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Democratic retirements imperil majority but make way for the left

The result could be a smaller but more liberal Democratic caucus after the dust settles on this year’s midterm elections.
Image: Texas State Rep. Jasmine Crockett speaks during a demonstration on voting rights on Aug. 4, 2021 in Washington.
Texas state Rep. Jasmine Crockett speaks during a demonstration on voting rights Aug. 4 in Washington, D.C.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Jasmine Crockett is the kind of candidate progressives and activists dream of getting into Congress.

The most liberal member of the Texas House of Representatives, Crockett, 40, is a Black civil rights attorney who has the backing of leftist groups and is friendly with members of the "squad.” 

But unlike the lawmakers she wants to join in the U.S. House of Representatives, Crockett won’t have to take on an incumbent to get there. After serving 15 terms, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who represents Crockett's district, has stepped aside and endorsed Crockett in the March 1 Texas primary.

“She ended up saying, I think it’s time for me to retire, and I think you should be the one to replace me,” Crockett said, recalling a phone call she had with Johnson last year. “For who she is, before they ever had a name for it, she has been progressive. She’s just the 86-year-old version of a progressive.”

The wave of congressional Democrats heading for the exits has set alarm bells ringing in the party as it tries to retain its narrow congressional majorities in this year's midterm elections. 

But retirements of House Democrats have also created opportunities for the left by clearing away obstacles for younger upstart progressives, which could result in a smaller but more liberal House Democratic Caucus after the dust settles on the 2022 midterms.

“Jasmine Crockett is a member of Our Revolution, she’s part of our movement. And it’s not every day that our candidates are front-runners in a congressional race, so this is a really unique opportunity,” said Aaron Chappell, the political director of Our Revolution, which grew out of the first presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “And we’re seeing that in a number of places.” 

So far, 30 House Democrats have announced plans to retire or run for other offices. The unusually high number of Democrats forgoing re-election is widely seen as bad news for the party’s prospects in the November midterms, since they will lose the power of incumbency in those districts. 

And it suggests many House Democrats are expecting to lose the majority, since lawmakers tend to stick around a bit longer if they think they’ll be setting the agenda and running committees.

“Everyone is too afraid to run as a House Democrat because they know their caucus is about to see mass layoffs this November,” said Calvin Moore, the spokesperson for the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund, a major GOP super PAC.

But most of those departing Democrats represent safe blue seats, so they will likely be replaced by other Democrats — the real uncertainty is which kind.

“There’s a lot of open seats, district lines have changed, which has mixed things up, and it creates a once-in-several-cycles and maybe even a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring in all this new energy and new people on this bench we’ve been building," said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party.

Mitchell, whose group prides itself on supporting candidates in municipal and state legislative races as a way to build a pipeline of progressive candidates, said leftist candidates often have difficulty overcoming the power of established incumbents and winning higher office.

“When we run in a primary, the incumbent has this huge baked in advantage. When we run in open seats, it allows our ideas and principles to go head-to-head with establishment neoliberal ones, so it’s more of a fair fight,” he said.

For every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected to represent New York's 14th District after taking took down a powerful 20-year congressional veteran in 2018 — there are many more failed insurgent candidates and dozens more would-be candidates who don’t bother running. Incumbent members of Congress enjoy enormous advantages and can expect to win re-election about 90 percent of the time, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks campaign financing data.

Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jessica Cisneros, Greg Casar
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., center, joins a rally for Democratic congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar in San Antonio on Feb. 12. Eric Gay / AP

Now, the left is hoping to seize these rare openings to win power and then have incumbency work in its favor, even if Democrats may not be in the majority again for a few years.

“A smaller but more progressive Democratic Caucus would be a more functional and healthy and coherent caucus,” said Mitchell. “And because of how significant the power of incumbency is, this is not just a proximal play for this election. When they’re in office, they will shape the conversation for the next 10 or 20 years.”

Texas is home to the first primaries of the year on March 1, when the main event for Democrats will be the ugly rematch between moderate Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and challenger Jessica Cisneros.

But liberal candidates have potentially easier paths to Congress in other parts of the state where they don’t have to worry about incumbents, like Crockett’s race in Dallas and one in Austin, where city Councilman Greg Casar is running for an open seat being vacated by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who is instead running in a newly created district nearby

Notably, though, progressive groups have not lined up behind a candidate to replace retiring Rep. Filemon Vela in a South Texas district Republicans have targeted.

Progressives are also eyeing seats opening up thanks to Democratic departures in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and New York, although activists are still waiting to see how the redistricting process shakes out and which candidates get in before selecting their next targets.

For instance, in a Pittsburgh-area seat being vacated by longtime Rep. Mike Doyle, left-leaning groups have rallied behind state Rep. Summer Lee, who won her seat in the legislature four years ago by unseating a member of a prominent local Democratic family with the help of groups like Democratic Socialists of America.

And progressives note the shift is not just ideological but generational. Safe seats and the power of incumbency allow members of Congress to stick around for decades if they want to. 

So even in places where an outgoing lawmaker and the lawmaker's replacement may end up voting similarly, a fresh face could be bring new urgency to the job and an eagerness to use more aggressive legislative tactics in Congress.

“As a whole, the younger generation of Democrats tend to be a lot more like AOC than the old guard,” said Waleed Shahid of the group Justice Democrats, which helped recruit Ocasio-Cortez. “I think it’s just a generational macro-shift.”