When Justice Democrats started introducing themselves to the world in January of 2017, no one really knew where they were going. By the end of the 2018 primaries, they had fully introduced themselves to the political world. Not only did they have new progressive upstarts in Michigan and Minnesota, but two of their candidates knocked off incumbents in New York and Boston.
Made up of Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and their most famous member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this group of four congresswomen has been dubbed “The Squad”. They have become the face of progressive politics and Justice Democrats as a whole. This past cycle, two more successes have occurred. Marie Newman finally knocked off conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski in Illinois’s 3rd District, and in New York’s 16th district, they knocked off another incumbent when Jamaal Bowman defeated the long-entrenched Eliot Engel.
Who are the Justice Democrats?
The most notable Justice Democrats are the four members of the Squad. However, more established candidates also consider themselves Justice Democrats. Ro Khanna, Raul Grijalva, and Pramila Jayapal all consider themselves members of the group. These are not the type of candidates I’m talking about when it comes to the group though. All three were already entrenched incumbents when the group started. They did not need the group to win their position.
The true Justice Democrats candidates are the ones who come from nowhere. Those who are outsiders, running “against the machine,” and have little to no traditional political experience. They are also, of course, running on progressive politics and ideals.
Is the west coast the best bet?
The most sensible place to say where Justice Democrats are headed next would be the west coast right? California, Oregon, and Washington have large bastions of liberalism that could be ripe for the taking for more progressive leaders. Perfect for Justice Democrats right?
Well, not so fast. The primary systems in both California and Washington state help incumbents survive primary challenges, since both have all-party primaries. This system means that all candidates, no matter what party (or if they’re independent) run in the same primary. The top two vote-getters then move on to the general, no matter the party, and face off there. You can see the problem for primary challengers pretty clearly: even if they advance to the general election, they have to hope that the incumbent failed to make the general themselves. In fact, most of the time in this situation, the challenger finishes a rather distant second place.
An example of this is Kevin de León in the 2018 California Senate race. He finished second to the entrenched Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who went on to beat him in the general. However, that is not to say that Justice Democrats can’t succeed under the right conditions. Ro Khanna came close in 2014 to defeating Mike Honda, and then blew him away in 2016. The big test for Justice Democrats in 2020 comes in California. They have backed Georgette Gomez against the more moderate Sara Jacobs in a reliably Democratic open San Diego seat. If Gomez can win in the general, it’s their first true sign of success out on the “left coast.”
Is Oregon the Justice Democrats’ only hope out west?
What about Oregon though? They use a regular primary system to decide nominees and there’s a large base of progressives, especially around Eugene and Portland. So far though, that hasn’t turned into any successes at the federal level. The energy hasn’t been there for challenges to incumbent congressmen. Earl Blumenauer, who represents most of Portland through Oregon’s 3rd district, easily beat his DSA-aligned challenger this spring. In the 5th district, well-known Blue Dog Democrat Kurt Schrader beat back his progressive challenger as well. Like in Washington, there hasn’t been much energy to knock off incumbent congressmen.
In Portland, there is a test of potential growing energy for these types of campaigns this year. Incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler was forced into a runoff against a progressive challenger Sarah Iannarone. If she is successful, it would be a sign to progressive groups like Justice Democrats that the Portland area would be receptive to progressive challengers.
The west coast is theoretically the best place for Justice Democrats to stake their claim. However, the way these states run their primaries puts them at a disadvantage, and looking at the area now, the west coast does not look to be the best area for Justice Democrats just yet.
What about the south?
The south could be the next area for Justice Democrats to expand their reach. While there are not many areas here that vote solidly Democratic, those that do have no issues with changing hands if a more progressive candidate were to upend the incumbent.
In fact, multiple candidates from these areas have come under criticism from progressives for their votes in recent years. We’ve seen some nearly successful challenges to Democratic incumbents recently.
Georgia might be their best bet
While a red state for the better part of two decades now, Georgia is a rapidly changing state. Younger and more Democratic voters have come to the state, allowing its voters to change rather quickly as well. While there are entrenched incumbents like civil rights hero John Lewis and Sanford Bishop, other congressmen like Hank Johnson and David Scott have started to attract primary challengers. While Johnson blew his challenger away this year, he got his lowest vote percentage since he had a serious challenger in 2014. David Scott was the real surprise though. Scott, a representative since 2003, faced by far his toughest race yet as an incumbent. It wasn’t until mail-in votes were counted that Scott was able to avoid a runoff.
Scott’s 52.5% of the vote shows the first sign that the progressives are getting ready in states like Georgia. In the liberal areas of Tennessee as well, primary challengers have begun to pop up against Democratic incumbents. The major issue of the South though for groups like Justice Democrats is the base of Democratic voters.
The south isn’t ready yet
Unlike in most areas, the Democratic base in the South is still older, especially in states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Democratic areas in those states are loyal to their incumbents and it usually takes a huge change for an incumbent to be ousted. Even those who do have corruption charges leveled against them, like Bill Jefferson, usually survive a primary.
It’s not just about age either. The South’s state Democratic parties are held alive by black voters. Black voters, exempting some younger ones, have not been as receptive to the policies of groups like Justice Democrats. Black voters have been more likely to trust the “establishment” of the Democratic Party and don’t take well to the “outsider” style that most progressive candidates take.
With these two factors in mind, Justice Democrats don’t have many paths in the south, maybe bar Georgia.
What about the mid-Atlantic?
The states of Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and the area of Northern Virginia is what I believe make up the mid-Atlantic. Why could Justice Democrats start to do well here, though?
Well, the mid-Atlantic has rapidly growing areas that are trending more Democratic and have areas that are always favorable to Democrats. Cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Fairfax, Arlington, and Pittsburgh have been Democrat-heavy areas and now have large amounts of young voters. Thus, these areas might be receptive to progressive policies and candidates that Justice Democrats run.
New Jersey and Delaware aren’t the right targets
Delaware has never been a state where progressive politics dominate the state’s Democratic Party. It has instead been known for pragmatic instead of exciting politics. In fact, all three of its federal officeholders have come under fire from progressive groups for not supporting items like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.
This is also because of the type of voter in Delaware is one that would not like progressive challengers. Delaware is a well-known tax haven for rich people and aptly takes on the “neoliberal” mantle more than a progressive one. And unlike many states in the Mid-Atlantic, Delaware’s population is generally on the older end.
New Jersey, on the other hand, really comes down to the party machine that runs the Democrats. While we have seen other party machines struggle in the past decade to keep control, New Jersey is not one of those states. That success comes down to one name: George Norcross. As long as Norcross is alive and has power, you will not see progressive challengers succeed against Democratic incumbents. Do you think the primary challenge to Josh Gottenhiemer will go well? It won’t, trust me.
Systematically, progressives are at too much of a disadvantage in these two states, and they won’t be ripe targets for Justice Democrats anytime soon.
What about the other three?
Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Northern Virginia are areas where Justice Democrats can expand their numbers. In fact, I was surprised to see them do so poorly in these areas this past year.
In northern Virginia, Democratic Representatives Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer represent heavily Democratic areas in Fairfax and Arlington, respectively. Not only are these areas very blue, but they are also areas where young voters are congregating, especially those young bureaucrats who work in Washington. To go along with that, neither Connolly nor Beyer are especially progressive, and both are white men who represent diverse districts. The Arlington and Fairfax areas would be fertile ground for progressives, and 2022 could be a potentially big moment for them.
In Maryland, the challenges are based in the same area: the Washington D.C. suburbs. Current Representatives like Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, and even current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer could all face strong progressive challengers come 2022. While Ruppersberger and Sarbanes haven’t dealt with any challengers yet, Hoyer dealt with an online progressive favorite this year. Hoyer trounced her but got a rather low 64.4% of the vote in the process. Unlike in Virginia though, these districts could change a lot in 2022 depending on re-districting. All three are heavily gerrymandered, especially Sarbanes’ 3rd district. Depending on how the map is drawn, these incumbents could be drawn into more or even potentially less favorable areas than they have now. No matter what happens though, Maryland is another state where progressives could take new seats.
Philadelphia’s is prime for a progressive rise
Pennsylvania has never been a state known for electing outsiders. This is mainly due to the heavily conservative areas in the middle of the state and a strong establishment machine for Democrats in the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Times have changed though, especially in Philadelphia. Philadelphia does not have that same strong Democratic machine anymore, as the city has gotten younger and more progressive. In Pittsburgh, that machine does still have clout, but not nearly as much as it did. It showed in some legislative primaries in both cities this year, as incumbents fell to more progressive challengers. Congressmen are next. The big three who will be targeted are Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans, and Mike Doyle.
Evans and Doyle are on the outer edges of being challenged, as Evans represents his district well and Doyle is hard to beat since he represents much of Allegheny County, which contains more old-school Democrats compared to Philadelphia. The real target, and a candidate who is likely in danger, is Brendan Boyle. Boyle’s old seat was much more white and moderate leaning, while also taking in more of Montgomery County. The new district he represents is only 52% white, with a large base of Latino and black citizens. This district looks a lot like one that progressives have had success in before, and I don’t doubt the likelihood that Boyle will face a major challenge in 2022. In fact, if he does he would immediately vault into my top five congressmen “most likely to be primaried” list.
The mid-Atlantic is the best bet for Justice Democrats to make a statement outside of New York and complete successful primary challenges. While success seems certain on the East Coast, they must protect two of their own in the midwest from primaries in August.
Can their two most controversial members survive competitive primaries?
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are two of the only Justice Democrats who have had success outside of the coasts. The issue that both have is they can’t seem to stay out of the news, and not in a good light either. Tlaib has been hampered by credible accusations of antisemitism, while Omar has dealt with personal issues regarding her immigration to the United States and her divorce and remarriage. Both have also drawn strong primary challengers.
Tlaib’s worst nightmare, but without the bite
Tlaib drew what is the worst possible situation for her in Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who she beat by a little over a percent in a congested primary for this seat back in 2018. Jones, who actually won the special election for this seat and served out the remainder of the term, and she is expected to get some sort of strong backing. It’s also vital to mention that this district, the 13th, is a majority-black seat. Theoretically, that helps Jones, as the primary voters who turnout will mostly be black voters. However, Tlaib does have a deep war chest she can dip into for the primary and that may prove to be killer for Jones.
Tlaib, who was considered the most endangered member of the Squad, might be safe because of that fundraising. It has been consistently high, while Jones has not shown us any data yet. If Jones is over $500,000, then this point goes away and Tlaib might be in some trouble. Jones has never been a great fundraiser though and she herself has also come under accusations of antisemitism. We still have a month to go until this race is decided and Tlaib could very easily make another blunder beforehand. As of now though, Tlaib looks safer than most expected her to be in this situation.
A surprisingly tough primary for Ilhan Omar
Omar is the one I see as most in danger of losing her primary. She has come under considerably more flak from local area politicians and her issues have stuck more in the view of the general public. It doesn’t help that she seems to have gotten a strong primary challenger from out of nowhere in Atone Melton-Meaux. Melton-Meaux, a local Minneapolis attorney, has the potential to cut into Omar. His strong community ties plus a decent backstory have made him strong and he had decent fundraising this past cycle.
This primary is not a one on one battle like in Michigan though. Three other candidates who have not done much are also in the race. While they are not high profile, these are the types of candidates who can still get 3-5% of the vote. This division could either work in Omar’s favor or for her doom. Depending on where these minor candidates get their votes from, they could pull Omar’s expected margin down. The real test is even if Melton-Meaux doesn’t pull out a victory, what is Omar’s final tally. If she’s under 50% of the vote again as an incumbent, she could be in danger come 2022. If she’s under 40% of the vote and she almost loses, that’s an even worse sign.
Omar is the one member of the Squad that has the most potential to lose, but she is still favored to win. Her string fundraising and name recognition will likely be enough to put her over the edge and save her.
What’s the takeaway from all of this?
For now, Justice Democrats, need to stay on the cast coast. There isn’t enough energy for them in the midwest or the south yet and the west coast has voting structures that make it hard for them to succeed. The mid-Atlantic, and especially the D.C suburbs, are primed for Justice Democrats to take and should be their targets for 2022 and 2024.
Who knows what they will decide to do, and data does show that they haven’t cracked the code for statewide victories yet. For now, the House is their only option for legitimate gains. Where they target will prove vital to their success.