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Anatomy of an upset: How progressives learned to embrace traditional tactics

Bridget Bowman, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

Activist and nurse Cori Bush pulled off one of the biggest primary upsets of the election cycle on Tuesday. While her win showed that voters are clamoring for change, her victory also demonstrated that progressive insurgents and their liberal allies are embracing traditional campaign tactics -- and it's working.

Bush's shocking defeat of longtime Missouri Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay after losing to him by 20 points in 2018 shows that primary challengers have figured out how to raise the money necessary to compete and spend it strategically to reach voters. That shift has also collided with political upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.

"It's a great example just how much pretty basic 'block and tackle' campaign stuff matters," said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, which conducted polling for Justice Democrats, which endorsed Bush in the race.

"The (progressive) movement actually winning ends up being a bit less sexy," McElwee said. "It's mostly good strategic investments at the right time."

Black Progressives have long decried the influence of money in politics, but unsuccessful primary challenges have shown that money matters in campaigns.

"I think there was a longtime belief in progressive circles that money had some sort of moral value," McElwee said. "And it doesn't. It has strategic value."


In May, Justice Democrats launched an independent expenditure arm, which cannot coordinate with campaigns but can spend unlimited amounts of money to boost its preferred candidates. Justice Democrats saw the role outside groups such as EMILY's List, which is committed to women candidates who support abortion rights, played in helping Jessica Cisneros come close to defeating Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in a primary. After Cisneros' loss, the group turned its attention to former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman's primary against longtime Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel.

"What I continued, our team continued, to ask ourselves was, are we doing everything we possibly can to ... help Jamaal win?" said Justice Democrats executive director Alex Rojas.

"There was no EMILY's List in Jamaal's case. There was no Hail Mary," Rojas said, so the group launched its own outside spending entity.

The group's independent expenditure arm hit the airwaves in Bowman's race, partnering with the Working Families Party to quickly turn a damaging hot mic moment from Engel into a TV ad. Bowman went on to win.


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