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Progressives Surge In Congressional Democratic Primaries

Jamaal Bowman ran against veteran Rep. Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary for New York's 16th Congressional District.
John Minchillo
Jamaal Bowman ran against veteran Rep. Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary for New York's 16th Congressional District.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party couldn't break through in the presidential race, but in congressional races, younger, more diverse, progressive candidates are enjoying a recent surge in support.

"The logic of COVID-19 as well as the logic and the righteousness of the movement for Black lives, I think, is forcing all of us to re-imagine both what is necessary and what is possible, and I think it's having an impact on our politics," said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, a New York-based minor political party.

Progressive Black, male candidates in New York's June 23 primaries (results have not yet been officially called by the Associated Press) are on track to win in three safe Democratic seats, virtually ensuring they will win in November and serve in the next Congress.

"Have I benefited from the newfound realization by some folks that we live in a severely unjust society as it concerns issues of race? Yes. Is that why I won? No," Mondaire Jones told NPR.

Jones, 33, is also openly gay. He is on track to win a contested open seat primary for the seat of retiring Rep. Nita Lowey, who represents a mostly white, wealthy, suburban district home to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Jones said he is winning because of his support of unabashedly liberal ideas. "I am the only candidate in a crowded Democratic primary who supports the only policy that would literally ensure everyone has health care in this country and that is Medicare for All," he said, in reference to the government-run health care proposal championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the 2020 presidential primary race.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden opposes a government-run health care system, and he secured the nomination in part by locking down the more centrist wing of the Democratic Party. But in these contested congressional primaries, progressive candidates made races competitive running on some of the party's most provocative ideas: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, paths to citizenship for all undocumented workers and dramatic redistributions of wealth.

Another progressive, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, 32, who like Jones is also openly gay, is on track to win a Bronx-based seat to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano, the most Democratic congressional district in the country.

Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman is expected to defeat veteran incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel for his his Bronx-based seat. Engel has not yet conceded the race. Bowman attacked Engel for his absence from the district — one of the hardest hit in the nation by COVID-19 — and ran an energized campaign focused on redirecting help to the poor and working class.

"Poverty is by political design and is rooted in a system that has been fractured and corrupt and rotten from its core from the inception of America," Bowman said in a primary night speech to supporters.

In the Kentucky Senate Democratic primary, another progressive Black candidate, Charles Booker, gave establishment-backed candidate Amy McGrath a close race — coming within 3% — despite raising around $3 million to McGrath's over $40 million and relying on volunteer progressive activists.

Evan Weber, the co-founder the Sunrise Movement, a progressive group focused on combating climate change, backed Booker's campaign. He's clear-eyed about where the progressive wing still stands right now. "We're sort of like a junior party in a governing coalition," he said.

But progressive activists are energized by these races and what they could mean. Waleed Shahid is with Justice Democrats, a group closely aligned with Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Looking ahead, Shahid says that if Biden wins, the progressive wing will have leverage.

"The Congress that Joe Biden is inheriting, if he becomes president in 2021, looks really different than the one Barack Obama did in 2009, in terms of how much more muscle the progressives in Congress have, how much more media attention they get, how much more they can hold the president accountable," he said.

And there could be a fresh crop of lawmakers, like Jones, Torres and Bowman, among others, coming to Washington to take on the establishment and push the party to the left.

"I am excited. I am happy. I am fired up. And I can't wait to get to Congress and cause problems for the people in there who have been maintaining a status quo that is literally killing our children," Bowman said last Tuesday.

Progressives are now working against Democratic incumbents in upcoming primaries in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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