The Progressive Caucus Is Spending Big To Grow Its Ranks In The House

A handful of November House races offer a chance to expand on gains made during the primaries.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) created a campaign program that is d
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) created a campaign program that is due to spend more than $1 million.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is making an unprecedented push to elect more left-leaning Democrats to the U.S. House this election cycle, spending more than $1 million on candidates through its first outside spending program.

Although contributions to the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s political action committee are capped at $5,000, the PAC’s creation of an independent spending arm that does not coordinate with campaigns enables it to spend unlimited amounts of money on a select group of endorsed candidates. As of mid-August, the PAC had also distributed more than $200,000 to candidates directly, in increments of $5,000.

The investments reflect an acknowledgment that to increase the caucus’s influence in the House, the group of more than 90 Democrats of varied ideological backgrounds needs not only more members but also more ideologically committed members.

“It’s about getting progressive policies through and really speaking to the deep inequities and inequalities in the country that both parties have not been front-and-center in fixing,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the CPC.

Mondaire Jones, the Democratic nominee in New York's 17th Congressional District, benefited from the largesse of the progress
Mondaire Jones, the Democratic nominee in New York's 17th Congressional District, benefited from the largesse of the progressive caucus. He is expected to cruise to victory in November.

A New Funding Arm Makes It Mark

This election cycle, the CPC’s political action committee ― co-chaired by Reps. Jayapal, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Jamie Raskin of Maryland ― has endorsed 15 House candidates, including several Democrats seeking to flip Republican-held seats: Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, Dana Balter in New York’s 24th District, Jon Hoadley in Michigan’s 6th, Candace Valenzuela in Texas’s 24th, Mike Siegel in Texas’s 10th, J.D. Scholten in Iowa’s 4th and Julie Oliver in Texas’s 25th District.

Many of those candidates with the most promising shot of turning a House seat blue have the financial backing of House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or other deep-pocketed organs associated with the party establishment. 

But the CPC’s creation of an outside spending arm has allowed it to hold its own in critical red-to-blue races. Through that vehicle, CPC PAC is spending $190,000 on an ad campaign in support of Eastman’s bid and $75,000 in support of Balter. (Both candidates narrowly lost their races in 2018 after primary races in which they defeated moderate Democrats favored by the party establishment.)

And the progressive caucus has already benefited from a relatively fruitful primary season. While the CPC PAC does not endorse candidates challenging incumbent Democrats, Jamaal Bowman in New York and Marie Newman in Illinois ― two contenders who succeeded in ousting incumbents without the CPC’s help ― enjoy the CPC’s blessing in their largely symbolic general election fights and are expected to become some of the CPC’s most outspoken members. 

Cori Bush, who unseated Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri, a CPC member, has yet to get the official CPC nod but is likewise due to become a dedicated progressive caucus member.

The progressive caucus also invested heavily in the late June primary victory of Mondaire Jones, the progressive contender who triumphed over a crowded field to succeed retiring Rep. Nita Lowey in New York City’s northern suburbs. After the CPC PAC endorsed Jones in May, the group’s outside spending arm put $200,000 in to support his bid. Jones ― like Bowman, Newman and Bush ― faces only token opposition in his November race for control of an overwhelmingly Democratic seat.

Beth Doglio, an environmentalist and state lawmaker (left) has the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in her rac
Beth Doglio, an environmentalist and state lawmaker (left) has the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in her race against Marilyn Strickland. Both women are Democrats.

Two Democrats On The Ballot

Thanks to a confluence of unusual electoral circumstances, the CPC has a chance to notch more intra-party victories of the kind that normally occur exclusively in primaries. California and Washington state both have nonpartisan primary systems that make the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, the only names on the ballot in the general election. 

This cycle, Democrats were the top two vote-getters in the primaries in California’s 53rd District and Washington’s 10th. Both districts are solid Democratic seats where a veteran lawmaker’s retirement sparked a flood of interest from potential successors. As a result, those two general election races offer the rare opportunity for the party’s warring factions to reenact the proxy battles of the primaries. 

In California’s 53rd, Georgette Gómez, the progressive president of the San Diego City Council, is up against Sara Jacobs, an anti-poverty nonprofit leader and former State Department official in the Obama administration. Jacobs is widely seen as more moderate than Gómez ― emphasizing “common ground” over a more confrontational approach ― but she also has endorsed Medicare for All and the Green New Deal

I would like to not be the only progressive in Washington state’s delegation. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair, Congressional Progressive Caucus

The CPC PAC’s outside spending arm has not yet invested in Gómez’s race, however, and, given the money challenges facing Gómez in an expensive media market, it’s not hard to see why. A super PAC created by Jacobs’ grandfather, the billionaire founder of Qualcomm, a telecommunications software company, has spent $1.9 million in support of Jacobs’ bid. She now enjoys a double-digit lead over Gómez, according to a public poll released in late September.

By contrast, the CPC PAC is putting major money behind state Rep. Beth Doglio’s run in Washington’s 10th, where the environmentalist is up against Marilyn Strickland, a former Tacoma mayor who most recently served as president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the region’s main business lobby. With the help of $365,000 in ad spending by the CPC PAC’s outside arm, Doglio landed a respectable second-place finish in the August primary, earning her one of the two spots on the November ballot. The CPC PAC is spending an additional $123,000 on digital ads boosting Doglio in the final weeks of the campaign.

The Medicare for All PAC, a group Jayapal founded to support candidates who embrace single-payer health care, funded an additional $75,000 in independent spending on Doglio’s behalf.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), left, joins Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at an event in Seattle in 2013. It is unclear how much rese
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), left, joins Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at an event in Seattle in 2013. It is unclear how much resentment of Bezos' power resonates outside of Seattle.

A Chance To Rebuke Amazon

Unlike the Jacobs-Gómez race, the policy differences between Doglio and Strickland are stark. While Doglio has embraced the entire progressive agenda, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Strickland prefers a public health insurance option and the recommendations of House Democrats’ climate crisis committee.

But the race’s significance goes beyond mere policy positions. Jayapal, the CPC co-chair, has taken a personal interest in Doglio’s bid, given her proximity to the district, which begins about 30 miles south of Seattle along the Puget Sound’s southern rim.

“Obviously it is very close to my heart,” Jayapal told HuffPost. “I would like to not be the only progressive in Washington state’s delegation.”

Jayapal also cited Doglio’s background as a leader of some of the state’s influential environmental organizations and NARAL, the abortion rights group.

“People who have been organizing, when they get to elected office, they bring a different sensibility to the work and to building the kind of inside-outside organizing strategy that we need,” Jayapal said.

What’s more, progressives’ desire to push back against the power of Amazon and other mega-corporations based in metropolitan Seattle has put a target on Strickland’s back. 

Under Strickland’s leadership, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber, in conjunction with Amazon, led the fight to overturn a city tax on the employees of big companies that would have generated $75 million to fund services for the growing population of chronically homeless people. 

After successfully pressuring the city council to undo the tax in June 2018, the chamber went on to spend $2.5 million trying to unseat city council members who had either supported the tax or had not taken a firm position on it. Amazon alone contributed $1.4 million to the endeavor. 

While just two out of seven of the chamber’s preferred candidates prevailed, progressives see it as an indication of the outsize influence of corporations in the region’s politics. 

Doglio has pointed to it as evidence of what Strickland’s priorities would be in Congress and connected it to her reliance on contributions from corporate political action committees as a candidate. Initially, Strickland circulated campaign material stating that she had rejected corporate contributions, but in August, a local news outlet reported that she had not pledged to refuse such contributions.

I have championed working people and the planet over corporate profits. Beth Doglio, Democratic candidate in Washington's 10th District

“I have championed working people and the planet over corporate profits,” Doglio told HuffPost. “If you look at her record, you will see she has consistently sided with corporations.”

The Strickland campaign, which did not make Strickland available for an interview, argued that Doglio had the luxury of disavowing corporate PAC money given the backing she had from outside spending initiatives that are not subject to individual contribution limits. 

Strickland supports H.R. 1, the bill passed by House Democrats that would create a publicly funded campaign finance system, but, in the meantime, she refuses to “limit her ability to reach voters” by forswearing money from corporate PACs, campaign spokesperson Mark Prentice told HuffPost.

Asked to respond to criticism of Strickland’s tenure at the Seattle chamber, Prentice said, “South Sound voters are concerned about their lives and livelihoods, not Seattle politics.”

To tackle the housing crisis that is particularly severe in the communities surrounding the Puget Sound, Strickland has proposed increasing the low-income housing tax credit, upping funding to state housing commissions and expanding the ways in which federal housing vouchers can be used. 

Doglio’s housing plan is both more detailed and more ambitious. In addition to backing many of the measures that Strickland endorses, Doglio has gotten behind a plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to leverage $500 billion to build 3.2 million housing units for low- and moderate-income Americans. She also embraces the latest research showing that chronically unhoused people are most likely to stay off the streets if governments provide “permanent supportive housing.” That model, which ensures homeless people long-term shelter, as well as wrap-around social and health services, treats basic material security as a prerequisite for breaking the cycle of chronic homelessness rather than as a reward for people who meet certain criteria.

“Beth Doglio understands housing and homelessness,” said Sara Rankin, director of the homeless rights advocacy project at the University of Seattle law school and the co-founder of a business coalition to end chronic homelessness in the greater Seattle area. “I haven’t seen any evidence from Marilyn Strickland that she understands those issues as much.”

Retiring Rep. Denny Heck (D), who has represented Washington's 10th District since 2013, is a moderate, leading to speculatio
Retiring Rep. Denny Heck (D), who has represented Washington's 10th District since 2013, is a moderate, leading to speculation that a progressive may have a hard time winning his seat.

Testing The Limits Of Seattle Politics

But as Prentice, Strickland’s campaign spokesperson, said, the issues of homelessness and resentment of Amazon’s political influence may not have the same resonance in Pierce and Thurston counties, more than 30 miles south of Seattle. 

Washington’s 10th District stretches from the suburbs of Tacoma, a historically blue-collar city, westward to the state capital of Olympia. The district, which is home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the largest military base on the West Coast, leans considerably less Democratic than Jayapal’s seat in Seattle. Rep. Denny Heck, whose run for lieutenant governor sparked the Doglio-Strickland showdown, is a moderate who has focused on national security issues as a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

What’s more, the Strickland campaign has shown signs of confidence, releasing an internal poll conducted at the end of August that showed Strickland leading Doglio by 21 percentage points.

“I really don’t think the Seattle tax fight will have a big effect on the general election,” said a progressive who’s active in Washington state politics and who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “Given the geographic makeup of the district, it’s going to be tough for Beth Doglio to pull it off.”

I want to see more people in government who look like me and understand what it’s like to be Black in America. Kristine Reeves, former Washington state representative

The question of racial representation has also prompted at least one prominent progressive to choose Strickland over Doglio. Strickland would be the first Black American to represent Washington state in Congress and the first Korean American woman to serve in Congress. 

Former state Rep. Kristine Reeves, who is also Black and came in third behind Strickland and Doglio in the primary, told HuffPost that, although she doesn’t share Strickland’s business-friendly outlook, she appreciates Strickland’s economic policy experience and the perspective she would bring to the job as a woman of color.

“I want to see more people in government who look like me and understand what it’s like to be Black in America,” she said. “Sometimes you have to break glass ceilings with imperfect hammers.”

Reeves, who has advised the state’s defense industry and handled veterans outreach for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), might have been a more “electable” progressive to rally behind than Doglio, according to the progressive active in Washington state politics.

Regardless of the race’s outcome though, Jayapal maintains that endorsing Doglio signals to prospective candidates that the progressive caucus will have their back if they choose to run.

“We are used to supporting people early on,” Jayapal said. “And sometimes it may take a little bit longer to get to a win.”

We want to know what you’re hearing on the ground from the candidates. If you get any interesting ― or suspicious! ― campaign mailers, robocalls or hear anything else you think we should know about, email us at scoops@huffpost.com. 



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