For more than 20 years, Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle has represented the Pittsburgh area in Congress. So, when he abruptly announced in October that he plans to retire after his current term, progressive Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee wasted no time declaring her intention to replace him.
Lee told The Daily Beast she’d been exploring a run against Doyle prior to the congressman’s retirement announcement, believing her more progressive chops better represent her solidly blue district. She spoke to constituents about their appetite for change—and with Doyle directly as “a measure of respect” about “his intentions with the seat” prior to his announcement.
Doyle didn’t hint he was going anywhere. But that didn’t stop Lee from continuing to explore her options—and within a day of Doyle’s announcement, her campaign was ready to go.
“We were already prepared to make our announcement when he made it. It was very good and convenient timing,” she said.
Just like Doyle, more than a dozen House Democrats are headed for the exits this Congress, and the left flank couldn’t be more thrilled. Their hope is these races could add to the ranks of progressives in Congress, who’ve seen increased influence over policy and leadership in recent months.
But while an open primary paves the way for a surefire changing of the guard and allows progressives to run without the tricky politics of challenging an incumbent, vacated seats also come with their own downsides: they often attract the political masses, sparking competition.
“He is recognizing, you know, the changing demographics, right, the changing political kind of attitude and environment that we have in western Pennsylvania,” Lee said of Doyle. She was the first Black woman from southwestern Pennsylvania to be elected as a state representative and has the backing of groups like Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
“We get to create the standard in this race, you know, by being out front first... I think this is going to be a much more progressive race,” she added.
Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive organizing group Our Revolution, said he thinks “there’ll be a greater opportunity for progressives to prevail in these races given that the incumbent Democrat and the established machine isn’t necessarily going to be united early on behind one candidate.”
But, Geevarghese added, “the challenge for progressives is to try to coalesce quickly around the most viable progressive who’s going to be in the race,” in order to not split the base and let a moderate take a plurality simply because a bunch of progressives jumped in the race.
Maxwell Frost, a progressive running to replace Rep. Val Demings’ (D-FL) as she vies for a spot in the Senate, wasn’t the first candidate to enter that race. But he’s positive that being in an open primary pushes voters to consider a wider array of candidates, with their default incumbent no longer an option.
“It’s a different atmosphere. It’s a different vibe,” Frost said.
“I’m not challenging Val Demings. I’m not challenging anyone really… And I think that the atmosphere open primaries create is one where people, yes, take the time to consider multiple candidates, because there isn’t the person that they've supported for so long who’s in it,” he added.
Frost, an organizer who’s worked with March for Our Lives and the American Civil Liberties Union, also told The Daily Beast that he hopes voters will consider broader life and career experiences when selecting a candidate rather than going with someone who’s been “marinating the longest” in government.
Still, while insurgent progressive campaigns against longtime incumbents have become more frequent in recent years, their success is far from guaranteed. Often, even if the seat is open, more established or moderate politicians who have waited their turn are quickly elevated by party leadership.
This year’s Ohio special election to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge, who left her seat to serve in the Biden administration, was a race full of outside forces.
As the days waned before the district’s Democratic primary, moderate Shontel Brown and progressive Nina Turner clearly emerged as frontrunners. Turner had social media clout galore and support from members of the Squad, giving an energy to her candidacy that captured national attention. But Brown, running a campaign more in line with Fudge’s political leanings, had the support of the so-called establishment, including a coveted endorsement from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
As polls closed, the tide went in favor of Brown, ultimately sending the more moderate of the two off to Washington.
Turner told The Daily Beast she believes these races, at their cores, are issues-based, with voters looking to see “which candidate is actually going to stand up to really try to change the material conditions of the people that they're running to serve.”
But, Turner said, when folks outside the district start imposing their influence toward their favored outcomes, the progressive versus moderate divides begin.
“When you have forces that are really in there, and not thinking about or even caring about what the local concerns are, they just want to pick the person that they want to win and they will do anything to make sure that that person wins,” she said.
“Even to go as far as painting that other person as somehow extreme. Out of the norm. Dangerous,” Turner added.
Progressive Kentucky House Rep. Attica Scott didn’t wait for Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) to announce his retirement. By the time Yarmuth announced his planned departure in October, she had already racked up endorsements from groups including the Kentucky Sunrise Movement and the Elect Black Women PAC.
“I said this when launching our campaign for Congress, no political seat belongs to any family member, front-runner, or legacy and the people of Louisville deserve someone who will best fight for their needs in Washington,” Scott said in a statement after Yarmuth’s Oct. 20 announcement that he would be leaving the House in 2022.
But after Yarmuth retired, the opening quickly appealed to a number of established politicians. Kentucky state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, for one, launched his campaign within minutes of Yarmuth’s retirement announcement. While Scott was elected to the state Legislature in 2016, McGarvey was elected in 2012 and now serves as the top Democrat in the state Senate.
The former chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, Jennifer Moore, and state Reps. McKenzie Cantrell and Josie Raymond are also considering a run, according to The Courier-Journal.
“A safe Democratic seat comes up, like, once in a generation…” a progressive operative told The Daily Beast. “Every single state legislator in America has pictured themselves in Congress.”
Some Democrats argue those politician pipelines serve as a reason for not waiting for vacancies in the first place.
Imani Oakley, a progressive running against incumbent Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ) in 2022, told The Daily Beast in a statement that she doesn’t want to show deference to “the corrupt party machinery that chooses successors.”
Payne Jr., who’s not a member of the progressive caucus, has held the NJ-10 seat since 2012—when his father, Rep. Donald Payne, died after representing the same heavily Democratic district since 1989.
“He inherited the seat from his father and he’s intent on holding it until he can anoint a successor. That’s aristocracy, not democracy,” Oakley argued. “The only option to protect my community from the ravages of climate change, housing instability and healthcare inequality: challenge Payne Jr. on my own timetable.”
Geevarghese also suspects that corporate interests are going to be especially interested in boosting more moderate Democrats this election, because “it is not in their interest or the establishment’s interest to have a stronger Congressional Progressive Caucus.”
“I anticipate, you know, the primary season is going to get pretty nasty pretty soon between the two wings. And on the moderate side, I think you’re going to see a lot of big money get involved,” he forecasted.
Turner says she also expects some hard pushes against progressives in upcoming races.
“This is about preserving the status quo. And they will do anything—and I mean, absolutely anything—to preserve the status quo. That is why they come at progressives as hard as they do,” she said.