The Insurgent Left Is MIA In The Battle For The Senate

Establishment Democrats are cruising to primary victories. Texas could be the exception.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas ― Life, at this moment, looks good for the Democratic party’s left wing. A progressive Democratic icon is leading the presidential race. Primary challengers in blue House districts, from Texas to Ohio, New York to California, are causing headaches for incumbents.

But on the Senate level, where Democrats need to net three seats in order to win back control of the upper chamber, the left is missing in action. Candidates who back “Medicare for All,” for example, are badly trailing in polls and fundraising in most states, while mainstream Democrats backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are assembling war chests and polling leads. Some of the most promising progressive candidates either decided not to run or have dropped out because of a lack of funds.

National progressive groups have endorsed a mishmash of candidates in different states, displaying no unified strategy. The biggest advertising buy backing a Democrat challenging a DSCC-endorsed candidate came not from progressives, but from a Republican group controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have freely endorsed progressives in local and House races, they haven’t recommended any progressives to join them in Congress’s upper chamber.

There might not be an easy fix for the left. The fundamental nature of the Senate ― empowering rural areas at the expense of urban ones ― tilts the playing field against them.

“It’s pretty obvious there’s no overarching strategy. There’s no coordinated endorsements, there’s no major investments,” said Sean McElwee, the executive director at Data For Progress, an organization that uses data science to support progressive causes. “Right now, the structural barriers are such that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for progressives to spend much time on Senate races.”

The lack of strategy and investment means that even if Sanders, who leads the Democratic field in delegates so far, or Warren, whose campaign faces a critical test on Super Tuesday, manages to make it to the White House, they won’t bring along any true ideological allies in the Senate to help enact their aggressive policy agendas on health care, climate change and other issues.

Progressive Senate candidates haven’t given Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer much to worry about this cycle.
Progressive Senate candidates haven’t given Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer much to worry about this cycle.
Caroline Brehman via Getty Images

Here in Texas, however, there is one hope: Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a progressive former immigrant rights organizer who has the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), has a chance to make a runoff against MJ Hegar, an Afghan War veteran with the DSCC’s backing. If she does, the runoff for the right to challenge Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn could quickly become a major flashpoint in the battle between progressives and mainstream Democrats for control of the party’s future.

The problem for progressives is long-standing: The Democratic establishment, broadly defined, hasn’t lost a Senate primary since 2010. Many progressive strategists pointed to the very nature of the Senate as a reason for their struggles. Establishment operatives and organizations in both parties fight harder to keep control of Senate seats, compared to the relatively insignificant spots in the House. (McConnell’s war against the tea party in 2014 shows how an insurgent wing of the party that jeopardizes control of a Senate seat can quickly feel the wrath of the party’s establishment.)

And while progressives have had some success targeting incumbents in heavily Democratic urban areas and replacing them with more liberal challengers, the most liberal states in the country aren’t nearly as Democratic as the most liberal House districts.

Hawaii, the most Democratic state in the country, has a score of D+18 on the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures a state’s partisanship. Vermont is D+15, while California, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York are all D+12. Compare those to two districts where progressive challengers triumphed in 2018: Ocasio-Cortez won in New York’s 14th District, which has a PVI of D+29. Rep. Ayanna Pressley beat incumbent Michael Capuano in Massachusetts’s 7th District, which is D+34.

“The fundamental undemocratic nature of the Senate makes it unfriendly to Democrats in general, and to progressive Democrats in particular,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director at Democracy for America.

Groups like the one Sroka works for haven’t been able to settle on a consistent slate of candidates. Democracy for America and Justice Democrats have both endorsed Betsy Sweet, who is challenging Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. Democracy for America has also backed Teresa Tomlinson in Georgia. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has close ties to Warren, hasn’t endorsed any non-incumbent Senate candidates. Courage to Change, a political action committee created by Ocasio-Cortez, has only endorsed Ramirez, as has the Working Families Party.

Progressive strategists have credited Schumer’s political operation with doing a better job at outreach than their House counterparts. Democracy for America has endorsed three candidates who also have the DSCC’s backing: Raphael Warnock in a special election in Georgia, Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina.

Outside group endorsements are essential because of the high cost of running statewide. While Ocasio-Cortez upset Rep. Joe Crowley with a budget of under $500,000 in 2018, winning Senate seats in states with multiple expensive media markets typically requires candidates to raise millions ― something down-ballot progressives have struggled to do with small-dollar donations. The challenge is only amplified as DSCC-endorsed candidates like Gideon in Maine and Amy McGrath in Kentucky rake in cash from both traditional and small online donors.

That’s left progressive candidates arguing that their lack of fundraising has little to do with electability.

“If you’re just going to focus on the airwave battle, then your chances are really slim,” said Charles Booker, a Kentucky state legislator who is challenging McGrath and her $10 million war chest for the right to run against McConnell. “Anyone running against Mitch McConnell has to know it’s uphill. His corporate buddies he sold to will snap their fingers and flood you with money. We have to engage people on the ground.”

In Texas, Ramirez has also struggled to raise money. Federal Election Commission records show she’s brought in just under $1 million and had only $230,000 in the bank during the weeks leading up to the election. But she has received a significant boost from Lone Star Forward, a super PAC formed to boost her run. It’s aired a quarter-million dollars’ worth of ads.

Ramirez ― who aligns herself with Sanders and Warren and backs both Medicare for All and the Green New Deal ― acknowledged that she could use more help from national sources.

“I think the progressive infrastructure is catching up to the scale of ambition that we need in this country,” she said.

Hegar, her rival, has raised more than $5 million, and the DSCC are confident Hegar will make the runoff. Her campaign and VoteVets, a super PAC that backs Democratic veterans, have spent millions of dollars to air ads in the five major media markets that cover 80% of the Texas population.

An NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday had Hegar receiving 16% of the vote, with Ramirez in second place with 9% of the vote and veteran Dallas state Sen. Royce West earning 8%, with a host of other candidates not far behind. But a 34% plurality of voters remained undecided, the poll found.

If Ramirez does make the cut, she hopes to quickly turn the race into an ideological flashpoint.

“I think this race will be part of the national debate about what kind of party we should have,” she said, labeling Hegar as “Republican lite.”

Like many progressives, Ramirez argued that Democrats in Texas should focus on juicing turnout from less likely voters.

“We need to invest in the millions of voters who are usually underinvested in and taken for granted by the Democratic Party, which are working families of color and young voters,” she said.

Hegar, who said she voted for Warren in the primary but remains skeptical of both Medicare for All and mass student debt forgiveness, shot back at Ramirez’s description.

“There are ideas that are nonpartisan that have traditionally belonged to Republicans that I am taking back — things like fiscal responsibility, things like patriotism and strong national security, which is different than a huge defense budget,” she said in an interview after a labor breakfast. “Those things that sound Republican to her or to anyone else, that’s a problem because those things are Texas, and those things are reflective of my values.”

On the flip side of Ramirez’s possible success in Texas is North Carolina, where a self-proclaimed progressive did little besides cause headaches for Democrats in a state they need to win to gain control of the Senate in 2020.

State Sen. Erica Smith, a supporter of Medicare for All, raised under $250,000. But Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by allies of McConnell, created a pop-up group called Faith and Power and spent millions on ads aiming to attract Black female progressive voters to Smith while attacking the DSCC’s preferred candidate, Iraq War veteran Cal Cunningham. The group called Smith a “proven progressive” and attacked Cunningham for previously receiving support from the National Rifle Association. Cunningham’s campaign, along with VoteVets, spent millions of dollars on ads in response.

Republicans and Democrats predictably split on the success of the gambit, with Democrats arguing that it was a failed effort to defeat Cunningham that only brought more attention to the race and boosted his name identification in the state, while the GOP claimed they forced Democrats to waste millions of dollars fending off a no-name challenger. (Public polling now shows Cunningham easily clearing the 30% mark needed to avoid a runoff election.)

In other states, self-identified progressives aren’t doing much better, while many mainstream Democrats are rolling in endorsements and cash. Gideon, for example, has $2.8 million on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports, while Sweet has just $55,000. Two of Iowa’s Democratic members of Congress and a host of local unions are backing Greenfield, who has $2.1 million on hand. Kimberly Graham, a Medicare for All advocate running against Greenfield for the right to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, has just $41,000 in her campaign account.

Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker who was seen as one of the most promising progressive candidates this cycle, has raised $1.8 million. But former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the DSCC-endorsed candidate and an avowed moderate, has raised nearly $5 million, and Democrats affiliated with Schumer have released public opinion polls showing him with a large lead.

The financial and organizational barriers can deter even established candidates from running or stop them dead in their tracks. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, for instance, seemed like an ideal candidate: a female statewide elected official who was running to the left of Rep. Ben Ray Luján. But she dropped out in late October, having managed to push Luján to the left on Medicare for All and impeachment while struggling to raise money.

Another promising progressive candidate, Rep. Ruben Gallego, opted not to mount a campaign in Arizona after former astronaut Mark Kelly jumped into the race to challenge GOP Sen. Martha McSally, saying he was afraid of causing a “nasty primary.”

There are still other hopes for the left. Some progressives are hoping to rally around Jess Scarane, a 34-year-old challenging Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, ahead of that state’s primary in September.

“I think that momentum is on the side of the grassroots,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, which had endorsed Oliver. “If we haven’t achieved the ability at the Senate level to bring in a whole core of independent Senate candidates, it’s coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated in which Texas markets Hegar and a super PAC supporting her had aired ads.

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