Mar 3, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Progressives ready challenge to Democratic old guard

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is seen speaking during a news conference.

Rep. Steny Hoyer. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Progressive Democrats, including two who are Black, are lining up to challenge House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer even before Maryland sets the date for its 2022 primaries.

Why it matters: Recent progressive victories for Reps. Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York, plus the country's changing demographics and post-#MeToo and George Floyd eras, are giving organizers and candidates new hope that the political landscape is changing and rewarding diversity.

  • "After the pandemic, all bets are off," Kelley Jackson, communications director for the progressive PAC Democracy for America, told Axios. "We need Medicare for All. We need a Green New Deal — we saw what happened in Texas."
  • Progressives feel a special urgency to get their policies passed into law, given Democrats control the U.S. House, Senate and White House.
  • That's propelling their unity against those party leaders and members they believe aren't fighting for the policies like activists.

The big picture: Hoyer is just one member of the Democratic old guard who's being targeted early by the left flank, with a renewed focus on race and gender.

Even before the recent allegations of sexual harassment against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, progressives were quietly looking to Attorney General Letitia James as a formidable primary challenger.

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is up for reelection in 2022 and faces constant speculation about whether a progressive like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will mount a primary challenge against him.
  • In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam is term-limited from seeking reelection, but his seat is being eyed by Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Black mother of twins and public defender. She said her own experience without health care and growing up poor in rural Virginia has inspired her to run.
  • “When people say identity politics don’t matter, what they’re also saying is that other people’s lived experiences don’t matter,” she told

In Maryland, Colin Byrd, a Black mayor from Greenbelt, announced in December that he planned to challenge Hoyer in the 2022 Democratic primary.

  • Byrd wrote on his fundraising page: "I'm rooted in civil rights activism, progressive activism and progressive politics. I'm about 'Good Trouble.' Steny is about Good Ol' Boys Politics."

Mckayla Wilkes, who unsuccessfully challenged Hoyer last cycle, is also mounting a challenge to the 20-term congressman.

  • "We have the trifecta," Wilkes said of Democrats' control of the White House, Senate and House, "yet we (Democrats) are still fighting for change. To me, that says that any Democrat won’t do, so we need to elect more progressives."
  • Wilkes is a Black woman who's openly bisexual and doesn't shy away from that in her campaigning, she said, even though "our district has never been represented by a Black woman and certainly never by a Black, queer woman."
  • Wilkes told Axios she and Byrd made an agreement "that only one of us will be on the ballot heading into 2022." She declared: "We don't want to split the anti-Hoyer vote."

Reality check: Hoyer is still popular in his district, based on polling and the 64% vote he earned in last year's Democratic primary. Wilkes received 27%.

  • A Hoyer spokesperson said: “Leader Hoyer is focused on delivering a progressive agenda to rebuild the economy and deliver on racial justice. He has strong and deep relationships in the 5th District and will continue to build consensus within our diverse caucus to bring about the bold change the American people have called for.”
Go deeper