Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Club for Growth as the political arm of the Heritage Foundation.
Editor’s Note: Alexandra Rojas is the executive director of Justice Democrats, the left-leaning grassroots organization that recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress. Sean McElwee is a co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
In the 2018 midterm election, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley upset long-time incumbent Democrats who had grown out-of-touch with their deep blue districts, progressives revealed enormous energy for change in the Democratic Party primary electorate.
The result: A former bartender from the Bronx now has more Twitter followers than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is reshaping the Democratic Party and another is bravely taking to the floor of Congress to condemn Trump’s government shutdown. When new members know there’s a progressive base they need to respond to, they embrace progressive policies.
Democratic voters are not afraid of primary challenges, so the party shouldn’t be either. A 2018 poll conducted by the progressive think tank Data for Progress and data analytics firm YouGov Blue showed that 54% of Democrats agree that, “Democrats should provide a clear, positive agenda to contrast with Trump and the Republican culture of corruption. Primary elections ensure the strongest Democrats emerge to advance that agenda.”
Only 35% of Democrats believed that, “Democrats should focus on providing a check against Trump and the Republican culture of corruption. Drawn-out primary fights among Democrats are counterproductive.” The rest were undecided.
On Friday, a number of Democrats expressed annoyance with Ocasio-Cortez’s support of the kinds of primary challenges that led her election, according to Politico. While it makes sense that incumbent Democrats would decry tactics that could result in their own defeat, it’s time for Democratic voters to get over our aversion to primaries, particularly in safe blue districts.
This cycle, progressives have an opportunity to strategically primary the worst Democrats in their ranks, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, should top the list.
Despite representing a district that Hillary Clinton won by nearly 20 points in 2016, Cuellar seems to have bent over backward to be a consistent ally of the Republican Party and Donald Trump. In the 115th Congress, he voted with Trump 69% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight . By comparison, fellow Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke voted with Trump 30% of the time. Other prominent Democrats such as Pelosi and Marcia Fudge of Ohio voted with Trump respectively 21% and 16% of the time. Cuellar also received an A rating from the NRA, and voted with Republicans to support a permanent ban on the use of federal funds for abortion-related services.
Cuellar has received millions of dollars over his career from corporations and lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, including the GEO Group, which funds private prisons and immigrant detention centers. Over his lifetime, he’s received more than $100,000 from the Club for Growth, a hard right advocacy group. He also supported legislation to penalize cities and states with “sanctuary” laws for undocumented immigrants.
If Cuellar sounds like a traditional Texas Republican, that makes sense: He votes with Trump 36% more often than would be expected by the makeup of his district, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.
It’s time for a new generation of Democrats to rid the party of a member who won’t fight for the values held by most Democratic voters. There’s absolutely no way that California Democrat Pelosi; the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland); and the Democratic Party leadership can defend that Cuellar should not face a primary challenge for voting against key Democratic priorities.
Cuellar has also openly fundraised against other Democrats, including MJ Hegar, a progressive trying to unseat John Carter, R-Texas. Carter, a far-right Republican birther, who won his re-election 51-48. Cuellar was the first Democrat to receive an endorsement from the Club for Growth after endorsing George W. Bush for president in 2000 and introduced a bill to support the tea party’s call to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution while cutting critical programs and services for the most vulnerable communities in our country.
In addition to being bad on policy, Cuellar has been alleged to be a terrible boss. This past October, a former top aide accused Cuellar of firing her because of her pregnancy. Cuellar’s office defended the firing but would not comment further on the matter. Data suggests this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Cuellar has one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress, which often is a sign that an environment is not a welcoming place to work.
Of course, Cuellar is not alone. Before Ocasio-Cortez won New York’s 14th Congressional District, it was being represented by pro-Wall Street Joe Crowley. And there is also the virulently anti-abortion Daniel Lipinski from Illinois.
During the 2018 Illinois primaries, in an underdog fight against Lipinski’s political machine, his progressive opponent, Marie Newman, lost by just over 2,000 votes. Newman was even endorsed by incumbents Jan Schakowsky, Luis Gutierrez, and Bernie Sanders.