When is it ok to primary a fellow party member?



Many Democratic elected may not serve your cup of tea, but some sit in districts that might otherwise be a difficult win for any other Democratic candidate. These Democratic officials have managed to connect with their districts successfully; their sheer existence as elected officials counts toward the number of representatives held in the body. So, if you need a vote toward the House or Senate majority, for example, their vote matters. If, on the other hand, you are in the supermajority or in the superminority vote status in a body, the reasons to continue voting for a candidate you have a significant disagreement with makes less sense—their one vote will be less meaningful.

Be prepared.

First, be prepared for scorn. Yes, you are going to face a lot of pushback from the internal party structures around you when you put forward a challenge at any level from the city council to U.S. Senate. The questions you have to ask yourself and those around you are simple:

Are you prepared for that pushback? Do you believe, sincerely, that the elected you are opposing needs to be challenged?

Within the title of Daily Kos we say: we elect more and BETTER. Not the same and terrible. A few years ago, I attended a function where a Democratic elected official was openly discussing their support of Donald J. Trump and why they remained solidly anti-choice. In three different states, I heard elected Democratic officials say exactly this statement in the years between 2016 and 2018. Since Democratic officials were never in the majority in these states, it was easy for me to say, “Wow, you deserve a primary.” I would not feel bad about opening the idea of discussing a primary.

Be prepared to make a case for why you are running and why you believe the current elected official is wrong on very specific issues. Your issues must be compelling, important, and meaningful. If you can articulate these issues to the voters you can prevail. Even if you don’t prevail, you will know every day you did the right thing.

Challenging for not as strong or no reason at all.

On the other hand, there are challenges I think of as a challenge for no purpose. If your sitting elected agrees with you the overwhelming majority of the time, then you have to really sit back and ask what could be gained by challenging them. If a sitting elected is supported by major groups, like labor unions, women’s rights organizations, education supporters, and environmentalists, you will have a hard time challenging them on the idea that they are not strong enough on, say, legalization of marijuana. In some cases, incumbents run into challengers who are unable to articulate why they are challenging a sitting elected official.

These challenges are met not only with opposition inside the party, but they are also a great way to harm the issue you care most about. If the issue you care about can be negatively impacted by the loss of house or senate leadership, and your challenge could cost that, then your challenge is likely not a good idea. If your challenge forces other Democratic candidates to stand on stage and debate an issue that can only be discussed in a matter of degrees, you can harm other Democratic campaigns beyond your own.

When other Democratic candidates are required to discuss an issue as “more than” or “less than” where “more” and “less” are difficult to impossible to quantify absent any actual proposals, it is an easy way for Republicans to say, “These Democratic candidates can’t get their act together.” 

We want better Democratic elected.

We have a choice every election. No one is guaranteed their seat. Lacy Clay (D-MO) held his seat after his father held it, and that family as a whole did so for decades. It took Cori Bush in a primary challenge to unseat Representative Clay, and she did so by talking about specific issues, actions, and ideas she wanted to bring with her. She didn’t attack Representative Clay on quantitative “what-ifs,” instead she highlighted “we can do better”, and made the strong case why she was a better representative and why Rep. Clay had lost touch with the change in his district.

If you believe a challenge is needed, sit down with your closest friends and allies. Talk to potential supporters and advocacy organizations. Test the water to see if it is something you could and should consider. If you end the day thinking you should do it, then go for it. We should value more voices in our party. If you think that voice is yours, you don’t have to take no for an answer.


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