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“This is a new era”: Activist Cori Bush ousts longtime Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay
ST. LOUIS — Missouri’s first congressional district is arguably the birthplace of the 21st century Black Lives Matter movement, the backdrop from which a new generation of activists emerged during the Ferguson protests.
It has also been represented in Congress by the same family for more than 50 years.
Those competing forces of the grassroots youth — progressive and energetic — and the dynastic machine — centrist and stoic — have long coexisted in the district. On Tuesday, the former toppled the latter in a dramatic fashion, as activist Cori Bush unseated veteran congressman Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary.
Bush took 48.6% of the vote to Clay’s 45.5%, receiving about 4,600 more ballots out of nearly 150,000 cast. Lacy Clay had represented St. Louis in the House for nearly 20 years; his father, Bill Clay, held the seat for the preceding 32, a combined half-century stranglehold on the district swiftly undone by a relative political novice.
“Tonight, Missouri’s first district has decided that an incremental approach isn’t going to work any longer,” Bush declared in a news conference after winning the primary. “We decided that we the people have the answers, and we will lead from the front lines.”
A registered nurse and single mother, Bush now takes her place in the pantheon of progressive giant-slayers, joining former bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who defeated longtime House incumbents in New York. (In the solidly Democratic district, Bush’s primary victory amounts to a guarantee that she will be headed for Congress.)
Bush’s first tweet after her victory invoked presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ slogan, “Not me, us”; her win is a landmark success for the progressive movement, which experienced its share of setbacks in the 2020 primaries, but will now be sending Bush, Bowman, and others to join Ocasio-Cortez in Congress.
In addition to being a top Sanders surrogate this year, Bush was also a Ferguson activist and a constant presence at recent Black Lives Matter protests in St. Louis. In many ways, her win is a direct outgrowth of the organizing that was inspired by the death of Michael Brown, re-ignited by the death of George Floyd, and marshaled for her cause in recent weeks.
Clay’s downfall, meanwhile, is a rare defeat for the Congressional Black Caucus, a group his father co-founded and in which seniority has long reigned supreme.
“This is a new era,” Jay Nelson, the regional relations coordinator for St. Louis County, told Wake Up To Politics. “Young [millennials] have risen, and they will continue to grow.”
Jo Mannies, a St. Louis Public Radio reporter and longtime political journalist in Missouri, said that Bush was “able to utilize her high-powered political clout” — she was endorsed by Sanders and co-starred with Ocasio-Cortez in a documentary, “Knock Down the House,” about progressive challengers after her 2018 run against Clay — and benefited from “a dark money group who ran attack ads against Clay.”
“In a low turnout election, the more organized candidate often wins,” Mannies added. “Bush fit that bill.”
The Clays wielded enormous influence in St. Louis for decades; Tuesday’s results amount to a seismic shift for the politics of the region. Jeff Smith, who formerly represented parts of the first district in the Missouri State Senate, told WUTP that the now-toppled Clay machine “has long been feared and most statewide candidates have felt that they had to ‘go through Clay’ in order to succeed” in the district.
Multiple high-profile Missouri Democrats — including former Rep. Russ Carnahan, himself the scion of a powerful political family in the state — previously staged primary challenges against Clay; none received more than 35% of the vote against him until Bush’s first run two years ago.
“That trash is finally gone,” Clay’s 2016 challenger, state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, enthused when reached for comment Tuesday night, adding: “We need leaders who will fight for us. Lacy never did that.”
The policy differences between Bush and Clay may be thin — he endorsed “Medicare for All” in the “Green New Deal” while gearing up for her primary challenge — but their stylistic gap is likely to be wide, as Bush prepares to play the role of “activist lawmaker” that Clay steadfastly demurred from even as his district became a hotbed of protests.
“Not only is this an end to the dynasty but the end of long-lasting gatekeeper relationships that sometimes prioritized political relationships over the people,” former Missouri state Rep. Bruce Franks, Jr., said.
Clay’s backing of key progressive legislation before the campaign belied a years-long slide to the center, one discordant with the liberal politics brewing in his district. In 2012, he tied for first in National Journal’s ranking of the most liberal members of the House; by this year, GovTrack placed him 131st.
J. Miles Coleman, a prominent elections analyst at the University of Virginia, told WUTP that after Bush’s victory, “this could really be shaping up to be” a marquee anti-incumbent election cycle. “Congress was already unpopular, but with the pandemic not getting better and the unemployment numbers, it’s not a great time to be a incumbent, and you certainly can't afford to be asleep at the wheel,” he added.
Coronavirus shook up the primary race, blocking both candidates from participating in person-to-person campaigning and allowing Bush to surge ahead based on higher levels of enthusiasm. In some ways, her campaign was also envigorated when she was diagnosed with the virus herself, lending her effort a clear narrative as she ran for Congress without health insurance and Clay attempted to weaponize her past evictions at a time when many voters faced similar struggles.
Coleman drew a comparison between Clay and Dan Lipinski, the first of seven House incumbents to be ousted by primary challengers so far this cycle: the Illinois Democrat “also succeeded his father, and relied on name recognition to some extent,” he said. Perhaps believing name ID alone could power an 11th straight congressional victory, Clay was outspent by Bush in TV advertising as the campaign neared its final days.
Political staffer Nelson, journalist Mannies, and former state legislator Franks all pointed to a common factor when asked what contributed to Bush’s upset: the growing political clout of Black women in Democratic circles. “Trust Black Women is the moral of this and so many stories of Democratic politics,” Franks said.
“Black Girl Magic swept Missouri last night,” added St. Louis City Treasurer Tishaura Jones, one of several other Black female candidates who won primaries Tuesday, in a comment to Wake Up To Politics.
Bush will be the first woman of color to represent Missouri in Congress.
Two other observations from my coverage of Bush and Clay over the years:
1. This race is partly the story of two endorsements: one for Clay from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the other for Bush from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. I was in attendance when Clay brought Pelosi to St. Louis for a press conference in March 2019; he beamed as she announced she was “proud to support Lacy Clay for his re-election.”
But his close ties to the powerful speaker weren’t enough to overcome Bush’s nod from Sanders; I was also there when Bush introduced Sanders at his St. Louis rally this year. The crowd roared when they embraced, and some attendees told me afterward that her fiery remarks had made them more enthusiastic than his.
As the Democratic Party fights a battle for its future, the race in Missouri’s first district will be instructive for upcoming proxy fights between Pelosi and Sanders, as he seeks to install progressive allies in the House to succeed some of her closest deputies. In this round, at least, the grassroots imprimatur granted by Sanders’ support went much farther than the institutional backing provided by Pelosi.
2. But it is also the story of a conspicuous non-endorsement. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned with Bush in her 2018 run, but noticeably stayed out of her rematch with Clay this year. That decision serves as a powerful reminder for Bush and other “activist lawmakers” of the realities insurgents face once breaking into the club of congressional insiders.
Ocasio-Cortez and Clay serve together on the Oversight Committee and he signed on to her “Green New Deal“ legislation; ultimately her non-endorsement was a signal that she didn’t feel she could afford to cross the Missouri Democrat, even despite long-standing ties with Bush.
The silence from AOC — during the race and since it ended — also sets up an awkward dynamic for Bush upon her arrival in Washington. The challenger-turned-congresswoman is likely to face an icy reception inside the Congressional Black Caucus, after unseating one of its longest-serving members. But she may also have an uncomfortable time meshing with “The Squad” – her natural allies in ideology and identity — after the congresswomen collectively declined to back her. Despite being frequent presences on Twitter, no member of “The Squad” has commented on Bush’s victory or congratulated her since the race was called.
Tonight: I will be hosting a St. Louis Public Radio live event on the “Youth Vote in the 2020 Election” this Wednesday at 7 p.m. Central Time. I’ll be joined by Niles Francis and Anna Salvatore, two excellent young journalists, to discuss political engagement among our generation. You can register here for free to watch the livestream.
The other results from Tuesday’s primaries that you should know.
KS-SEN: “Congressman Roger Marshall defeated Kris Kobach in the Kansas Republican race for U.S. Senate Tuesday, a victory driven by a party establishment that considered the OB-GYN from Great Bend the best chance of continuing 81 years of uninterrupted GOP control of the state’s Senate seats.”
“Marshall and Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state, fought bitterly in the primary, engaging in intense mudslinging over who was the true conservative and staunchest ally of President Donald Trump.” (Witchita Eagle)
KS-02: “Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner defeated embattled Republican Rep. Steve Watkins in the GOP primary Tuesday, three weeks after the freshman congressman was charged with voter fraud.”
“LaTurner has 49 % of the vote with more than 50% of precincts reporting in the Kansas 2nd Congressional District. Watkins has 31 %, while former Kansas Secretary of Administration Dennis Taylor has 21% in the three-way GOP race.” (Kansas City Star)
- Both results from Kansas are big wins for the Republican establishment, ensuring that the party will not have to divert resources to the state to avoid Democratic pick-up opportunities that may have materialized if Kobach or Watkins had advanced to the general election.
Medicaid expansion: “Ignoring pleas from Republican leaders, Missouri voters approved a plan Tuesday to expand Medicaid coverage to more than 230,000 low-income people in the state.”
“Missouri voted to expand its Medicaid program, as 53% of voters supported the measure. Missouri now joins 37 other states that have already expanded the federally subsidized health insurance program.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
- Along with Cori Bush's victory, the Medicaid referendum was another win for Missouri progressives on Tuesday night. Missouri is now the sixth Republican-controlled state to expand Medicaid by ballot initiative.
What’s going on in Washington today. (All times Eastern)
President Donald Trump will meet with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey at 3 p.m.
The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. No votes are scheduled to take place.
The House is not in session.
The Supreme Court is on summer recess.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will attend virtual fundraisers.
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