Rep. Danny Davis Defeats Left-Wing Challenger in Illinois - Rolling Stone
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Establishment Democrats Defeat Left-Wing Challenger in High-Profile House Primary

A progressive challenger lost to a long-tenured incumbent in a race that renewed a feud between the left and the Congressional Black Caucus

Kina Collins and Danny DavisKina Collins and Danny Davis

Kina Collins and Danny Davis

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images; Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Kina Collins, a gun violence prevention activist and newly declared Democratic candidate for Congress, sat in the backyard of a craftsman house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park last September and lamented the state of the Democratic party — specifically, how it approached the subject of her activism. Young people died constantly of gun violence in her neighborhood, she explained. “We have to console the parents when their sons get scraped off the ground from being shot,” she said. “We have to deal with the abandoned buildings and vacant lots in our neighborhoods.”

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the incumbent in Illinois’ 7th congressional district, had been in office for almost 25 years. From Collins’ perspective, he hadn’t done enough to deal with those problems. But she reserved special ire for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat who had just endorsed Davis through a new PAC he’d founded to beat back primary challengers. “We don’t see the federal resources when a hundred people get shot in a weekend,” Collins said. “But the one time that you want to spotlight the west side of Chicago is to silence me. I’m enraged by that.”

That was that. Collins had called out Jeffries by name. For the better part of the next year, Jeffries and his House leadership colleagues did not forget it.

Collins’ challenge to Davis flew under-the-radar compared to similar Democratic primaries, which attracted both national attention and the sort of spending often reserved for tight general election contests. But a powerful coterie of Democrats quietly watched this race with rapt attention: Black House lawmakers eager to bury their party’s left flank, whom they have long accused of unfairly singling out Black incumbents in pursuit of building progressive power. And the left, for its part, was eager to oust an incumbent it views as too cozy with corporations and the Democratic establishment.

Davis defeated Collins on Tuesday evening, narrowly beating his challenger by a seven-point margin. His victory is a major defeat for the party’s left flank, which have lost all but one primary challenge to incumbent Democratic House members this cycle.

The contest’s discord was part of a larger conflict that has pitted a new type of progressive Democrat against an older generation that still holds the party’s top positions. “We were progressive before progressive was a term,” said a Democratic source close to the incumbent. “Just because CBC members aren’t painting themselves with that brush doesn’t mean they aren’t standing up for those values.” Collins’ allies insist they aren’t targeting Black members, but simply giving voters in the Chicago-base district a choice. “For many voters, especially in deep blue areas, primaries are the only elections where people have a voice to hold their representatives accountable,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the Justice Democrats. The left-wing organization backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) 2018 surprise victory and endorsed Collins in this race.

The feud began in the aftermath of the 2018 midterms, when Jeffries defeated Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in House leadership elections, an outcome viewed by the left as payback for Ocasio-Cortez’s upset over Joe Crowley. Politico later reported that Ocasio-Cortez had told confidantes Jeffries was the “highest priority” for future primary challenges. The threat never materialized — Ocasio-Cortez denied it and the reporting was never confirmed — but it sealed the bad blood between the factions. 

That divide deepened the following year when Justice Democrats endorsed candidates against two Congressional Black Caucus incumbents in 2020. “Let me make the message strong and clear: When you attack a hard-working member of the Congressional Black Caucus, we fight back,” warned Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), one of the challenged incumbents, in 2019. Beatty quashed her challenger. But the other left-wing insurgent, activist Cori Bush, channeled nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s murder into defeating a 20-year Black incumbent in a St. Louis-based district that includes Ferguson, when Bush had led protests in the aftermath of a 2014 police killing of an unarmed Black teenager.

Progressive allies likened Bush’s path to Collins’ prospects. The 31-year-old grew up in a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side plagued by violence. After witnessing a murder as a child, Collins went on to lead a gun safety non-profit. Her expertise earned her a spot in President Joe Biden’s transition task force for gun policy. Collins supports the usual buffet of left-wing planks, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

Justice Democrats endorsed Collins early in the race and have helped her build a field, communications, and — most significantly — fundraising strategy. Collins outraised Davis every quarter of the primary. ​​“They’re quite literally understanding the assignment about what it takes to win these races,  the messaging and understanding the pulse of the district,” Collins said in an interview last week.

The 80-year-old Davis brings his own progressive bona fides, including one-time ties to Democratic Socialists of America. He, too, is no stranger to gun violence: He lost his 15-year-old grandson in a 2016 shooting, and his commitment to the issue earned him an endorsement from an arm of the nonprofit at which Collins once worked.

Davis had been bolstered by Team Blue PAC, the political outfit led by Jeffries and two House colleagues to do for incumbents what Justice Democrats does for progressive insurgents: Help them put up a fight. “There are forces of antagonism that will deliberately and intentionally target them solely based on their role as traditional get-stuff-done Democrats who don’t live on Twitter,” Jeffries said. “People are far better prepared to more effectively communicate their vision, message and accomplishments to the people they’re privileged to represent.”

The ideological similarities distanced some big spenders from the race. AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, two pro-Israel PACS that have dumped millions into defeating progressive challengers this cycle, stayed out of the contest given Davis’ tough stances against Israel during his quarter century in the House. The face-off between two Black candidates also kept some of Collins’ would-be endorsers at bay, not eager for the optics of crossing the Congressional Black Caucus and its powerful leaders. (Bush, for her part, refused to weigh in on the primary, offering only that “primary challengers aren’t horrible people” when asked about it.)

The distinction Collins attempted to draw was generational, which she described as a need for a “fresh perspective” for the district. She named the lack of movement on climate legislation, police reform, and canceling student debt as evidence of Davis’ lack of vigor. “Just any blue will not do,” she said. (The Chicago Tribune agreed, presenting Collins with a rare non-incumbent endorsement earlier this month as the paper called for “new blood.”) Collins rejected punditry that suggested the George Floyd “moment” is over, given the backlash against police reform efforts and the progressive prosecutors who aided them. “People haven’t been saying ‘defund the police’ in our district, but they have been saying ‘fund the community,’” she said.

“Where was the Congressional Black Caucus when the Laquan McDonald tape came out?” Collins said back in September. “We were getting beat by CPD and none of them called for Rahm Emanuel to step down.”

There have been recent examples of older CBC members offering limp responses to the GOP’s culture wars. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House’s third-ranking Democrat, ignited outrage among devastated Democrats when he described the overturn of Roe as “a little anticlimactic.” Davis dabbled in the trans rights discourse at a recent forum hosted by a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “I don’t think that women should be trying to play football with the Bears,” he said. The assertion may not have seemed so tone deaf to Davis’ contemporaries: Older Black voters, a particularly moderate strain within the party — and the demographic on whom Tuesday’s results were expected to rely.

There is a time for generational progress, CBC allies said, pointing to recent Black primary victors like Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and Jasmine Crockett, both of whom vied for open seats. That progress, they maintained, should not come at the expense of Black incumbents. Party leaders have signaled they agree: Both Jeffries and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stumped for Davis, and President Joe Biden offered a rare primary endorsement of him over the weekend. Opportunity for All, a new super PAC, dumped more than $440,000 during the race’s final days to boost Davis. (Justice Democrats spent $422,000 on Collins’ behalf.)

“Democratic leadership and Democrats in general should be very careful of being dismissive of young, working class Black women like myself,” Collins said in response to the blitz. “The message that’s being sent to my campaign and the people who are helping me in this campaign said I am not welcome in the party.”

Did Davis’ win settle the feud between the party’s wings? That depends on what happens next. “If the online shadowboxers are looking for the next congressman they believe is not sufficiently progressive to target, look no further than the 8th congressional district,” Jeffries said. “Come on in, the water is warm. They have an open invitation to primary me.”

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