House Democrats face possible primary headaches

July 9, 2023


By Josh Kraushaar

While Democrats hold a fighting chance to win back the House majority in 2024, the emergence of problematic candidates and messy primaries in several key races could complicate their path.

Why it matters: The Democrats’ House campaign committee doesn’t plan on getting involved in contested primaries, according to officials familiar with its strategy. That runs the risk that weaker candidates could emerge in must-win races — a dynamic that Republicans are very familiar with.

Driving the news: Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive attorney who lost an Oregon district that Biden carried by nine points in 2022, is planning to seek a rematch against Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.).

  • But Democratic state Rep. Janelle Bynum is already in the race — and said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) encouraged her to run.
  • A co-owner of McDonald’s franchises, Bynum is seen by party leaders as a more business-friendly candidate better positioned to win swing voters.

What we’re watching: Democrats are also facing a potential primary headache involving the suburban northern New Jersey seat of Rep. Tom Kean Jr. (R-N.J.) — a true bellwether district.

  • Sue Altman, the leader of the progressive Working Families Party in New Jersey, was the first Democrat to enter the race and announced raising over $200,000 in the recent fundraising quarter.
  • Democrats privately worry that her profile — she led protests against neighboring Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) for his moderate record — makes it harder for them to win the seat, but no obvious alternative has emerged. Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello, former State Department official Jason Blazakis and former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak are all mulling runs.

Between the lines: In one of the marquee House Democratic primaries, two candidates with solid political pedigrees are squaring off.

  • Former Rep. Mondaire Jones and local school board trustee Liz Gereghty (better known as the sister of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) are running in a primary to face Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), one of Democrats’ top targets.
  • Jones, a recognizable former congressman and CNN commentator, starts out as the primary front-runner, according to Democrats tracking the race — but some worry his progressive record could alienate crime-conscious moderates.
  • After winning his first congressional election in 2020, Jones tweeted: “We must reimagine our criminal legal system” in a call to reduce mass incarceration. Notably, in his campaign kickoff video, he touts an endorsement from a local policeman who says he “funded the police.”
  • Crime was the top issue for New York voters in last year’s midterms, as Republicans picked up three Democratic-held House seats in the Empire State despite an otherwise disappointing election. Lawler defeated DCCC chair Sean Patrick Maloney in one of the GOP’s signature 2022 victories.

The other side: Republicans have a few primary red flags of their own. Joe Kent, the right-wing candidate who lost to Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.) in a district Trump carried, is running again for Congress.

What they’re saying: “Candidate choices in the key districts are going to matter — and if primary voters make a poor choice or two, it could have a major impact on the overall landscape,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The bottom line: With primary voters often preferring ideologically-driven candidates, an urgent task for both parties is ensuring electable nominees emerge in battleground races.

  • The GOP’s hands-off approach in 2022 likely cost the party several Senate seats, prompting the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm to engage more aggressively in primaries this year.
  • Democrats, facing ideological divisions in their own party, could be forced to make similarly tough decisions if problematic candidates emerge.