What on earth is happening in the House? -- And a Politics & Prose event
Tonight at 7 pm
For DC readers: I’ll be speaking tonight at Politics & Prose at Union Market from 7 to 8 p.m. If you can’t make it but want to support a local, independent bookstore, you can order the book through them.
I have a new story out today with Rachel Cohen that tries to explain the source of all the tension and anxiety among House Democrats this year, and the vehicle for the piece is a new primary challenger to Rep. Joyce Beatty in Columbus, Ohio, named Morgan Harper. Story is here and the top is pasted below.
Meanwhile, the recount in the Tiffany Cabán race goes on. This will get you up to speed. Related: a bill is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature which would loosen the rules around the counting of votes cast as affidavits. If he signs it, Cabán likely wins. Cuomo supports her opponent, so he’s sitting on it.
When members of the Congressional Black Caucus took aim last week at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the organization that boosted her primary campaign, Justice Democrats, there was no mystery as to the motive: It’s about the primaries.
Senior members of the CBC who have served in Congress for decades are suddenly facing challenges, or looking over their shoulders at one, disrupting the smooth, biennial tradition of effectively unopposed reelections.
On Friday morning, The Hill published a story quoting multiple members of the CBC, and anonymous staffers, accusing Justice Democrats of targeting members of color up for reelection.
That was followed Friday night with a controversial tweet blasting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, a co-founder of Justice Democrats. The tweet was sent from the account controlled by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who replaced his mentor, the ousted Joe Crowley, as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Jeffries, a CBC member, has been the subject of a reported primary effort by Justice Democrats, but no one has yet to materialize (and the group denies it was recruiting anyone).
It capped off a week in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley for criticism in an interview with New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, and followed it with a condemnation of Chakrabarti in a private caucus-wide meeting. Over the weekend, Democratic leaders leaked polling numbers purporting to show that Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were deeply unpopular with white, non-college-educated voters and putting the House majority at risk.
If Pelosi’s goal was to diminish the Squad and elevate the rest of her caucus, it backfired. President Donald Trump picked up on the poll, and Pelosi’s criticism, and suggested the four members of Congress all “go back” to a different country. “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” he tweeted.
Party leaders who won back the House on a pledge to resist Trump are instead feeding him ammo to fire at members of their own party. The strange behavior is only explicable in the context of deep anxiety around the vulnerability of incumbency. To get a sense of just why incumbent Democrats are lashing out so wildly, the case of Columbus, Ohio, is instructive.
DURING THE 2010 tea party wave, Republicans won what was then a swing seat from freshman Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy. Republicans then gerrymandered the state, packing as many Democrats as they could into Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of Columbus, and giving the Republican incumbent a new, safer seat. Kilroy and Joyce Beatty both ran in the redrawn 3rd District in 2012, with Beatty coming out ahead in the primary, with 38 percent of the vote to Kilroy’s 35. She went on to easily win the general election.
Though it’s a safely Democratic district, Beatty, who is a member of the CBC, became a fast ally of the banking industry after winning a seat on the House Financial Services Committee — known as a “cash committee” for its ability to raise corporate PAC money for its members. So far this cycle, the industries that make up her top five donors are insurance companies, commercial banks, real estate, securities and investments, and finance/credit companies, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. She’s taken more than $2 million in corporate PAC money over her four terms.
Beatty’s funding is part of a K Street strategy that exploits the large wealth gap persisting in many majority- or plurality-black districts — a gap that makes it much harder for CBC members to raise from wealthy donors the kind of money needed to safely stay in Congress. That, in turn, makes corporate PAC money attractive to fill the gap. CBC members privately bristle when Democrats from wealthy districts announce pledges to forswear corporate PAC money, but still fill their coffers with max-out checks from local millionaires and billionaires in San Francisco or Seattle.
By the old rules of Democratic Party politics, Beatty has done everything right. She got into Ohio politics in 1999, taking over her husband’s seat in the state House, and steadily rose through the machine, becoming the first female Democratic House leader in the state’s history. During that time, the Ohio Democratic Party largely collapsed, with the state moving from purple to red, but Beatty continued to rise, becoming a top official at Ohio State University, and by the time she’d arrived in the U.S. House, her seat appeared to be hers for life.
But now Beatty, who is 69, is facing a primary challenge from Morgan Harper, a 36-year-old progressive who leapfrogged the usual path to a seat, threatening the fragile machinery constructed in Ohio to guide and constrain party politics. If the elected official toward the top of the ladder isn’t safe, all of a sudden the lower rungs start to seem less reliable. If the party machinery and its business allies can’t deliver a House seat to a loyal politician who has paid her dues, the rationale for the machine itself begins to evaporate.
Harper is running on her own, without any assistance from Justice Democrats or other national progressive groups. But back in Washington, incumbent Democrats privately suspect that Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez are behind it.