A slew of ideological battles within the Democratic Party over the coming weeks, stretching from the Bronx to the hollers of eastern Kentucky to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, will test Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s ability to dictate primary outcomes both nationally and in his home state.
Senate Democrats’ political operation, previously led by former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and now by Schumer, has not lost a primary since the 2010 election cycle, but must fend off left-wing candidates in both Kentucky and Colorado over the course of the next week. And after originally declining to pick sides in a contested House primary in his home state, Schumer endorsed House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, who is desperately trying to fend off a challenge from educator Jamaal Bowman.
Both Bowman’s bid in New York’s 16th District and the Kentucky contest ― which pits Schumer-backed former fighter pilot Amy McGrath against progressive state Rep. Charles Booker ― point to a still-emerging alliance between Black and Latino voters and progressive groups that could spoil the Democratic establishment’s ability to swat aside primary challenges.
These coalitions’ potential strength has only grown as the coronavirus pandemic and the protests following the death of George Floyd have exposed systemic inequalities in health care and policing. If the left can successfully re-create them in the years to come, almost every Democratic politician in America ― up to and including those as powerful as Schumer ― could face serious primary challenges.
“From New York to Kentucky, there’s a multiracial slate of progressive candidates that are surging,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York state director of the Working Families Party, which is backing Booker and Bowman. “Primary voters are sending a clear message that politics as usual won’t get us heading in the right direction.”
L. Joy Williams, a New York Democratic strategist and consultant for New York Rep. Yvette Clarke’s re-election bid, was blunt about the potential impact progressive wins could have on Schumer.
“It will have an immediate impact in terms of people thinking about whether he is vulnerable,” she said.
Schumer’s office declined to comment. Any attempt to unseat Schumer, who remains popular throughout the state, would be a monumental uphill battle. Persistent rumors have suggested Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the pioneer of modern left-wing primary challenges, could run against Schumer in 2022.
Progressives are targeting a number of primaries in New York. The Working Families Party and other left-leaning groups are optimistic about Mondaire Jones’ chances to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey in a district representing a swath of suburbs to the north of the city. Adem Bunkeddeko is mounting a second challenge to Clarke in a Brooklyn-based seat after losing by less than 2,000 votes in 2018. And there are two dueling progressive candidates in the race for a Bronx-based district that is the nation’s most Democratic.
But it’s the battle for Engel’s seat where Schumer has expended the most political capital. In early June, Schumer made it clear he hadn’t picked sides between Engel and Bowman as the latter picked up political momentum. Schumer’s declaration forced Engel to remove his state’s senior senator from an online list of campaign endorsers.
Schumer’s neutrality couldn’t last: Pro-Israel groups count both men as crucial allies, and are desperately working to keep Engel in office. Dov Hikind, a former New York assemblyman, questioned Schumer’s pro-Israel credentials.
A little over a week later, Schumer told the Jewish Insider he was supporting the incumbent.
Schumer has long been more conciliatory toward the left wing of the party than other Democratic leaders. He backed now-Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for Democratic National Committee chair in 2016, gave both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren roles in Senate leadership, and voted with Sanders and other progressive senators against a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada late last year.
“Chuck is responsive to these kinds of pressures when he pays attention to them,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist who was a top aide to Reid. “There’s a misplaced confidence in the centrist vision of the party based on [former Vice President Joe] Biden’s victory in the primary.”
“I think the important thing moving forward is to take the left seriously,” he continued. “It’s going to be the place where the most energizing ideas are coming from, and where a lot of the grassroots money is coming from.”
And Schumer’s long-term political goal of reclaiming the Senate majority is now within his grasp. President Donald Trump’s continued political decline has increased Democrats’ chances of winning Senate seats even in red-tinted states like Georgia and Iowa, and Schumer’s political operation has matched or outspent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s in most states. And after some early recruiting struggles, he managed to convince two former presidential candidates ― former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock ― to run for Senate instead.
Still, the structure of the 2018 Senate map, which was heavy on Democratic incumbents running for re-election, meant Schumer has largely been able to avoid the party’s Trump-era ideological battles until this year. So far, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee-backed candidates have cruised, easily winning in Iowa and North Carolina against a mostly disorganized left wing of the party.
But that may change in Kentucky and Colorado. Senate Democrats have long viewed victory in the Bluegrass State as unlikely, but believed McGrath’s incredibly strong fundraising ― she’s raised more than $40 million, compared to McConnell’s $23 million, according to Federal Election Commission records ― could help pin McConnell down and prevent him from aiding other GOP incumbents financially.
Early last week, Schumer told reporters he believed McGrath would triumph, happily explaining how a super PAC controlled by McConnell had reserved $10 million worth of airtime in the state. Later in the week, he ignored a HuffPost reporter’s questions about his confidence in his prized recruit.
Progressive voters, and voters as a whole, are embracing and running toward the most systemic policy changes. Sochie Nnaemeka, Working Families Party
Senate Democrats are still confident McGrath can hold off Booker, though they acknowledge the race will be far closer than previously expected. Booker’s participation in Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks has helped galvanize support, rallying progressives both in Kentucky and nationally to his cause. One of his ads features McGrath struggling to answer why she hasn’t participated in the protests.
McGrath has hit back with an electability argument.
“She’s Kentucky’s best chance to move on from Mitch McConnell,” an announcer says at the start of McGrath’s latest ad. “Polling shows she’s the only Democrat who can beat him.”
If the race in Kentucky is mostly about draining McConnell’s resources, the contest in Colorado on June 30 is essential to Democratic victory in the battle for the Senate. It was seen as a coup when Schumer convinced Hickenlooper, a popular former governor and mayor of Denver, to drop out of the presidential race and run for Senate against vulnerable incumbent GOP Sen. Cory Gardner.
Instead, Hickenlooper has made multiple gaffes in recent weeks as his lone remaining primary rival, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, has repeatedly attacked him from the left on climate change and other issues.
After Romanoff released an ad on Friday attacking Hickenlooper over an ethics violation, a quickly formed super PAC fired back with an ad attacking Romanoff’s immigration record.
The super PAC, Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, won’t have to make its donors public until after the primary because it began spending after the pre-primary FEC filing deadline. Groups affiliated with Schumer have used similar tactics in the past to temporarily hide their donors.
The race between Hickenlooper and Romanoff has not become the flashpoint the Kentucky contest has. While both Warren and Sanders endorsed Booker, Sanders has remained neutral in Colorado and Warren has sided with Hickenlooper.
In part, this is because Romanoff doesn’t have sterling progressive credentials, even if he now supports the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.” In 2014, he aired an ad touting his support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution while running for House, and he voted against in-state college tuition for undocumented college students in the legislature.
Even if Schumer’s Senate picks survive, however, it’s clear the left is growing more capable of causing headaches for the establishment.
“Progressive voters, and voters as a whole, are embracing and running toward the most systemic policy changes,” Nnaemeka said. “That’s the ground we’re operating on now, and I don’t think it’s going to shift.”
CORRECTION: This article previously misidentified the district in which Bowman is running as the 17th; it is the 16th.