From 2018 to 2020, the activist left experienced something of an electoral renaissance. It started, of course, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then an obscure primary challenger, ousted Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
The scope of the change was most evident, though, in how her win ― and the victories of the other left-wing candidates who would jointly come to be known as “The Squad” ― pushed many mainstream Democrats, including President Joe Biden, to the left.
That ideological shift was, in turn, all the more remarkable because it was propelled by Justice Democrats, a small, millennial-run group that emerged from the ashes of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run to recruit, consult and, if necessary, finance progressive primary challenges.
Just over six years since its founding, however, Justice Democrats’ opposition is more organized while its mission is more muddled and its coffers depleted. Faced with a shortage of funds, the group laid off nine of its 20 staff members in mid-July, a move that took many prominent progressives by surprise.
On Capitol Hill and elsewhere, those progressives are anxious about what a smaller “JD,” as the group is affectionately known, could mean for the left as a whole.
“Without a threat of a primary and a weakening of JD, we go back to corporate interests and a lack of accountability from the progressive movement,” a progressive senior House aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told HuffPost.
A second progressive House aide summed up the contradictions of a progressive movement that has larger-than-life celebrity lawmakers but lacks an institutional infrastructure comparable in size and scope.
“We have huge champions like Bernie Sanders, AOC, Ilhan Omar, who are able to be successful political fundraisers,” the second aide said. “But movement-wise, we’re not in a great place right now.”
In a statement to HuffPost, Ocasio-Cortez, whose campaign periodically sends joint fundraising emails for Justice Democrats, said she saw the moment as a “transition” for the group.
“JD has punched far beyond its weight and accomplished significant victories in just a few years.”
“JD has punched far beyond its weight and accomplished significant victories in just a few years,” she said. “I’m confident they’ll make it through this transition and continue to be successful in the future.”
But although a large swath of the left is united in its grief over Justice Democrats’ declining fortunes, there is broad disagreement about the causes of the problem and the right kind of solutions. Some allies point to the effect of an overall decline in political donations that has hit the left particularly hard even as groups dedicated to fighting progressives have ramped up their spending. Other progressives point to big liberal funders’ reluctance to finance a group dedicated to challenging incumbents, not least under a Democratic president to whom some on the left give high marks.
The group’s critics, however, argue that the left has failed to organize its incumbents on Capitol Hill or develop a coherent strategy for extracting concessions from Biden and other Democratic leaders. They also wonder why Justice Democrats did not go public sooner about the scope of its financial troubles.
The central question in all of these analyses, though, is whether the contraction is a sign of natural growing pains for the progressive movement or evidence of a deeper decline.
‘Sudden Changes In Grassroots Giving’
There is plenty of evidence to support Justice Democrats’ claim that it is one of many victims of a nationwide decline in political giving.
Thus far in this election cycle, political donations, small and large, have decreased across the board ― a state of affairs that campaign finance insiders attribute to, among other things, a kind of exhaustion after Donald Trump’s presidency and a cooling of the stock market that has struck a blow to some well-heeled donors’ asset wealth. Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, pillars of the center-left infrastructure, have laid off significant percentages of their staffs this year. Even Biden, who posted strong overall fundraising numbers in the first quarter of his reelection bid, has elicited lower-than-normal support from grassroots donors.
The newer crop of insurgent progressive groups, which lack the same levels of support from big donors, have sustained a proportionally even bigger hit: The Sunrise Movement, a climate action group closely aligned with Justice Democrats that was influential in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, began laying off 35% of its 100-person staff in April 2022. And Middle Seat, the digital fundraising firm behind many progressive success stories, laid off about one-third of its staff earlier this year, though it has grown its workforce since then.
“We are vulnerable to sudden changes in grassroots giving,” Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ executive director, told HuffPost. “The ebbs and flows for us are bigger.”
In the first half of 2023, a majority of the funds raised by Justice Democrats PAC, the hybrid spending entity that houses the group’s central operations, were in increments of $200 or less, according to its mid-year report to the Federal Election Commission. In total over that period, the group raised just over $800,000 ― down from nearly $1.3 million in the first half of 2021, which was the analogous point in the last election cycle.
What’s more, unlike some progressive groups with financial problems, the salaries for Justice Democrats’ top staff members are quite modest. Rojas earned about $81,000 in pay from the group’s PAC in 2022.
The Backlash Bill Comes Due
In addition to a drying up of grassroots donations, Rojas told HuffPost that a surge in spending against Justice Democrats’ candidates is forcing the group to subsist on a leaner budget.
“The primaries have gotten more expensive, so we’ve had to respond to that,” she said.
In the 2022 election cycle, parts of the Democratic establishment ― and other entities hostile to Justice Democrats’ agenda ― fully mobilized to beat back the group’s gains.
A dark-money group affiliated with Democratic Party leaders provided critical funding for Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) to ward off a close challenge from Kina Collins, who was backed by Justice Democrats. Mainstream Democrats, a super PAC bankrolled by LinkedIn co-founder and Democratic mega-donor Reid Hoffman, helped Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) narrowly beat Justice Democrats-backed attorney Jessica Cisneros.
And a newly created super PAC aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a right-leaning group that seeks to ensure unconditional U.S. support for Israel, spent copiously against left-leaning Democratic candidates. In 2022, the group’s super PAC spent nearly $4 million to try to defeat then-state Rep. Summer Lee, a Justice Democrats candidate in an open Pennsylvania seat, in both the primary and the general election. As part of a multimillion-dollar progressive ad blitz that helped now-U.S. Rep. Lee pull out a win, Justice Democrats’ super PAC alone spent $1.1 million on her behalf.
“It is unfortunate that after years of grumbling to the press on the paramount importance of protecting incumbents, Democratic leadership has seemingly turned its back on ours — allowing outside groups like AIPAC to target them with multimillion-dollar primary challenges.”
That’s out of the about $2.4 million in super PAC spending that Justice Democrats invested overall in the 2022 cycle, which was itself not a dramatic increase over the nearly $2.3 million it devoted for that purpose in the 2020 cycle.
This cycle, the organization is preparing to marshal its resources to defend affiliated incumbents like Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who represents a large Jewish constituency and could face a primary challenge backed by pro-Israel groups and voters. Bowman, who is a supporter of the two-state solution and has visited Israel as part of a trip sponsored by the liberal Jewish group J Street, has nonetheless been an outspoken critic of Israeli government policies and an advocate for stricter conditions on U.S. aid to the Jewish state. His recent decisions not to attend a speech to Congress by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and to vote against a resolution affirming that Israel is not a “racist state” prompted efforts to recruit Westchester County Executive George Latimer (D) to run against him.
“It is unfortunate that after years of grumbling to the press on the paramount importance of protecting incumbents, Democratic leadership has seemingly turned its back on ours — allowing outside groups like AIPAC to target them with multimillion-dollar primary challenges,” Rojas said.
In the meantime, Justice Democrats has not yet announced any endorsements of primary challengers or candidates in open seats, marking a stark change from this point in the last election cycle, when it was already backing four such contenders.
When asked whether the group was having trouble recruiting candidates, Rojas replied by email, “We are still in active candidate recruitment for this cycle.”
For all that Justice Democrats is facing legitimate financial strain, the group’s recent layoffs are part of a structural reorganization that reflects a reassessment of its fundamental priorities.
Like many national political groups, Justice Democrats has an explicit political action committee that is a hub for electioneering, as well as a separate political nonprofit arm through which the group engages in legislative advocacy and grassroots organizing.
Justice Democrats used the nonprofit entity, Organize for Justice, to fund its lean Capitol Hill lobbying operation, a 10-week Movement School for training left-wing campaign professionals and a podcast, “Bloc Party.”
As the group went to battle against AIPAC and other resource-rich groups in 2022, Justice Democrats used Organize for Justice to bail out its campaign arm. Weeks before Lee’s primary, Justice Democrats transferred $300,000 from Organize for Justice to Justice Democrats PAC, which houses its main political spending operations. This year, the group has also siphoned more than $170,000 away from the nonprofit to fund its operations.
The distribution of Justice Democrats’ layoffs in July confirms that the group is pivoting away from its foray into legislative activity and organizing, and doubling down on its original mission of winning elections. Seven out of the nine staff members whom the group laid off were paid by Organize for Justice.
Rojas acknowledged that the cuts would diminish the group’s presence on Capitol Hill. “As we build and plan for the future, expanding our footprint on the Hill is a crucial goal we are always working towards.”
It’s not clear how much of a loss Justice Democrats’ contraction on the Hill will entail since its presence to date was so small. But some progressives regard it as a sad statement about the contemporary left that effective organizations must routinely choose between elections and other areas, including lobbying.
“A real problem with our ecosystem right now is that there’s no central hub for people to coordinate on long-term strategy, policy, advocacy and elections, like a left-wing Heritage Foundation,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a former Bernie Sanders campaign operative who co-founded the progressive consulting firm Left Flank. “The reason for that is because there’s way less money on the insurgent left than on the insurgent right, in general, and especially right now.”
Indeed, a fundamental challenge for Justice Democrats is that many of the big donors who give to liberal candidates, nonprofits and political action committees are simply not as eager as their right-wing counterparts to fund a group explicitly committed to ousting moderate Democrats in primaries.
“It’s a real failure of the progressive funder establishment that one of the most effective, powerful and important organizations in America has never gotten the investment that it deserves,” said Max Berger, a former political director for Justice Democrats. “Progressives need to treat this as a scandal.”
Progressives supportive of Justice Democrats’ mission are at odds over exactly why that investment has never materialized and whether it’s something that can be overcome in even the most ideal circumstances.
Some factors keeping wealthy progressives on the sidelines might be specific to the current moment, according to people familiar with their giving patterns.
In contrast with recent years, when climate and racial justice movements fueled electoral politics, the biggest social conflict currently sweeping the country is being driven by labor unions engaged in contract disputes with management. Those fights typically lack an immediate link to policy in Congress that might become a factor in Democratic primaries.
Biden has also pleasantly surprised many progressive donors with his governing style, including passage of the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act and his attempt to unilaterally cancel up to $20,000 of student debt.
Ganapathy thinks that this kind of shift from Biden makes challenging the establishment feel less urgent. “When there’s a big gap between where the president is on legislative priorities and where the left is, like there was under the Obama administration, it becomes really important for the left to take on a more confrontational posture. But comparing, for example, the role of single-payer advocacy groups during the [Affordable Care Act] fights versus the role of groups like Sunrise Movement in the Inflation Reduction Act process ― it’s night and day. I genuinely think the White House and the Biden campaign see progressives as part of their coalition, and that counts for something.”
Instead, the biggest obstacle to passage of more progressive legislation, many progressives argue, was the narrowness of Democrats’ majorities in the House and Senate in 2021 and 2022. More than the existence of conservative Democrats, Democrats’ small margins are to blame for empowering Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and others to obstruct Biden’s agenda, these progressives maintain.
“The project of primarying incumbent Democrats might be important in two years, but it’s not important in this upcoming cycle at all.”
The solution to that problem, some progressive donors conclude, is to elect more Democrats rather than fund primary challenges to the Democrats who are already there. Donors’ focus on ousting Republicans has only increased now that Republicans control the House, and Democrats are gearing up to try to retake the chamber in November 2024.
“What is electing two [additional] progressive House members going to do in 2024?” said one Democratic congressional aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “The project of primarying incumbent Democrats might be important in two years, but it’s not important in this upcoming cycle at all.”
Still other progressive insiders maintain that wealthy donors are often inherently less radical due to their material interests and social worlds. They might also be less willing to embrace third-rail issues like U.S.-Israel policy, where the gap between the Democratic establishment and the grassroots left is generally widest.
“It’s much harder to question American empire than it is to question American inequality,” the second progressive House aide said.
In some cases, Justice Democrats might have done more to woo those big donors as the necessity of layoffs loomed. One progressive donor close to Justice Democrats, who requested anonymity to preserve professional relationships, told HuffPost that they would have pitched in more if they had been personally notified about the gravity of the situation.
Allied members and staff in the House were also not aware of the extent of the group’s financial woes and thus did not make last-minute fundraising appeals on the group’s behalf, according to three progressive House aides who spoke with HuffPost.
“They may not have been aware of the specifics, but we have been honest with everyone we speak with about how fundraising is going and they have been honest with us as well,” Rojas said. “We did our best to exhaust all resources and avenues of support before having to make this difficult decision.”
Criticism From The Left
Some progressives believe that Justice Democrats should not even be trying to solicit donations from rich people, however.
One of them is Cenk Uygur, a co-founder of Justice Democrats, who is better known as the creator of The Young Turks, a popular progressive YouTube network. (Justice Democrats severed ties with him in 2020 after it emerged that he had authored sexist blog posts in the early 2000s.)
“We’re not a group that should be relying on big donors,” he told HuffPost. “We’re supposed to be a group that raises money from the grassroots.”
Uygur blamed Justice Democrats for failing to foster a cohesive group of lawmakers capable of holding up high-priority bills, such as the American Rescue Plan Act, in order to extract progressive policy concessions from Biden and other Democratic leaders. If the organization with which he was previously affiliated had created a truly independent left-wing bloc in Congress, Uygur argued, there would be no shortage of grassroots generosity for the organization.
“Them having financial trouble is not the problem,” Uygur said. “It is a consequence of the core problem: Since you didn’t fight for anything, there’s no hope.”
“It is a consequence of the core problem: Since you didn’t fight for anything, there’s no hope.”
The senior House progressive aide conceded that Justice Democrats-aligned incumbents lacked cohesiveness and did not have regular group meetings with Justice Democrats ― though how much of that was due to the operation’s limited funding is unclear.
“Other than some Israel bills, we never talked about legislation,” the senior aide said. “There’s a perspective that people with JD win their race and come to Congress and do their own thing.”
For her part, Rojas rejected the suggestion that Justice Democrats’ Capitol Hill operation had lacked discipline.
“We are in close contact with every JD office, especially around larger moments for our movement, and I know that all of the members keep in close touch with each other on most if not all legislative matters,” she said.
The progressive donor close to Justice Democrats agrees that grassroots donors feel discouraged but chalks the situation up to a marketing problem. Biden would not have passed the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act had Ocasio-Cortez and others not turned the idea of a Green New Deal into a national rallying cry, the donor said.
“I don’t think it’s the fault of JD’s that there wasn’t a flashy moment that made that clear to people,” the donor said.
But whether the main problem is the mission, the marketing or the money, fixing it could take years of work, Justice Democrats’ allies warn.
Acknowledging that something needs to change might be the place to start.
“I don’t think right now that there is a vehicle for progressive electeds to build collective power. There needs to be,” Berger said. “Should JD be that vehicle? If it’s not them, I don’t know what it’s going to be.”