Jan 25, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Progressive group tailors focus to up midterm odds

Justice Democrats' non-incumbent endorsements
Data: Justice Democrats; Chart: Axios Visuals

The progressive group that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stage her improbable 2018 win is narrowing its focus as it tries to elect more Democrats to pass the remaining progressive elements of President Biden's agenda.

Why it matters: The entire landscape for Justice Democrats has changed during the past two weeks.

  • Its efforts to replace moderate incumbents are being altered by partisan gerrymandering, retirements, or in one case, an unexpected FBI raid.
  • The group is now navigating its most tumultuous midterms cycle yet.

Driving the news: Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who's been in and out of Congress for most of the past 30 years, announced Tuesday he won't be seeking re-election.

His decision came after state Republicans proposed a new congressional map, making his Nashville district much friendlier to the GOP.

  • The Justice Democrats' first endorsement of the 2022 cycle — back in April 2021 — was Cooper's liberal challenger, community organizer Odessa Kelly.
  • Yet in a statement issued after Cooper's announcement, Kelly hinted she's reassessing the viability of her campaign, too.
  • “I am still looking into the recently redrawn district lines and charting a path forward for my campaign," she said.
  • "When I decided to run for Congress, it was never about winning a particular district or challenging a particular incumbent, it was about getting a seat at the table for working-class Tennesseans and having another organizer in Congress to fight like hell for our future."

By the numbers: Justice Democrats has shifted away from its 2018 strategy of backing as many candidates as possible.

Instead, it's identified a much smaller group — six — that has the best opportunity to knock off establishment Democrats and elevate their primary challengers.

  • By contrast, in 2018, it cast a wide net, endorsing 65 non-incumbent House candidates, four Senate candidates, five gubernatorial candidates and even a candidate for lieutenant governor.
  • In 2020, however, it endorsed eight House candidates and one Senate candidate, in addition to Sen. Bernie Sanders' second bid for the presidency.
  • So far in 2022, it's endorsed just six House candidates in addition to backing Nina Turner, a onetime campaign chairman for Sanders (I-Vt.), in an unsuccessful House bid in Ohio last August.

The group's work in Texas could be a bright spot.

  • The FBI searched the home of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) last week, giving his Justice Democrats-backed challenger added momentum just weeks before the March 1 primary.
  • Cuellar has not announced his intention to drop out, instead he released a video on Tuesday stating he'll be vindicated of any wrongdoing.
  • Unlike Tennessee, the 28th District in Texas represented by Cuellar has become more friendly to Democrats after new maps were released.
  • When his current challenger, 28-year-old Jessica Cisneros, ran against Cuellar in 2020, she lost by just 4 points.

What they're saying: "Obviously we don't know what the details of the case are yet, but it does contribute to Jessica's overall message for the past two years that [Cuellar] is someone who's not taking voters' interests at heart," said Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats.

  • "She's a political outsider, she doesn't take corporate money, she's not a Washington insider," he added. "And all those factors go into someone who would be a good general-election candidate."

The big picture: Every successful progressive insurgent of the Trump era has been aligned with Justice Democrats.

  • The group helped propel Reps. Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) over House incumbent Democrats in 2018.
  • It also boosted Reps. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) in 2020.
  • In addition, the group has supported several other prominent progressives, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
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