2024 Electoral Preview: Key Democratic Congressional Primaries
Senate races in California and New Jersey, House races across the nation
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The dominant question in American politics in 2024 will be whether President Joe Biden can ride a depleted Democratic Party infrastructure to re-election over an alarming authoritarian threat with explicit plans to dismantle climate policy and “drill, drill, drill,” as disasters fed by climate pollution reshape the nation. But there are many important elections beyond the presidency that will alter the course of climate policy for years to come. This preview will focus on congressional open seats and primaries, to be followed by a post on state elections.
With organizations like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement in a weaker position than in the past, big money forces resisting the Green New Deal—including fossil-fuel barons, tech billionaires, crypto grifters, and Israeli militarist forces like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—may be even more prevalent than in previous cycles. However, organizations like the Cleantech Party, Climate Cabinet, and Lead Locally are continuing the electoral fight, while groups like the Green New Deal Network, the Climate Organizing Hub, and Climate Defiance push the political conversation towards real climate action.
There are safe Democratic Senate seats opening up in Maryland and Delaware, but those seem very likely to go to Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, respectively.
The retirement and death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein has opened up a crucial vacancy to represent a state that really should have two senators who don’t scold young climate activists. Most polls have shown Rep. Adam Schiff with a small lead— a fact seemingly owed to the massive fundraising advantage Schiff built up from close ties to media companies and Hollywood, along with a constant cable news presence during the Trump years. Schiff is hardly an empty suit, however. He has been praised for his management of Trump’s first impeachment, and recently introduced legislation to confront California’s fossil fueled wildfire insurance problem. Schiff’s voting record has gotten more progressive since his days as a Blue Dog, though he retains a hawkish stance on national security and intelligence issues. Following Feinstein’s death, there are now only 18 Members of Congress remaining who voted for the Iraq war, and Schiff is one of them. Recently, Schiff lost an endorsement from the mayor of Burbank over his refusal to support a ceasefire in Palestine.
Polls also show Rep. Katie Porter advancing to the general election with a second place finish. Porter is endorsed by her mentor Elizabeth Warren, and she has emulated Warren’s penchant for tough congressional oversight and financial regulation through investigations into Big Oil and proposed legislation to strengthen oversight of Wall Street shadow banks. Rep. Barbara Lee has been the most committed candidate to the Green New Deal, and her progressive record shows most strongly through her steadfast career-long push for peace. Lee is beloved by the party base, but has trailed in fundraising and polling, with one recent poll showing her behind retired baseball player Steve Garvey, a Republican.
Almost cartoonish corruption by Sen. Bob Menendez has created a competitive primary for this seat. Most of the state’s congressional delegation, county leaders, and party bosses have lined up behind Tammy Murphy, the wife of governor Phil Murphy and a former Republican. Rep. Andy Kim is running as a progressive, and has been endorsed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Notwithstanding the strong pressure of the “county line” and party leadership, Kim just released a poll showing him with a pretty healthy lead.
Democrats enjoy much better odds of re-claiming the House majority from the fanatical grip of extremist Republicans than they do of maintaining their Senate majority. Nonetheless, many House Democrats have announced their retirement, creating open seats in a number of safe Democratic districts that will help determine how much support the Green New Deal has within the caucus.
Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, a close ally of Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi, announced her retirement after a lengthy career representing a rapidly changing Silicon Valley, which included holding a powerful perch on the Energy and Commerce Committee. There are thirteen candidates in the field to replace Eshoo, and the top two March primary will likely extend to a general election in November between two Democrats.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian starts with a fundraising edge, having laid the groundwork to run for this seat for over a decade. At 70, Simitian is only 10 years younger than Eshoo, but he’s well respected from decades of serving in elected office. In a Mercury News editorial asserting that he’s the climate hawk in the race, Simitian described his work to establish Silicon Valley Clean Energy and co-author the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Assemblymember Evan Low is another contender, though is “almost a parody of a Silicon Valley corporate stooge.” He has been regarded as a rising star since winning election as the nation’s youngest ever openly gay mayor in 2009, winning a seat in the state Assembly in 2014. Low’s climate record is pretty middling, including abstaining from the oil drilling setback law that Big Oil is now spending heavily to overturn on the 2024 ballot.
Another formidable candidate is Sam Liccardo, the business-aligned candidate who prevailed over labor’s preferred pick when elected mayor of San Jose in 2014. Liccardo went on to lead the the city in establishing a community-choice aggregation energy program to compete with PG&E. The only woman in the field is Palo Alto city councilmember Julie Lythcott-Haims, best known as Stanford’s freshman dean turned best-selling author. Lychcott-Haims bucked NIMBYism and supported affordable housing development during her 2022 election to the council, and now counts climate change as a top priority. Also running are former Obama administration staffer Peter Dixon; former Saratoga councilmember Rishi Kumar (a Green New Deal supporter, but also a BJP partisan); and Palo Alto councilmember Greg Tanaka.
With Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff running for California’s open Senate seat, this West Hollywood and Pasadena-based district is now open. The clear climate hawk in the race is Assemblymember Laura Friedman, who has won endorsements from Climate Hawks Vote, the League of Conservation Voters, and Food and Water Action. Running against Friedman are former Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, whose involvement in a Department of Water and Power billing scandal scuttled his mayoral campaign, and state senator Anthony Portantino, the Senate Appropriations Chair who blocked transit-oriented development. In a truly remarkable endorsement of Friedman, consumer advocate Jamie Court wrote that Feuer and Portantino “represent the worst in California politics,” highlighting in particular Portantino’s actions to thwart legislation allowing oil drillers to be held liable when their activity makes residents sick.
Even as Delaware became a reliably blue state throughout the 2000s, it maintained its bipartisan political culture of enabling regulatory and tax evasion by corporations. President Biden even acknowledged this legacy in announcing his initiatives to revitalize antitrust enforcement against entrenched corporate power. Delaware’s political culture began to change in 2016, when a young progressive named Eugene Young nearly won the Wilmington mayor’s race. Many members of Young’s campaign team were behind Kerri Harris’s spirited but unsuccessful 2018 primary challenge to Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper, and progressives have made substantial gains in the legislature several cycles in a row.
Carper announced his retirement this year, and practically anointed Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester as his successor, creating a vacancy for Delaware’s at-large congressional seat. The two leading contenders are Eugene Young, still popular with the left and now director of the state Housing Authority, and state senator Sarah McBride, who would be the first openly trans member of Congress if elected. Treasurer Colleen Davis is also running.
Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips has decided to wage a quixotic presidential campaign rather than run for re-election. Even before Phillips bowed out, Ron Harris had launched a campaign, titling his opening ad “Resilience” in a nod to his experience as Minneapolis’ chief resilience officer. The DFL primary will likely be a close contest between Harris and state senator Kelly Morrison, who has an A rating from Climate Cabinet, and has said her major focus will be addressing the climate crisis.
With endorsements from several labor organizations, human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid seems to be posing a strong challenge to Rep. Bill Foster, a New Democrat centrist with a background as a physicist. In 2020, Foster survived a surprisingly strong challenge from Rachel Ventura (now a state representative), who challenged him on his opposition to a Green New Deal and 2009 vote against the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Foster sits on the Financial Services Committee, and voted for the 2018 financial deregulation package that played a role in fueling last March’s spate of regional bank failures. AIPAC has endorsed Foster.
New Jersey’s 8th
Rep. Rob Menendez, the son of the aforementioned Bob Menendez, is being challenged by Hoboken mayor Ravi Bhalla. Bhalla has emphasized the Menendez family’s corruption, but also seems vaguely to be challenging Menendez from the left.
New York’s 26th
There will be a special election to replace retiring Rep. Brian Higgins, but the choice for the Democratic Party candidate is up to Erie County Democratic leaders. Those leaders seem inclined to support state senator Tim Kennedy over Erie County legislator Jeanne Vinal and Buffalo mayor Byron Brown, who used Republican votes and donors to win re-election in 2021 after losing the primary to democratic socialist India Walton.
With Rep. Colin Allred running against oily ecofascist Sen. Ted Cruz, there is an open seat in this Democratic district outside Dallas. In a crowded race with many centrist options, state representative Rhetta Bowers seems to be angling for the progressive vote against state representative Julie Johnson, former Dallas councilmember Kevin Felder, and civil rights attorney Justin Moore, among others.
The announced retirement of Portland Rep. Earl Blumenauer means the loss of a Green New Deal champion and a leader on climate. Running in the progressive lane for Blumenauer’s seat are state representative Maxine Dexter, who has an A+ rating from Climate Cabinet, and former Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, sister of Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal. AIPAC is reportedly looking to get involved in this race against the left, though it’s unclear whether they’ll back moderate Gresham councilmember Eddy Morales or another candidate.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton announced her retirement, creating an opening in this Dem-leaning northern Virginia seat. The declared Democratic candidates so far are Del. Michelle Lopes Maldonado, who has an A rating from Climate Cabinet, and Travis Nembhard, an attorney and former financial regulator who won support from Climate Cabinet and Chesapeake Climate Action Network in his 2023 run for the House of Delegates, which he narrowly lost.
When former New Democrat Chair Derek Kilmer announced his retirement, it prompted Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who emphasized the climate crisis during her brief campaign for governor, to drop out and run for Congress instead. Kilmer then endorsed Franz, as did several building and constructed trades such as LIUNA Local 252. Progressives seem to be more excited about state senator Emily Randall, who has an A+ rating from Climate Cabinet. Also running with the support of several local mayors is Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean.
The Squad (NY-14; NY-16; MI-12; MN-05)
Efforts by AIPAC and other big money outfits to defeat Congress’ most vocal proponents of a Green New Deal, often referred to as “The Squad,” are intensifying this cycle. The most competitive primaries to watch are in NY-16, where Westchester County Executive George Latimer is challenging Rep. Jamaal Bowman, and in MN-05, where things have already gotten nasty in the rematch between former Minneapolis Councilmember Don Evans and Rep. Ilhan Omar.