The Democratic Party is cracking down on candidates who hope to be the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and progressives are fighting back

  • Sitting Democratic lawmakers are likely to face an uptick in primary challengers in 2020, many of whom were encouraged by Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent 2018 victories.
  • But some progressive Democrats are concerned the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to no longer work with political vendors that support Democratic primary challengers will hurt their efforts.
  • Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, jumped into the primary race against New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler on Wednesday. She told INSIDER she’s faced intimidation from party power brokers and the DCCC’s rule has caused two staffers to leave her team.
  • Other Democrats say the criticism is overblown or disingenuous, and that the DCCC is trying to be more transparent about a long-established unofficial practice.
  • Some Democratic challengers told INSIDER they’re unconcerned about the establishment’s opposition to their insurgent bids.
  • Visit for more stories.

In late February, Lindsey Boylan, a former adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, received a pointed email from a powerful acquaintance.

The sender, a prominent Democratic party donor and activist, told Boylan that her plan to run for the Democratic nomination against incumbent Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York was a lost cause, and that she may have already “seriously impaired” her political future by simply considering the challenge.

The message – a common one communicated by establishment figures to primary challengers, if not normally in writing – alarmed Boylan, but also hardened her resolve, she said.

“That was really intended to be a veiled threat,” Boylan told INSIDER. “And if that happens to someone like me who’s had all these great advantages and is comparatively in a place of opportunity, it’s hard to imagine what happens to other people and other women.”

Boylan email and responseScreenshot/Lindsay BoylanA late February email exchange between Boylan and a prominent Democratic donor.

Boylan, who had met with the donor a couple of months prior to discuss her political future, wrote back to make that case.

The donor never responded.

“Maybe he thought, ‘Wow, I shouldn’t be writing this message from my white shoe law firm that prizes diversity,'” Boylan said.

A 35-year-old economic development expert, Boylan officially filed to run against Nadler, who’s 71, on Wednesday morning – becoming the third primary challenger in the race.

But Nadler, who’s represented the state’s deep blue 10th congressional district for 26 years, said he welcomes the challenges.

“This is a democracy, that’s what makes America great,” Nadler said in a statement to INSIDER. “I’m proud to run on my record of achievements representing the people of Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

Nadler is one of at least seven Democratic incumbents in New York alone who will likely face a primary challenge this cycle. One progressive New York consulting firm told INSIDER it’s considering putting together a primary tracker because they have been contacted by so many potential candidates.

There will likely be an uptick in Democratic primary challengers across the country after Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley managed to defeat sitting Democrats in New York and Massachusetts last year.

But those efforts may face strong headwinds with a distracting presidential primary and new efforts by the Democratic party to protect its incumbent members.

Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley at a rally protesting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination.Scott Eisen/Getty ImagesReps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley at a rally protesting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination.

A war over consultants

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm, announced in late March that it will no longer work with political strategists and vendors that support candidates running against sitting Democrats. The DCCC’s new policy applies to both swing districts, which paved the path to the Democrats’ current House majority, and safe blue seats.

The move – which many say simply formalized an unofficial practice – was met with fierce opposition largely from progressives, who say it will hurt first-time candidates, particularly women and people of colour.

Ocasio-Cortez called the move “extremely divisive” and urged her supporters to “pause” their financial support of the DCCC.

Pressley argued,“We cannot credibly lay claim to prioritising diversity & inclusion when institutions like the DCCC implement policies that threaten to silence new voices and historically marginalized communities.”

Leaders of the House Progressive Caucus had a tense private meeting with DCCC chair Rep. Cheri Bustos and publicly slammed the new policy when Bustos made clear she wouldn’t reverse it.

Read more:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives slam Democratic Party leaders for ‘blackballing’ candidates who want to challenge sitting Democrats

Justice Democrats, a grassroots group that powered Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional run, set up a website listing consultants who’ve pledged to work for primary challengers.

“The Democratic Party establishment is sending a signal that they are more afraid of people like Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez winning primary challenges than conservatives like Henry Cuellar who vote with Trump nearly 70% of the time,” Justice Democrats director Alexandra Rojas told INSIDER in a statement.

Sean McElwee, a progressive activist and pollster, argued that the DCCC’s policy hurts Democratic priorities by protecting conservative Democrats in safe seats.

“Cheri Bustos believes protecting incumbents is more important than gay rights,” McElwee told INSIDER. “She believes protecting incumbents is more important than electing women.”

Monica Klein, a New York-based Democratic strategist who’s worked with several primary challengers, argued Democratic leadership doesn’t care much about the quality of candidates in safe blue seats. She took issue with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent remark that a “glass of water” with a “D” next to it would win those races.

“We don’t want any Democrat in Congress – we want bold, unapologetic progressive champions,” Klein told INSIDER. “[The DCCC]’s purported mission is a strong Democratic majority, so we just have to think about what the word ‘strong’ means.”

Rebecca Katz, another progressive strategist and former adviser to Cynthia Nixon’s insurgent New York gubernatorial bid, called Pelosi’s comment a “let them eat cake” moment, telling INSIDER that it illustrated “open disdain for the left” among establishment Democrats.

But the DCCC is standing its ground and many Democrats say the criticism is overblown and, in some cases, disingenuous. They point out that Democratic incumbents pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues to the group, which doesn’t owe contracts to any consultants who support challengers.

“The general outcry has been coming from people who probably weren’t going to get access to a lot of swing district races from the Committee anyway,” a Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told INSIDER, adding, “I’m delighted to hear that the progressive community holds campaign consultants in such high esteem.”

The DCCC also announced that it will require political vendors to report on the diversity of its business – specifically whether the vendor is owned or partially owned by a member of a marginalized group or minority, including people of colour or women.

And some point out that progressive groups don’t always prioritise candidate diversity.

“Justice Democrats, who Sean McElwee is aligning himself with, primaried [Rep.] Stephanie Murphy, who is a woman of colour in Florida in a swing district, and they expect to be taken seriously spewing bulls–t like that – that’s crazy,” another national Democratic strategist, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly, told INSIDER.

Rep. Dan LipinskiChip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesRep. Dan Lipinski speaks on Capitol Hill.

The challengers weigh in

On Tuesday, Democrat Marie Newman, a former marketing executive, announced her primary challenge against Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a conservative Democrat in a safe blue seat who Newman came close to beating in last year’s primary.

Newman called the DCCC’s new rule “complete and utter overreach” in an interview with INSIDER, and said a few consultants have turned her down over the policy. Notably, one such consulting group, Mothership Strategies, worked for both Newman and Bustos last cycle.

“I thought about that long and hard because it does make it harder if consultants can’t work with me,” Newman said of the policy.

Boylan said she lost two top staffers as a result of the DCCC’s policy.

Major Democratic groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood, supported Newman in her 2018 primary, while the DCCC and Democratic leadership in the House threw their support behind Lipinski, who’s opposed to abortion rights and voted against marriage equality and Obamacare.

Emily’s List, a powerful group that supports pro-choice women candidates, indicated to INSIDER that it may buck the DCCC and support Newman’s 2020 bid again.

“We’re keeping a close eye on this race, and are really excited at the prospect of getting a woman in this seat who will be a strong pro-choice advocate for women and families,” Benjamin Ray, a spokesman for Emily’s List, said in a Wednesday statement to INSIDER.

Lipinski defended his record in a statement to INSIDER on Wednesday.

“I have been a commonsense Democratic leader who has brought people together to solve problems,” the congressman said. “Voters in the Third District have continued to send me to Washington to be an effective legislator, not to be an ineffective show horse.”

But other Democrats considering primary challenges don’t think the DCCC’s new rule will hurt them.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and longtime PR executive, is exploring a run against Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York, a centrist Democrat who represents part of Long Island.

Zimmerman said he’s not worried about finding consultants and argued that most strategists who work for challengers don’t want to do business with the DCCC anyways.

“There’s a lot of talent out there and if you look at most challengers who won, they didn’t rely upon the institutional consultants – they thought outside the box,” he told INSIDER, adding that he thinks the DCCC’s rule is “very foolish.”

Zimmerman said he was “stunned” at the amount of encouragement he’s received from Democrats across the ideological spectrum who want him to challenge Suozzi.

He added, “It’s not consultants that are gonna win a primary, it’s the candidates and the grassroots energy.”

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