Senior black Democrats are mounting an aggressive defense of Rep. Joyce Beatty in Tuesday’s delayed Ohio primary, hoping to quash not only her left-wing primary challenger but the liberal insurgents gunning for a number of their colleagues.
Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus have framed the fight as greater than just defeating Beatty’s opponent, Morgan Harper, a well-funded attorney backed by the progressive group Justice Democrats. They are eager to show they can smack down any primary challengers nationwide who conspire against senior members of color who have spent decades fighting to the top.
“What is that all about? Is it attacking us?” Beatty said in an interview. “Well, let me make the message strong and clear: When you attack a hard-working member of the Congressional Black Caucus, we fight back. We are the conscience of the caucus, and we represent people.”
The CBC is stepping up to protect Beatty in an unpredictable race that some Democrats privately fear could be close, with turnout expected to be far lower amid the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down much of Ohio since mid-March.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a former CBC chairman, is among several top Democrats who has helped marshal support for Beatty from both Washington and Ohio in recent months, frustrated by liberal outsiders with lengthy progressive wish lists seeking to oust party elders.
“Being ‘anti’ is not enough. This is about results and not just rhetoric,” Richmond said. “And just because you run with a bunch of rhetoric doesn’t mean you can get results. There are people here that are effective members of Congress.”
That support has included a posh campaign fundraiser for Beatty and other vulnerable incumbents in late February, hosted at lobbying firm Akin Gump’s seventh-floor office near D.C.’s Eastern Market. CBC members had also planned to drop into Beatty’s central-Ohio district just before the primary, visiting churches to mobilize black voters and hosting an “appreciation party” for Beatty, a vice chair of the CBC, at a jazz club in downtown Columbus.
But all of that was turned on its head as the coronavirus invaded the U.S.,forcing Beatty’s colleagues to turn to virtual events to lend their support.
Richmond, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) called into Beatty’s virtual get-out-the-vote event Sunday. Richmond praised Beatty’s commitment to the CBC and her work in Congress, particularly on the Financial Services Committee for which she chairs the subcommittee on diversity and inclusion.
Beatty’s primary is the first salvo in the primary battle between the CBC and liberal groups trying to oust longtime incumbents.Besides Beatty, at least four other members of the caucus in New York and Missouri will face credible primary challengers throughout the summer.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the CBC’s political arm, is a longtime critic of the progressive groups’ approach to primaries and hopes Beatty’s victory on Tuesday will be a shot across the bow to other challengers.
“We worked hard,” Meeks said in an interview. “We’ve done it the old-fashioned way. And so, for people who seem to come out of nowhere, who have done nothing, have nothing to show for, to say, ‘We’re just going to challenge you for the sake of challenging you.’ Does that make sense?”
Meeks added that he has retooled the CBC’s political arm this year to better defend incumbents facing primary challenges. That includes hiring a dedicated political director for the PAC who will help boost digital and on-the-ground operations.
Harper, who said she launched her grassroots campaign last Julywith “no coordination with the Justice Democrats,” pushed back against the suggestion that her sole purpose was to attack a member of Congress. And Harper has pushed back when pundits have called her out for targeting black lawmakers, at one point, retorting on Twitter: “I am also black.”
“To say, ‘We’re just going to challenge you for the sake of challenging you,’ does that make sense?”– Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.)
“I think we need to reframe that, in the idea that this is somehow a targeting of an individual,” Harper said in an interview last week. “Our campaign, we are presenting an alternative policy platform to the people of the 3rd District and that is not a personal exercise.”
Harper, a former attorney for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has called Beatty beholden to special interests because she accepts donations from corporate PACs and said that she has wavered in her support of liberal policy aims like the “Green New Deal.”
As someone who spent time in foster care, Harper argued that opportunity for economic mobility is diminishing in central Ohio under Beatty’s leadership. Her closing ad spot accused the congresswoman of “profiting off of gentrification.”
Beatty, the first female Democratic leader in the state House and a former top official at Ohio State University, bristled at the suggestion that she lacks progressive credentials, pointing to her support for “Medicare for All” and her involvement in the Green New Deal for public housing.
The congresswoman pointed out that Harper — who grew up in Columbus but recently moved back from New York — hasn’t lived or voted in the district in years, accusing her of diverting her attention and resources away from helping Democrats protect their majority.
“It is insulting and offensive that you would have someone that would come here with as much need as we have and ask people to vote for you when you never voted for them,” Beatty said.
This primary marks Beatty’s toughest race since she was first elected in 2012, when she beat Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in a newly created district. She is Ohio’s first black member outside of Cleveland.
The race between Beatty and Harper — whose campaign has been amplified by Justice Democrats — is a top priority for the CBC, which has long accused the liberal group of targeting lawmakers of color.
Besides Beatty, Justice Democrats have also promoted challengers to Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri, a member of the CBC.
So far this cycle, the group has ousted Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who opposes abortion rights, but failed to unseat Cuellar. The progressive community is eager to maintain that momentum and notch wins beyond picking off the few remaining socially conservative members of the Democratic Caucus.
“We endorsed Morgan because of her career of service, the excitement she inspired in the grassroots activist community and because she rejected corporate donations that harm the Democratic Party,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats.
Other senior Democrats are also staring down primary challengers from the left — endorsed by groups like Brand New Congress and Democracy for America but not Justice Democrats.
The flurry of progressive primary challengers nationwide, some inspired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Justice Democrats-backed upset victory in 2018, has been met with staunch institutional resistance. House Democrats’ campaign arm has drawn up policies intended to support incumbents, triggering a fierce blowback.
Even seasoned election-watchers say Tuesday’s outcome is hard to predict.
Harper has spent far less than the congresswoman, dropping $703,000 as of early April, to Beatty’s $2.2 million. Beatty spent $750,000 on TV and radio, while Harper spent only $50,000, according to a source tracking spending in the Columbus market.
But it’s unknown how Ohio’s two-step, absentee ballot process — voters must mail in a form to request an absentee ballot and then mail back the ballot itself — could suppress turnout among those who did not cast an in-person ballot during the March early voting period.
Absentee ballots must have been postmarked by Monday or hand-delivered by Tuesday in order to be accepted in the primary, which was originally scheduled for March 17. Gov. DeWine shuttered in-person voting just hours before it was set to begin last month but failed to persuade the state Legislature to postpone the primary until June.
Harper’s allies concede she was better positioned during the initial March date, when college students were on campus at Ohio State and when Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) then-active presidential campaign was still galvanizing progressive voters.
“Coronavirus really had a major impact on this race in ways that help incumbency, especially when students at one of the largest campuses in the country were sent home,” Rojas said.