The Coming Wave of Primary Challenges to Corporate House Democrats

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It isn't Alex Morse’s record as mayor of a small city that makes him a formidable contender against Representative Richard Neal. It’s his skill as an organizer.

Representative Richard Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is the poster child for everything that’s wrong about corporate Democrats. His newly announced primary challenger in Massachusetts’s First Congressional District, Alex Morse, epitomizes the grassroots dynamism that is making over the party. Beyond this primary contest is a much larger story involving the unsavory role of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the creative disruption of a growing wave of challengers to other corporate Democratic incumbents.

Neal, 70, raises large sums of business money and reciprocates by delivering corporate-friendly policies. He was literally elected to Congress before Morse was born. Morse, 30, is in his eighth year serving as mayor of Holyoke, population about 40,000, a onetime thriving mill town.

Holyoke was one of the Northeast’s most depressed cities when Morse was elected mayor in 2011, at age 22. The city’s unemployment rate, 11.2 percent when Morse took charge, is now down to 4.2 percent. The high school graduation rate has increased from 49 percent the year he was elected to 72 percent last year. According to Morse, some two million square feet of empty factory space, in sprawling 19th-century abandoned brick mills, has gained well over one million square feet of paying tenants, as Holyoke has attracted a new industry of indoor vegetable growers, led by legal cannabis. More on Morse and Holyoke in a moment.

The coming battle for this seat in western Massachusetts is emblematic of a much broader struggle with multiple reverberations. These include the expanded challenges in 2020 by Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in NY-14 to take on and defeat Joe Crowley, number four in the House Democratic leadership, in 2018. The only other successful insurgent Democrat who took out a senior incumbent last time was Ayanna Pressley, who beat Michael Capuano in a Boston-area seat once held by Tip O’Neill. Compared to Richie Neal, Capuano, a leading member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was Mother Teresa.

In 2020, as many as ten challengers have a decent chance of unseating corporate Democrat incumbents. So far, Justice Democrats has endorsed six. Besides Morse, whom they endorsed Wednesday, their candidates include: immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, who is hoping to displace center-right Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar; Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx educator challenging 16-term veteran Eliot Engel, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Marie Newman in Illinois’s Third District, who narrowly lost in 2018 against Dan Lipinski, one of the most conservative House Democrats; Cori Bush, a working nurse and ordained pastor challenging St. Louis incumbent Lacy Clay for a second time; and former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau official Morgan Harper, taking on Financial Services Committee member and Wall Street ally Joyce Beatty in Columbus, Ohio.

The threat of these and other possible challenges have already borne fruit, as several Democrats anticipating possible primary fights became sudden converts to the cause of impeachment, including Engel and Massachusetts freshman Lori Trahan, who won her primary last time by just 150 votes.

The coming spate of primary challenges will create headaches for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and even more stress for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the fundraising arm of House Democrats. The DCCC is reeling from a self-inflicted crisis that ostensibly involves racial insensitivity, but that more deeply reflects long-standing anger by progressives at several of its practices and habits.

Those habits include raising mostly corporate money; spending most of its funds to protect incumbents rather than financing challengers to Republican-held seats; recruiting corporate Dems over progressives even in progressive districts, sometimes embarrassing itself by backing losers in primaries; bypassing winnable races in general elections where the Democratic nominee is progressive; and trying to blacklist campaign professionals who help insurgents. The DCCC’s current chair, Representative Cheri Bustos of western Illinois, is even worse than many of her predecessors. Before the 2020 round of primary challenges is over, the tensions within the caucus could force drastic reform of the DCCC, as well as bringing more progressives to Congress.

But we are getting ahead of the story. A good place to begin is with Richie Neal and the Ways and Means Committee.

 

WAYS AND MEANS is the single most powerful committee in the House. Besides taxes, tariffs, and trade policy, Ways and Means has jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and TANF. And since so many other anti-poverty measures are in the form of tax credits, the committee has that jurisdiction, too. Ways and Means also has oversight and investigative responsibility in all of these areas.

Neal had to be dragged kicking and screaming to demand Trump’s federal tax returns, a delay that played into the president’s hands, since the subpoena and possible contempt citation will ultimately be subject to lengthy litigation. Neal waited months before finally acting, and his request was narrower than what he might have demanded. He has thus far refused to demand Trump’s New York state returns as well.

Reporting from Prospect Executive Editor David Dayen indicates that Neal’s light touch on Trump’s taxes sprung from a desire to get his support for a bill called the SECURE Act that would allow annuities lucrative access to 401(k) retirement accounts. He deliberately timed his formal request for Trump’s taxes until the day after passing the SECURE Act through his committee. The bill would benefit many of Neal’s biggest donors: life insurance companies that manage annuity products. The SECURE Act bogged down in the Senate over an unrelated issue, thwarting Neal’s big plans for a gift to corporations.

To understand Neal, the first thing to appreciate is that nearly all of his campaign funding comes from business donors, and he goes to great lengths as a congressman to avoid criticizing anything corporate. He often works with Republicans on pet projects. He is as good a friend, Democrat or Republican, as America’s corporate power structure has in Washington.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Richard Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to demand Trump’s federal tax returns, a delay that played into the president’s hands,

Neal has been a big backer of corporate-sponsored trade deals such as the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and NAFTA. In the epic fight over the 2017 Trump-GOP tax bill, which turned out to be a political loser because its $1.6 trillion in tax cuts mostly went to corporations and their rich CEOs and shareholders, Neal’s preferred strategy was to give the middle class a little more and call it a day. This plan was opposed by the Democratic leadership who understood that this massive giveaway to special interests would result in Republican demands to slash Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other critical services to pay for it. Had Neal prevailed, the political value of the tax act as a prime target for Democrats would have been lost.

Neal has refused to hold oversight hearings that could demonstrate the fraudulence of the claims of the Republican Tax Act, except for one single day, March 27, where the witnesses were mostly academic economists and tax experts (though it did include CWA President Chris Shelton and EPI economist Elise Gould). A progressive chair would have held several rounds of investigative hearings on legal corporate larceny, laying out the case for a repeal. Other areas of inquiry, from the shocking reduction in IRS audits of the rich to offshore tax evasion and rampant tax dodging by estate planners, have been ignored.

In a recent Ways and Means committee bill, Neal supported an expansion of the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit over two years, but he objected to paying for it by increasing the corporate income tax rate by one point. This is a classic example of how Democrats can use the legislative process to contrast their priorities and goals with Republican and corporate ones—and Neal is on the wrong side. (Neal declined requests for comment.)

Neal’s pattern of campaign funding fits hand in glove with his legislative behavior. Of the 30 corporations identified by The New York Times as the biggest beneficiaries of the Tax Act, 16 were direct donors to Neal. According to reporting by David Daley, Neal collected more money from large pharmaceutical companies than any other congressman of either party. Neal worked hand in glove with H&R Block and Intuit, maker of TurboTax, to block the IRS from developing a free online filing system that would compete with corporate tax-preparers. A measure to that effect actually passed the House, as part of an IRS reform bill. Both companies have been donors to Neal.

While Representative Jim McGovern, chair of the House Rules Committee, in the adjoining Massachusetts Second District, refuses to take any corporate tax money, Neal raised over $500,000 in mostly corporate donations in the first quarter of 2019 alone. He spent more money on corporate fundraising events, usually in lavish hotels, than the rest of the Massachusetts delegation spent combined.

Neal has long had a safe Democratic seat, built around the city of Springfield, with about a quarter of the First District’s population, where Neal was mayor from 1983 to 1989. The current mayor, Domenic Sarno, in office since 2007, is a close Neal ally. But it would be a gross exaggeration to talk about a Springfield machine, since local politics are in a state of torpor.

In 2018, when Neal faced an underfunded primary fight from a relatively unknown candidate, activist lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, she managed to get 29.3 percent of the vote. Neal raised $3.55 million for re-election compared to his challenger’s $145,000. A more telling sign of Neal’s vulnerability is the fact that just 49,696 voters roused themselves to vote for Neal in the 2018 primary, in a heavily Democratic district with over 400,000 registered voters. Neal raises hardly any money in local small donations, another emblem of how he has ignored his district base in favor of a national corporate constituency.

Redistricting in 2012, the result of Massachusetts losing one House seat, moved Neal’s district to the north and the west. His current seat still includes his base in Springfield, but adds very liberal Berkshire County, whose population of 125,000 is close to that of Springfield. Much of that territory was formerly represented in Congress by one of the state’s great progressives, John Olver. The current district has to rank in the top five nationally of progressive constituencies represented by corporate Democrats. Elizabeth Warren was re-elected last year by a statewide margin of about 60-40. She carried the First District by nearly 70-30.

 

IF YOU WERE to try to design the perfect anti-Neal, it would be hard to do better than Alex Morse. On a recent visit to Holyoke, I spent a couple of hours with Morse, and observed a panorama of mills along the Connecticut River, some still abandoned and some humming with new enterprise. A century ago, Holyoke, which contained one of America’s largest concentrations of paper mills, was nicknamed Paper City. Morse jokes that he’s changing that to Rolling Paper City.

Morse, a graduate of Holyoke public schools, was the first in his family to attend college, attending Brown on a scholarship. He was very much an activist while in high school. Coming home in 2011, he decided to run for mayor, challenging a lackluster incumbent. In the primary balloting, he placed first by one vote. He won the general election by 608. Morse says he won by going door to door in neighborhoods that had seldom seen a politician. “They advise you to target proven voters who are most likely to turn out, but that has it exactly backwards,” Morse says.

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Morse is in his eighth year serving as mayor of Holyoke, population about 40,000, a onetime thriving mill town.

Holyoke is about 42 percent Spanish-speaking, and Morse is fluent in Spanish. Under his leadership, the city has reached out to immigrants and refugees, welcoming hundreds of Caribbean natives fleeing from Hurricane Maria.

As mayor, Morse inherited a public school system that Massachusetts education officials branded as failing, triggering a state receivership. Morse initially hoped to keep local control, but rather than viewing the receivership as adversarial, he turned around and embraced the state-appointed receiver, Stephen Zrike, a reformer who has worked in Chicago and Boston. Morse has worked closely with Zrike, now Holyoke school superintendent, on a range of reforms, including turning the high school into four campuses and expanding bilingual education. “Middle-class families who would have sent their kids to private schools or schools out of district are now on waiting lists to get into our bilingual programs,” Morse says.

Morse has even managed to restore passenger rail service to Holyoke, which last saw a passenger train in 1967. With a grant from the Obama stimulus package and some state support, Morse oversaw construction of a new station and persuaded Amtrak to add a stop, reversing a plan that had trains on the Vermonter line go through the city but not stop there.

Morse has also built on Holyoke’s location on the Connecticut River and the city’s publicly owned dam. Holyoke’s electric company is municipally owned; its energy is 92 percent renewable and cheap, which acts as a magnet for economic development. A consortium of Boston-area universities uses Holyoke as a large-scale green data-processing center. Morse also worked with local environmental activists to shut down the last Massachusetts coal-fired power plant at nearby Mount Tom, and install the state’s largest array of solar panels on the site, feeding the Holyoke grid. CBS ran a piece describing Morse as running his own Green New Deal.

 

But it isn’t Morse’s record as mayor of a small city that makes him a formidable contender against Neal. It’s his skill as an organizer. Morse is organizing volunteer committees in all of the district’s towns. He is raising only small donations. As a champion of such causes as LGBT rights (Morse has been out publicly since high school, founding Holyoke’s first gay prom and the school’s gay-straight alliance), renewable energy, human rights, and protection of refugees, Morse begins with a base of a district honeycombed with vibrant activist communities.

Morse is also assembling a serious staff. His lead campaign consultant is Rebecca Katz, most recently a strategist for Justice Democrats and a savvy onetime aide to former Senate Leader Harry Reid. His chief fundraiser is Gina Christo, previously finance director for Ayanna Pressley.

Holyoke is a nice metaphor for the Democratic Party: a place of working people of modest income with an underperforming present and great economic and political promise; one that is becoming blacker and browner; is not yet at its full potential politically; and is represented, anomalously, by a leading corporate congressman.

Despite his obvious strengths, Morse faces an uphill climb. In American politics, money still talks, and Neal has plenty of it—over $3 million in his campaign accounts as of the most recent reports, and his corporate allies will make sure that he has all he needs and more. Morse has spent his first weeks since declaring mostly on the phone seeking to raise modest sums. He is not likely to match Neal but would be competitive with about $1.5 million.

The battle, like other insurgent challenges, will come down to turnout. And you can argue the impact of mounting a congressional primary challenge in a presidential year either way. On the one hand, thanks to the mobilizations of the Warren and Sanders campaigns and the urgency of defeating Trump, progressive grassroots activism will be at a high pitch. On the other hand, the presidential race will suck up a lot of oxygen. “Voters may not be paying that much attention to down-ticket races,” says one campaign consultant to several congressional challengers.

Massachusetts holds its presidential primary in March, but with a separate primary in September for congressional and state offices, at a time when all eyes will be on the presidential race. In these sparsely attended late primaries, low turnout is the incumbent’s best friend—that’s why legislators refuse to alter the odd timing. So even more than in most races, Morse versus Neal will be a classic test of on-the-ground organizing versus money and apathy.

 

JUSTICE DEMOCRATS is looking at several other races. In New York, besides Engel, four other Democratic incumbents face serious primary opponents, including Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey and Jerry Nadler, chair of Judiciary. Not all such challenges, of course, have been orchestrated by Justice Democrats, and not all make sense: Nadler is resolutely progressive as well as the point man for a Trump impeachment. Other targets of primary challenges include several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, such as Frank Pallone of New Jersey and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.

All this will create massive headaches for the House leadership. Speaker Nancy Pelosi reflexively defends incumbents, whose support she needs in her struggles to produce legislative unity in a fractious caucus. The unprecedented number of primary battles will make it even harder for Pelosi and AOC to bury the hatchet, since AOC has previously expressed encouragement for more insurgent challenges.

But as Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats observes, center-right Democrats like Richie Neal, who resisted demanding Trump’s tax returns and fighting the Trump tax cut, are actually more of a problem for Pelosi than newly elected progressives. “A generic Democrat or a progressive one replacing Cuellar or Lipinski or Neal would be more supportive of majority caucus positions,” says Shahid.

Next in line to chair Ways and Means is John Lewis, who has other senior committee posts. So the job could well go to the third in line, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, perhaps the committee’s best-informed and most assertive senior progressive.

One of the most salutary effects of these primary challenges could be long overdue reform of the toxic role of the DCCC. As much as any other factor, the DCCC makes the Democrats far more corporate than they need to be. Ever since California Congressman Tony Coelho chaired the committee from 1981 to 1987, the DCCC formula has been to attract corporate candidates who can either raise lots of business money, or self-fund, or both—often backing them in primary fights against progressives. The mountain of corporate cash has informed Democratic priorities and damaged the party’s status as the party of the people.

The pattern worsened when Rahm Emanuel headed the committee from 2005 to 2007. He persuaded the caucus to expand the size of the Financial Services Committee to load it up with corporate Democrats who could trade favors with donors in the banking industry. The tilt got so bad that during the epic battle over the Dodd-Frank bill, liberal Chairman Barney Frank sometimes lacked a working majority on his own committee, as corporate Democrats voted with Republicans in markup sessions to weaken the draft.

Things improved somewhat under Representative Ben Ray Luján, who was DCCC chair going into the 2018 elections. Working with Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who was a vice chair in charge of candidate recruitment, the DCCC endorsed an unusually large number of Democratic challengers to Republicans in its Red to Blue project—94 in all, compared to only 43 in 2016. Many were progressive and many of them were longer shots than the DCCC usually backed. A remarkable number rejected corporate PAC dollars, and while this was mostly symbolic, it led to a progressive beachhead on the Financial Services Committee, in contrast to the Emanuel-led past.

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Cheri Bustos, the DCCC’s current chair, was tapped by Pelosi mainly to defend incumbents who flipped seats last time.

Even so, the DCCC committed many of its usual sins, backing some corporate Democrats over progressives in primaries. In the Houston area, the committee took the rare step of publicly releasing opposition research against Laura Moser to knock her out of a House primary in favor of corporate lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. (Fletcher eventually flipped the seat.) The DCCC also denied funds to some progressive challengers to Republicans in winnable races, like Kara Eastman in Nebraska.

But several progressives who took Republican seats last November, such as Katie Porter in California and Lauren Underwood in Illinois, benefited from DCCC financial support. And it took a chance on several long shots who lost, such as Richard Ojeda of West Virginia, who earned the largest vote swing from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance of any House Democratic challenger in the country. Under Luján, three of the committee’s five regional vice chairs were members of the Progressive Caucus: Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, Jared Polis of Colorado (now governor), and Ted Lieu of California.

The DCCC reverted to type, and worse, under its current chair. A moderate who won a district carried by Trump, Cheri Bustos was tapped by Pelosi mainly to defend incumbents who flipped seats last time, and was elected by the caucus after Luján stepped down to seek a New Mexico Senate seat in 2020. Bustos fired several Luján aides who happened to be African American and Hispanic and replaced them with an all-white staff, creating a major crisis and forcing several resignations of senior staffers.

In addition, seeking to discourage primary challenges to incumbents, Bustos created a blacklist of campaign consultants who work for challengers. This is no small threat, since the lion’s share of DCCC financial help goes not to candidates directly but to campaign consultants. The threat, however, backfired deliciously. Luján criticized the move, and progressives are demanding that the policy be rescinded. Several of the blacklisted firms bought the URL DCCCblacklist.com, and have used it well to advertise their services. And as we are seeing, it failed to stop strong challengers from launching primaries against out-of-touch corporate incumbents.

What’s needed are fundamental reforms to the DCCC. These could begin with a commitment to become a lot less reliant on corporate money, and a pledge to stay out of primaries, so nobody is swamped by corporate cash laundered via the DCCC. One senior member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus told me, “The DCCC should not be involving itself in Democrat-on-Democrat primaries. It’s up to local voters to pick the strongest candidate for the district.” Progressives go to Congress to fight on issues, not to raise money—but it would be salutary if a progressive were the next DCCC chair.

Those who say that challengers should never take on incumbents of their own party are overstating the value of party unity for its own sake. I confess, I am not without some bias on this issue. My first job in politics was working for Representative William Fitts Ryan, who represented the district now partly held by Jerry Nadler on Manhattan’s West Side. Ryan was one of the leaders of the anti-Tammany Reform Democrats, and the first to knock out a Tammany incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, in 1960. Other ousters of machine Democrats followed. The Reform Democrats of that era were the predecessor of today’s Working Families Party. Ryan went on to be the first member of the House to oppose the Vietnam War.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” The House Democratic Caucus can surely benefit from some shaking up. Ten or even fifteen challenges to incumbents are overdue. But if a hundred Democratic incumbents and their challengers are raising and spending money and enlisting volunteers to contest each other willy-nilly in a crucial presidential year, that may not be the best use of political resources. Justice Democrats seems to get this. Well-placed sources say they will end up endorsing maybe a dozen challengers at most. And of course kingmakers do not get to make these decisions—neither insurgent kingmakers like Justice Democrats nor traditional machine kingmakers, and least of all the DCCC. These decisions belong to the voters.

Some critics of the effort to challenge incumbents contend that Justice Democrats is the Democrats’ destructive version of the Republican House Freedom Caucus, and the Tea Party battle against moderate “RINOs”—Republicans in name only. But that analogy cuts more than one way. The extreme conservatives who took control of the Republican caucus were dead serious about obtaining power and using it. What is loathsome about them is their far-right ideology and contempt for democracy, not their seriousness about building a movement.

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