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The DCCC’s Plan to Punish Democrats for Backing Primary Challengers Is Sparking Backlash

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Bella Abzug, who brought the feminist movement to Congress  with her message that “a woman’s place is in the House,” arrived on the national stage after beating a New York Democratic incumbent in a 1970 primary.

Ron Dellums, one of the most principled advocates for peace ever to sit in the US House of Representatives, won his seat by beating a California Democratic incumbent in a 1970 primary.

Elizabeth Holtzman, an essential defender of the system of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights during her time in the Congress, came to Washington after defeating the dean of the House of Representatives in a 1972 New York Democratic primary.

These historic figures are only a few of the Democrats who came to Congress not as the choices of party leaders but as champions of the grassroots activists who helped them to defeat entrenched Democratic congressmen in primaries. Many of the most dynamic figures in the history of the Democratic Party got their start by taking on incumbents in primaries. Even some of those who do not succeed in their primary challenges go on to big things—Barack Obama’s first bid for federal office was a 2000 primary race against Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush.

Primary challenges to incumbents have historically been the avenue through which bold young Democrats get a chance to challenge not just their party but a political process that erects too many barriers to new candidates and new ideas. Those barriers exist because the prospect of change unsettles party bureaucrats, who seek to maintain their own grip on power by writing rules that benefit them.

So no one will be surprised that, as a new generation of insurgent reformers steps onto the political stage, the defenders of politics-as-usual are worried. They’re uncomfortable with the fact that many of the most prominent newer members of the House—including California Congressman Ro Khanna, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez–beat Democratic incumbents in primaries. And they worry that more incumbents will be challenged in 2020.

Whatever self-serving spin may be conjured by party leaders and their amen corner in the media, this is the explanation for why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has announced that it will not grant contracts to pollsters, strategists and communications specialists working with Democrats who mount primary challenges to incumbents in 2020. And this is why politically-savvy Democrats are objecting to the DCCC’s move.

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