Progressive candidates challenging Democratic members of Congress in primaries are increasingly making foreign policy a central theme of their campaigns in the wake of President Donald Trump’s killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
At least five House challengers and one progressive running in a competitive primary for an open Senate seat have used the assassination ― and the questions it’s raised about Congress’ power to authorize war and the United States’ role in the world ― to distinguish themselves from their more moderate Democratic opponents.
The accusation that sitting Democratic lawmakers have provided insufficient oversight of Trump’s foreign policy has become significant in immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros’ run against Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar; former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman’s run against House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York; law professor Suraj Patel’s rematch against Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York; Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse’s effort to unseat House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts; and nonprofit executive Melanie D’Arrigo’s run against Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, a long-shot candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination in the Bluegrass State, has also sought to distinguish himself from military veteran and establishment favorite Amy McGrath with a firmer stance against Trump’s intervention.
Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for the left-wing group Justice Democrats, which is backing three out of the five primary challengers, sees Democrats’ foreign policy stances as a potentially fruitful campaign topic.
“On the presidential level and on the congressional level, there is a real fight on the direction of the Democratic Party on foreign policy, especially in the Trump era,” Shahid said. “Trump is being impeached for manipulating foreign policy to benefit himself. So there’s a lot of energy in the Democratic electorate to hold him more accountable.”
For some challengers, though, the case is more straightforward than for others.
Cuellar, who has one of the most conservative records in his party’s caucus, registered no objection to Trump’s move to kill Soleimani, calling it “a necessary step in combating the threat of Iran.”
It was the perfect opening for Cisneros, the challenger, who has made Cuellar’s common ground with Trump a key talking point. For the purposes of this particular argument, she has also underscored Cuellar’s reliance over the course of his career on campaign contributions from military contractors.
“Henry Cuellar is picking corporate special interests over his constituents — and proving once again he’s Trump’s favorite Democrat,” she said in a Monday statement.
But other Democratic incumbents have at least questioned the wisdom of Trump’s actions, raising the possibility that, as with impeachment, their progressive challengers will become victims of their own success.
The threat of a progressive primary challenge has likely made vulnerable Democrats more eager to criticize Trump’s conduct, which ironically deprives those same progressive primary challengers of a neater attack line against the incumbents they are taking on.
Trump is being impeached for manipulating foreign policy to benefit himself. So there’s a lot of energy in the Democratic electorate to hold him more accountable. Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats
Instead, many progressive challengers are reduced to casting doubt on incumbents’ judgment based on their past actions. Specifically, challengers are seizing on whether their opponents voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War; opposed then-President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran; or voted for the final, bipartisan version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act ― a military spending bill from which lawmakers had stripped provisions reining in the president’s authority to wage war with Iran.
“What we must demand is not a race to war, but a diplomatic solution,” Patel, the law professor running for a second time to unseat Maloney, said in a Saturday statement. “Rep. Carolyn Maloney has a history of supporting reckless Middle East policy and aligning herself with the foreign policy of this president.”
The reelection campaign of Maloney — who indeed voted for the Iraq War, opposed the Iran nuclear deal and voted for the 2020 defense spending bill — declined HuffPost’s request for a response to Patel’s accusation.
Morse, Neal’s challenger, blasted Neal for approving the compromise defense spending bill and for failing to lead on the reassertion of congressional authority in matters of war and peace. Neal voted against authorizing the Iraq War and supported the Iran nuclear deal, but also voted for the original Authorization for Use of Military Force, which, over 18 years later, remains the sole legal basis for the entire war on terror across multiple countries. (California Rep. Barbara Lee was the sole member of Congress to vote against the original AUMF in September 2001.)
Neal “has had opportunities throughout his 30 years in Washington to prevent what happened [on Thursday night] and he failed to do so,” Morse told HuffPost.
Neal’s campaign said the influential Massachusetts congressman had supported the NDAA because it included a compromise to save some 200 jobs at a manufacturing facility in Springfield and major funding for military bases in the Western Massachusetts district.
“With Middle East foreign policy, as with many others, Alex Morse appears to be remarkably ill-informed about national and international issues as they relate to Western Mass,” Neal campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton said.
D’Arrigo has also focused on the 2020 NDAA in her bid to dislodge Suozzi, a business-friendly House sophomore.
In a statement about Soleimani’s killing, Suozzi had urged Trump to work with Congress and U.S. allies.
D’Arrigo quote-tweeted the statement on Twitter with a rebuke against Suozzi’s vote for the 2020 NDAA.
“You can’t both criticize AND enable his actions,” she wrote to Suozzi. “Continually playing both sides will not keep Americans safe, it will only embolden an increasingly rogue GOP and POTUS.”
At least one Democratic incumbent, however ― Engel ― went so far as voting against the annual defense spending bill, making it even harder to pin him down.
Engel, who is liberal on domestic policy, has long been one of his party’s more hawkish members on foreign affairs. He voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War ― a vote for which he has subsequently expressed regret ― and in 2015, opposed then-President Barack Obama’s agreement with the Iranian government restricting its development of nuclear weapons.
Democratic voters in general do not have well-developed foreign policy views. Matt Grossmann, Michigan State University
Engel’s position was nuanced, however, even before Bowman and schoolteacher Andom Ghebreghiorgis announced bids against him in 2019. Essentially from the moment Trump took office in 2017, Engel opposed withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, notwithstanding his opposition to the accord that Obama had passed.
In the current majority-Democratic Congress, though, with serious primary challenges against him underway, Engel has made a particular point of aligning with his party’s peace camp. He co-sponsored California Rep. Ro Khanna’s amendment to the annual defense spending bill forbidding military hostilities with Iran without congressional authorization. And along with just 40 other Democrats, he voted down the final bill because the bipartisan compromise legislation omitted the amendment.
So when Bowman warned Engel on Twitter that the “grassroots … will be pushing” for the adoption of the standalone version of Khanna’s legislation requiring congressional authorization for war with Iran, Engel had a retort handy. “Glad you agree with my bill,” he wrote, signing the tweet “Eliot” to signify that he, rather than his staff, had written it. (Bowman shot back with a recounting of Engel’s support for the Iraq War and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.)
Democratic leadership in the House has already taken steps to shore up its moderate members at the expense of both more liberal sitting members and progressive primary challengers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has tapped Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a moderate freshman and former intelligence analyst, to lead the introduction of legislation later this week that would force Trump to cease hostilities with Iran within 30 days if Congress does not take additional action. Even if the legislation is identical to Khanna’s, it would effectively deprive Khanna and his ideological allies of credit for the provision and obscure responsibility for his amendment being jettisoned from the final defense spending bill.
Cuellar’s campaign would not say how Cuellar, the most hawkish of the embattled incumbents, plans to cast his vote on such a bill. But he may benefit from Texas’ open primary system, which allows independents and Republicans to register as Democrats to cast a vote in the March 3 primary.
His campaign’s combative responses to Cisneros may be aimed at more conservative primarygoers.
Cisneros “can put out a press release of word salad, but the bottom line is that our opponent opposes the targeting of a terrorist who directed and sanctioned attacks on U.S. troops,” said Cuellar campaign spokesman Colin Strother, adding that Cisneros is “standing with Iran.”
Even with a more favorable set of facts for progressives, though, it’s likely that foreign policy would be a challenging issue to run on.
“Democratic voters in general do not have well-developed foreign policy views,” Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossmann told HuffPost last week. “They are only able to interpret events in terms of what political elites say.”
Shahid of Justice Democrats maintains that it’s worth a shot, particularly given Obama’s popularity and the degree to which Trump’s brinksmanship stems from his insistence on jettisoning the Iran deal ― Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.
“Siding with President Trump on an issue that could bring the nation to the brink of war is not something you want to be associated with at all in the Democratic primary,” he said.