Republicans want a revolution, Democrats want to go to brunch — that’s been a concise way to understand American politics, but 2022’s primary season has made clear it is not exactly accurate.
Democratic leaders don’t just want avocado toast and mimosas — they want an outright counterrevolution. Only not against the GOP insurrection — against the Democratic rank and file, and in many cases for the politicians most hostile to the party’s (purported) agenda.
Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sounded an important alarm about all this, slamming billionaires and conservative advocacy groups blanketing the airwaves with television ads supporting corporate candidates in this week’s pivotal Democratic congressional primaries. But the Vermont senator understated the situation.
The perpetrators rigging these elections aren’t just meddling oligarchs operating on their own. This call is coming from inside the Democratic house from party leaders, who are at minimum passively condoning the trend, and in many cases actively fueling it with endorsements and its machine.
In all, more than a dozen consulting firms that have worked directly for either Democratic Party committees or President Joe Biden’s political apparatus have been paid more than $12 million by the allegedly independent super PACs now buying primary elections for corporate candidates, according to federal disclosures reviewed by The Lever.
Among the firms is SKDK, led by Biden White House senior advisor Anita Dunn, and Waterfront Strategies, an affiliate of the Democratic media buying firm GMMB that works with the super PACs for both House and Senate Democrats. One of the committees is run by longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has advised the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which elects House Democrats, as well as corporate clients in the health insurance and pharmaceutical sectors.
The first few months of 2022 tell the story of their leadership-sanctioned crusade to snuff out the progressive movement:
- In Oregon’s newly drawn 5th congressional district, Biden defied local Democratic county organizations and endorsed incumbent Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader over his more progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. Biden said that “when it has mattered most, Kurt has been there for me” — despite Schrader opposing and then helping gut Biden’s long-promised legislation to reduce the price of medicine. Schrader also helped Republicans sever Biden’s social spending legislation from a bipartisan, corporate-friendly infrastructure bill — effectively killing the former. Schrader’s campaign is being boosted by a super PAC bankrolled by a Big Pharma front group.
- Also in Oregon, House Democrats’ super PAC has spent $1 million for Carrick Flynn, who The Oregonian notes is “an electoral novice who’s barely participated in Oregon civic life,” supporting him over progressive State Rep. Andrea Salinas. The move appears to be designed to ingratiate House Democrats with cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, a top Biden donor who is bankrolling a separate super PAC boosting Flynn and other corporate Democratic primary candidates across the country. Meanwhile, in Oregon’s 4th congressional district, top Democratic leaders are intervening to tilt that open-seat primary toward former Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who has backed a controversial fracked gas pipeline.
- In Ohio, Biden and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) intervened to secure the election for corporate-friendly Democrat Shontel Brown in Cleveland’s newly-drawn safe Democratic House seat. In that race, the Democratic leaders aligned themselves against progressive Nina Turner and with an oil-industry-funded super PAC called Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI) in support of a candidate who refused to co-sponsor the party’s major climate legislation. The effort to crush Turner also got a boost from the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, which endorsed Brown. DMFI is led by the pollster Mellman and an ally to the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
- In Pennsylvania, Democratic power brokers are joining an AIPAC-funded super PAC’s effort to try to tank progressive state Rep. Summer Lee (D) in her battle against Steve Irwin, who previously led the “union avoidance” division of a corporate law firm. The spending has reportedly erased Lee’s lead in the race.
- In North Carolina, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, a Green New Deal supporter, is being flamethrowered by DMFI, AIPAC donors and Bankman-Fried’s super PAC, which are backing a more conservative candidate.
- In Texas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Clyburn responded to the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade by reiterating their support for incumbent anti-abortion Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in his primary with pro-choice candidate Jessica Cisneros. The House leadership is sticking by Cuellar even after law enforcement officials raided his home. "I'm supporting Henry Cuellar, he's a valued member of our caucus," Pelosi declared, adding: “The FBI has said he is not under investigation."
There Is No Pretense Anymore
Taken together, the endorsements, the donor overlap, and the party ties of the allegedly independent committees show there is no real separation between the Democratic leadership and the “outside” spending. This is one large party-sanctioned operation aimed at the left, even when corporatists are undermining the party’s agenda and its own president. Indeed, rather than amping up potential progressive primary pressure on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Biden’s political machine actually ran ads touting her as she was killing his signature economic legislation and driving down his approval ratings.
This lack of pretense, where the leadership isn’t even pretending to be impartial or progressive, represents a significant break from the past.
Once upon a time (read: up to the mid 2000s), Democratic leaders typically stayed officially neutral in intraparty battles. These weren’t exactly halcyon days — the power brokers still quietly encouraged donor support for preferred candidates. However, that kind of rigging was hidden in the shadows, so as to not publicly violate the once-sacrosanct idea that Democratic voters should be trusted to choose nominees and — by extension — the party’s ideological complexion.
That tradition began to change in 2006 after Rahm Emanuel bought a Chicago-area congressional seat and began hand-picking House Democratic nominees through the party’s campaign apparatus. Later, the party’s political machine went all in against Sanders’ 2020 presidential primary campaign and then went in even stronger for corporate candidates in contested Senate primaries in Iowa, Maine, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas and Colorado — and in the latter case, even progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) participated in the scale-thumbing.
All of this escalated to the DCCC literally blacklisting political consultants who worked for unapproved Democratic candidates.
For their part, Democratic operatives don’t ever admit they are trying to help business donors pulverize rank-and-file voters and perform a hostile takeover of the party. Instead, they often make the “pragmatism” argument, asserting (with few facts) their primary interventions are designed to help corporate candidates who are allegedly the most “electable” in tough general elections.
The existence of reasonably progressive red- and purple-state senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin should debunk such assumptions, but also: Many of the party leadership’s interventions were and continue to happen in Democratic-leaning locales whose general elections inherently favor the eventual Democratic nominees, regardless of their ideological moorings.
None of those losses prompted accountability or change — it’s still the same gerontocracy and consultants calling the shots, which spotlights an important truth.
Democratic leaders are bad at defeating Republicans in competitive races, bad at passing meaningful legislation, bad at coming up with a coherent message, and — according to new polling data -— bad at convincing most voters to like their party. The new redistricting maps in New York show they are even bad at protecting their own representation in blue states.
But they are extremely good at two things: preserving their own power inside their party and destroying the American Left.
Movements Cannot Be Built With Unicorns
Of course, there are always exceptions.
In 2018, the exception was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeating lobbyist favorite and Biff Tannen doppleganger Joe Crowley in a New York City Democratic primary.
In 2020, it was Cori Bush defeating the Clay machine in a St. Louis Democratic primary.
This year, with a little luck it could be Lt. Gov. John Fetterman defeating corporate-bankrolled, establishment-backed Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary.
The problem is that so far, such victories — laudable as they are — seem to be unicorn stories rather than reflections of a systemic power shift in primary politics that can be reliably replicated.
Ocasio-Cortez snuck up on a lazy Democratic incumbent who was both ideologically and demographically out of touch with his district.
Bush had run once before and then won a low-turnout primary against an incumbent who was so preposterously corrupt and loyal to bankers that he was portrayed as at odds even with Wall Street favorite Barack Obama — an electoral death sentence in a Democratic primary in a majority African American district.
As for Fetterman, he may be the closest to creating a replicable model, but there are caveats.
He’s been running for a Senate seat for seven straight years, and vaulted himself into a statewide office by winning a primary against a scandal-plagued incumbent. In that interim, he has used sartorial iconoclasm and tireless campaigning to develop a quasi-celebrity brand, build a grassroots fundraising base, and deter Senate Democrats from officially intervening in the Pennsylvania primary like they previously had in 2020 primaries.
All of that is to his credit. Fetterman is now in the rare position of being a serious Senate contender with progressive positions that have drawn powerful corporate enemies — and if he wins Tuesday’s primary, it is undoubtedly a major defeat for the Democratic machine.
However, Fetterman’s playbook is difficult to employ further down the ballot in lower profile House races or state legislative battles where candidates struggle to achieve any name recognition at all. The same goes for many Senate and gubernatorial races.
Sure, if you’ve never worked on a campaign, it’s easy to blame progressive candidates and insist they should all just find a way to pull off miracles like AOC or Bush or (hopefully) Fetterman. But American politics isn’t Moneyball. There’s no way that progressive candidates in most races can be Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s engineering a Cinderella story by finding a glitch in the numbers — at least not consistently.
Yes, the occasional unicorn with a unique brand and notoriety in the exact right situation can win a primary every now and again (and I say that as the spouse of a Democratic legislator who did that). But a national movement up and down the ballot to dethrone a corrupt and decrepit Democratic Party establishment almost certainly will not be successful if it must rely only on once-in-a-blue-moon candidates running in extremely rare conditions.
Put another way: Movements are built not from anomalies, but from the day to day slog of normalcy. A movement’s success can be judged on whether the political infrastructure exists not just to help a rare unicorn win a high-profile office, but to also win primaries for rank-and-file, non-celebrity candidates running for the lowest tier offices that voters barely know exist.
There are certainly parts of that infrastructure being constructed in fits and starts — from the Working Families Party to the Democratic Socialists of America, the latter of whose slate of successful New York legislative candidates dealt a blow to that state’s corrupt Democratic machine. Justice Democrats has also racked up a few congressional wins.
Those groups, though, still remain largely locked out of power. Indeed, much-touted Bush-era projects like the Democracy Alliance and liberals’ constellation of anti-GOP think tanks have spent nearly 20 years and $2 billion failing to halt the right, but they did win oligarch control of a crippled Democratic Party.
And so let’s be honest about where things stand: A full-fledged electoral movement for progressive representation in government still doesn’t exist — and now the Democratic leadership and its corporate donors have decided to do everything they can to make sure it never exists.
“Big Money corporate interests, with the aid of the House Democratic leadership and corporatist elements in the White House, are coming for the millions of progressive and economically populist voters who joined with center-left corporatists to elect Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress,” Sanders’ longtime top aide Jeff Weaver wrote this week. “The goal of (their) war is to make elected progressives extinct and to extinguish the agenda of higher wages, affordable health care, criminal justice reform, addressing climate change, and putting more economic and political power in the hands of everyday people of all races.”
There are no quick fixes here, no single trick that will make everything better. But at least there is no more pretending. Now we know the contours of this war, and as the old G.I. Joe cartoon told every kid my age: Knowing is half the battle.
Our news organization relies on readers pitching in to support our journalism. If you like this story, please support our work.