way to push the party leftward is through primaries in otherwise safe seats.

Antiestablishment groups like the Justice Democrats are taking a page from the tea-party movement, raging against a business-friendly party leadership while backing policies (hostility to Israel, support for heavy-handed environmental regulations, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that are deeply unpopular with the broader electorate. Progressive groups are working to recruit challengers against at least six House Democrats, according to Data for Progress cofounder Sean McElwee, including entrenched members such as Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts.

After the dust settles on the shutdown fight, the tensions between the activist Left and the many swing-district members who protect Nancy Pelosi’s majority will deepen. The bigger threat for Democrats isn’t that an ideologically extreme challenger would lose to a Republican in a solidly blue district. It’s that such purity tests would brand the party as beholden to its base at the worst possible time—right in the middle of a presidential election.

The House Democrats with the most credible primary threats face a wide range of political challenges. One is a perennial target because of his principled opposition to abortion. Some fear being placed on Ocasio-Cortez’s hit list. Pelosi could exact her own revenge on some of her party’s insurgents. And a few members may be in trouble simply because they’re disconnected from the racial demographics of their district.

Here are the five Democrats most vulnerable in a primary:

1. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois. The antiabortion Lipinski barely survived a well-organized primary challenge last year, with feminist groups and abortion-rights advocates lining up behind his opponent. Notably, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee withheld its endorsement for months before expressing muted support for the embattled congressman just a few weeks before the election.

This time around, the committee plans to endorse Lipinski as it does with every incumbent who pays their DCCC dues, a senior Democratic official told National Journal. It helps to have his moderate Illinois colleague Cheri Bustos chairing the committee, but that won’t stop the liberal firepower from striking again, and his 2018 challenger, Marie Newman, says she's getting ready for another run.

2. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. Cuellar looks like he’ll be the top target of the left-wing Justice Democrats over his moderate views on immigration (he represents a border district), centrist fiscal positions (he’s a member of the Blue Dog Democrats), and support for a balanced energy policy (he backed the Keystone XL pipeline). He’s no stranger to challenges from his left, ousting a progressive member of Congress to first win his seat and handily defeating him again in a primary.

3. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Moulton understands primary challenges, winning his seat by defeating an ethically-embattled Democrat (John Tierney). But after launching a failed coup against the House speaker, Moulton’s star has dimmed. He was unable to marshal much support from his colleagues for the fight, and his actions drew the ire of activists in his home district. He’s also teased the possibility of a long-shot presidential bid—even planning a trip to New Hampshire next month—moves that usually don’t sit well with constituents back home.

4. Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York. Another one of the anti-Pelosi insurgents, Rice faces two strikes against her from her party. She’s a longtime critic of the Speaker and is also one of the most moderate members of the delegation. That said, she’s largely in line with her affluent Nassau County district, which gave Donald Trump 44 percent of the vote in 2016.

5. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. One of the most prominent progressive members of the freshman class faces a primary threat of her own next year. But her vulnerability isn’t a consequence of her profane anti-Trump rant or her associations with a Hamas- and Hezbollah-supporting activist. In her deep-blue Detroit district, that positioning could enhance her standing with the base.

But a majority of her constituents are African-American, and the district was represented for more than 50 years by the iconic John Conyers. In last year’s primary, Tlaib won only 31 percent of the vote in a crowded field, finishing just a point ahead of Detroit City Council president Brenda Jones (who actually defeated Tlaib in a concurrent special election for the remainder of Conyers’ term and served for five weeks). Jones, who is African-American, is rumored to be considering another campaign. If she can consolidate most of the black vote in the district behind her, Tlaib would be the underdog.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that Rice is already facing a Democratic opponent. No one has yet announced a primary campaign against her.

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