Justice Dems Trounced in Bid to Oust Congressional Black Caucus Leader

Group that gave rise to AOC and Omar suffers another primary defeat

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D., Ohio) / Getty Images
April 29, 2020

Four-term incumbent Rep. Joyce Beatty (D., Ohio) defeated far-left Democrat Morgan Harper in a race that highlighted a rift between the party's African-American leadership and the progressive insurgents working to unseat them.

Beatty coasted to victory early Wednesday morning, receiving 68 percent of the vote to Harper's 32 percent.

The result sends a message to liberal outsiders targeting Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members. Harper was backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive group behind Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D., N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar's (D., Minn.) 2018 campaigns. In addition to Harper, Justice Democrats endorsed Cori Bush this cycle, who fell to CBC member Rep. Lacy Clay (D., Mo.) in 2018 despite the group's support. CBC leaders responded by allocating additional resources to the caucus's political arm. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.) warned potential challengers that "if they want to come after members of the Black Caucus, it's two ways."

Justice Democrats is known primarily for attacking relatively conservative members of the Democratic Party including pro-life Reps. Henry Cuellar (Tex.) and Dan Lipinski (Ill.). In 2020, it faced criticism from CBC members for targeting Beatty, who has served as the caucus's vice chair since 2018. Veteran members rallied behind the Ohio incumbent, accusing Justice Democrats of undermining minority members with progressive voting records. The primary challenges threatened the party's ability to maintain a House majority, according to CBC member Rep. Donald McEachin (D., Va.).

"I think challenging other Democrats in the primary when we're trying to hold on to the majority is wrong unless the person is so far out of bounds, so far away from Democratic orthodoxy, but that's not what's going on here," McEachin said in July.

Harper pushed back on the criticism leading up to Tuesday's primary, telling Politico that her campaign was not meant to target Beatty, but rather present "an alternative policy platform to the people of the 3rd District." Rep. Cedric Richmond (D., La.), a CBC member, dismissed the defense, calling Harper's platform "a bunch of rhetoric" that fails to deliver results for constituents.

"Being 'anti' is not enough. This is about results and not just rhetoric," Richmond said. "And just because you run with a bunch of rhetoric does not mean you can get results. There are people here that are effective members of Congress."

Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck questioned Justice Democrats' decision to target Beatty, saying the incumbent's progressive record and local ties made her well-equipped to fend off a challenge.

"Beatty really is a progressive. That's important," Beck told the Washington Free Beacon. "She has very deep ties with the local business community and with the African-American community. She also has very strong ties to the church community in the district, which is pretty well-organized to support candidates that they like. So Beatty was in a strong position to withstand this challenge."

The coronavirus scuttled CBC members' plans to join Beatty on the campaign trail, but Reps. Richmond, Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.), and Val Demings (D., Fla.) joined Beatty's virtual get-out-the-vote event on Sunday. The CBC also hosted lucrative fundraisers for Beatty, who spent more than $2.1 million on the race, including $750,000 on TV and radio ads, according to FEC filings. Harper spent just $700,000 on the race and $50,000 on ads as of early April.

"Beatty took this challenge very seriously," Beck said. "She had a substantial war chest of campaign funds and used it heavily, advertising both in local newspapers and local television. So she wasn't caught by surprise like AOC's opponent in New York."

While Harper received national attention through Justice Democrats, her fundraising fell short of other primary challengers. She also lacked key endorsements from high-profile liberal leaders, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.). Jessica Cisneros and Marie Newman, who challenged Cuellar and Lipinski, respectively, both touted endorsements from Sanders and Warren, helping the progressive pair raise more than $2 million each. Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros in early March, but Newman knocked off Lipinski two weeks later.

Ohio's primary, initially scheduled for March 17, was postponed and held almost exclusively by mail due to the pandemic. Harper's campaign used the change to downplay expectations, as it relied on youth turnout to secure victory. With in-person classes canceled, thousands of Ohio State students were not in the district during the election, though the state did extend its absentee ballot deadline. Harper fundraised off of the university's closure, saying it "could potentially disenfranchise certain populations of voters, including Ohio State students." The postponement also meant Sanders's presidential campaign was not active on primary day, stifling the enthusiasm of progressive voters.

Beck agreed that the delay in voting hampered the Harper campaign, but noted that Sanders had previously failed in his bid to challenge the state's Democratic establishment. He lost the state to Hillary Clinton by about 13 points in 2016.

"Sanders has challenged the Democratic Party's mainstream in Ohio in the past, and those challenges have by and large failed," he said. "Ohio is a strong party state and the party mainstream in Ohio has repulsed those kinds of challenges."

Clinton went on to defeat President Donald Trump by 39 points in Beatty's district four years ago. The Ohio Democrat is now widely expected to defeat her Republican opponent in November.