Dems embrace the left in some GOP strongholds

By Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle
·8 min read

Democrats in 2018 seized the House on the momentum of dozens of centrist candidates who beat the odds in Trump country with their middle-of-the-road, inoffensive appeal.

But several of the Democrats with the greatest odds of flipping GOP seats in 2020 don’t hail from the center — but from the "Medicare for All" and "Green New Deal"-touting left flank.

Nearly a dozen Democrats in some of the nation’s most competitive districts, from Texas to Iowa to Nebraska, are running on unabashedly liberal platforms, betting that their brand of progressive populism — single-payer health care, aggressive climate action and eschewing special interest money in politics — can win even in GOP strongholds.

They’re running on, rather than away from, left-wing policies that many elected Democrats remain hesitant to embrace. And with final election forecasts predicting Democrats could net up to 20 new seats, these progressives’ prospects look increasingly strong. Meanwhile, as the GOP conference shrinks and moves to the right, an even more polarized House is likely.

Dana Balter, a community organizer and former Syracuse University professor, came within 5 points of defeating three-term Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) in 2018. Running again this cycle, Balter said she sometimes hears from people about how Democrats fighting to win GOP seats aren’t supposed to run on a progressive platform.

“The conventional wisdom is, if you're going to run in a swing district, you have to be this ... ‘moderate, middle of the road’ candidate,” Balter said in an interview. “It’s still the dominant narrative.”

FILE - In this photo from Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018, Dana Balter applies her
FILE - In this photo from Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018, Dana Balter applies her

Balter two years ago found herself in an ugly primary battle after the House Democratic campaign arm recruited a surprise last-minute challenger and was accused of meddling in the race. Still, that November, Balter came closer to beating Katko than any other Democrat has, and decided to run again. This time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is behind her in a big way. The DCCC's first TV ads of the entire general election went up in support of Balter.

“I don’t think we did that in spite of talking about progressive ideas, I think we did it because we were talking about progressive ideas,” Balter said of the midterms battle, where she swung the race in her direction by 16 points.

In Omaha, Democrat Kara Eastman faced a similar uphill battle against the establishment last cycle. Eastman came within 2 points of beating GOP Rep. Don Bacon in 2018 despite being snubbed by the DCCC — all just months after she upset the Democratic favorite, former Rep. Brad Ashford, in a primary.

This cycle, Eastman beat Ashford’s wife in a primary, and Ashford eventually endorsed the GOP incumbent in the race. And like Balter, Eastman now has the solid backing of the DCCC — and its campaign muscle — this cycle. Altogether, the DCCC spent $3.4 million backing Eastman in Nebraska, and $3.7 million for Balter in New York.

Still, Eastman, who founded a nonprofit focusing on lead poisoning prevention, hasn’t shied away from her support for single-payer health care or her dislike for the public option, which she argues won’t actually save money. She added that she has a lot of success pitching the idea of Medicare for All in her district “when we take the buzzwords out.”

“I look at it the fiscally conservative way,” Eastman said, noting that universal health care is a widely supported position nationally and in Nebraska. “If we know that the Medicare for All Act is proven to save $1 trillion over the next decade, why wouldn’t we explore that?”

The second district race in Nebraska, which is dubbed a toss-up by election forecasters, carries more weight in 2020 because it also comes with an electoral vote independent of the state.

And Eastman’s gotten help not just from DCCC but other groups, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In its first-ever independent expenditure, the CPC spent over $1 million to promote four candidates this cycle, including Eastman and Balter.

Another group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, doubled its spending for Eastman over the weekend, dropping another $100,000 in TV ads in the remaining days before Nov. 3.

“Because we’re in a potential landslide environment, the map for the House has expanded,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Progressives who happened to win the nomination in off-the-beaten-path districts are now in the center of the storm.”

Several other candidates who defied the Democratic party’s “run to the center” playbook in 2018 are again on the ballot this year. That includes Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel in Texas and J.D. Scholten in Iowa, who were largely ignored by the party establishment in the last cycle only to wind up in much more competitive seats in 2020.

“When I ran in this seat in 2018, it was, ‘Wow, you’re really going out on a limb here,” Oliver, who’s running again against embattled Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), recalled in an interview. “Nobody cared. They just didn’t think this district was a movable district, let alone a winnable district.”

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2020 file photo, Candace Valenzuela, Democratic candidate in the Texas 24 Congressional District speaks in Dallas. She is running in the Nov. 3, 2020 general election. (AP Photo/LM Otero File)
FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2020 file photo, Candace Valenzuela, Democratic candidate in the Texas 24 Congressional District speaks in Dallas. She is running in the Nov. 3, 2020 general election. (AP Photo/LM Otero File)

And then there are newcomers like Candace Valenzuela and Lulu Seikaly, who are both running for seats that were once considered deep-red in Texas but are now in play for Democrats. Valenzuela, who’s running in the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Kenny Marchant, is one many progressives expect to win and the race was rated “lean Democrat” in the Cook Political Report’s final rankings Monday.

While not every progressive Democrat in a swing seat has Green New Deal or Medicare for All stamped across their platforms, many do, including Oliver. She uses her 15 years of experience at a large for-profit hospital in Texas to talk shop about how Medicare for All would save her state billions. And on the Green New Deal, Oliver talks about renewable energy already being used at Fort Hood — the largest military installation in the U.S., which is also in her district.

“Our ideas are really popular, it's just that our elected officials don’t reflect the values and ideas that the American population shares,” Oliver said.

Several of the House Democratic candidates in 2018 did back Medicare for All, including Colin Allred in Texas and Katie Porter and Mike Levin in California. But it was the exception rather than the rule in a cycle dominated by moderates, many of whom would go on to join the Blue Dogs or other centrist groups and tamp down their Medicare for All support.

Many of the current crop of progressive candidates are looking to emulate Porter, who flipped a long-held GOP seat in Orange County in 2018 and has since skyrocketed as a progressive superstar.

Porter was even the face of a recent Progressive Change Campaign Committee campaign that raised more than $120,000 for its slate of “red to bold” candidates — a play on the DCCC’s list of “red to blue” seats it hopes to flip each cycle. The goal — with the not-so-subtle line, “Katie Porter needs a crew” — is to elect and establish a formidable bloc of red-seat progressives in the House, akin to the “squad” led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“That would really change the conventional wisdom of what’s possible in the Democratic Caucus, raise the ceiling on any issue,” said Green from Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “If the Katie Porter “red to bold” bloc were agreeing with the increased squad, everybody is more influential and more powerful within the caucus.”

This year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus will add at least eight members to its roughly 100-member ranks. And the increased membership comes as the group is weighing a significant overhaul — one that would tighten its rules in a way the CPC’s leaders hope give the caucus more influence in the House overall.

Since Democrats took back the majority, the CPC has devoted more resources to capturing even more seats. The group’s PAC has been aggressive this cycle, and is on track to raise roughly $4 million by the end of the year. Two cycles ago, the group raised less than $300,000.

And out of the group's 17 endorsed candidates, seven are in GOP-held seats.

Scholten, who is running to replace Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), said his campaign was shaped by Iowa’s history of so-called prairie populists, like former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, as well as national politicians like Barack Obama, who won over rural voters with his 2008 presidential campaign.

“The populism message, it connects with people here in Iowa,” Scholten said from the driver’s seat of an RV as he traversed the district a day before the election. At one point, he was interrupted by honks from a nearby truck, and said the driver had just given him a thumbs up.

“It’s not as much of ‘left’ versus ‘right’, it’s, ‘Do you have a message that appeals to people, that appeals to your district?’”