Cornel West bid prompts worries from progressives: ‘I just wish he wasn’t doing it’

Progressive lawmakers are voicing concerns over Cornel West’s third-party bid, worried that a figure they respect could cripple President Biden’s prospects in 2024.

West launched a Green Party campaign earlier this year to inject more leftism into the election cycle. He’s challenging both the Democratic and Republican establishments, raging against them in equal measure and raising the stakes of being a spoiler in the fall. 

Now, with the Republican nomination of former President Trump seeming more and more plausible, progressives are becoming more outspoken about their worries.

“I think he has a very long record of service and academic thought leadership,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The Hill last week. “I think just right now, given the Electoral College, it's very difficult to square the very real threat of a Republican presidency … [with] the risk of giving up the very small margin of electoral votes needed to ensure that President Biden wins.”

Until recently, lawmakers on the left didn’t feel much need to voice any reservations they had about West. When he first announced he was running for president in early June, he did so under the grassroots People’s Party, without much fanfare. Democrats weren’t really applauding him but weren’t criticizing his bid, either; there seemed little cause for concern on Capitol Hill.

The shift happened after West changed his affiliation to the Green Party just a few weeks later. The move promoted bad recollections for Democrats of 2016, when third-party nominee Jill Stein captured enough votes that election analysts said helped contribute to Trump’s edge in certain states. 

The difference now is that West, unlike Stein, is a revered part of the progressive movement who has garnered goodwill from sitting members of Congress for his activism on behalf of working-class people. 

“I care about the quality of your life. I care about whether you have access to a job with a living wage, decent housing, women having control over their bodies, health care for all, de-escalating the destruction of the planet,” West said in his launch video this summer.

Some liberal lawmakers also personally know and like him, having crossed paths with him over the years. He worked as one of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) top surrogates in 2020. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who served as a campaign co-chairman for Sanders, has expressed kind sentiments about him despite publicly supporting Biden this cycle.

Biden has earned overwhelming support from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), and no elected progressive has primaried him. Even Ocasio-Cortez, who has at times been critical of the president’s policy decisions, officially endorsed his reelection bid. And Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the left-leaning CPC, threw her support behind a Biden reelection effort even before he formally announced, despite initially backing Sanders in the Democratic primary last election.

The progressives coalescing around Biden are starting to share their concerns about the damage West’s bid may cause to the president’s reelection effort.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass), a prominent member of the CPC, credited West as a “thoughtful guy.” McGovern has had close proximity to West over the years in Massachusetts, where the philosopher and historian taught at Harvard University. 

But McGovern didn’t mince words about his third-party bid. 

“The stakes are too high this year, especially if Trump is the nominee,” he said. “I think everybody, including the most progressive elements of our country, need to protect our democracy by stopping Donald Trump and supporting Joe Biden.”

McGovern said he was worried about a scenario in which West gained enough traction to help the GOP nominee win again. 

“I worry about those things because Cornel West is a very effective speaker and can be very persuasive,” he said. “I am not here to question his motives or bash him, because I've followed him for many, many years, but I just wish he wasn't doing it.”

Moderate Democrats have been quick to paint West as a potential spoiler running a glorified vanity campaign. They’ve been the most publicly against possible challengers to Biden and third-party bids, including from their own centrist flank No Labels, a group that wants to recruit a credible third-party rival. 

Progressives, on the flip side, are often critical of the country’s two-party system and have been hesitant to outwardly dissuade West or other progressives from competing for the White House. Their wing proudly embraces intraparty primaries and outside bids when necessary to push a progressive agenda. Many believe that’s often better than the status quo, and it’s how several prominent progressive lawmakers rose to power themselves. 

One Squad member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), is personally familiar with the power of insurgent campaigns. She was elected to the House in 2018 after ousting longtime Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano (Mass.) by running on a more liberal platform. 

While Pressley is still a staunch progressive, she’s more measured in her approach to the presidential election. Asked about West’s bid, she tiptoed around the issue but noted the popularity of his ideas.

“The CPC is the largest ideological caucus in Congress, which I think proves that, as the caucus continues to grow, their progressive ideas are popular,” Pressley said. 

“As much as they try to fringe and marginalize them, people want transformational change like universal basic income, like unionization, like reparations,” she said, careful not to criticize the platform that liberal candidates have run on each cycle. 

The anxiety around West is also illustrative of the broader concerns Democrats have about Biden. They understand that his approval rating isn’t where they’d like it to be, and that Trump still has a firm grip on the Republican Party. They also see poll after poll indicating that at least some percentage of voters want someone else as the Democratic nominee. In another sign of the frustrations surrounding Biden, moderate Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) has been eyeing a possible primary challenge against him.

Defenders of West’s candidacy, however, feel strongly that it’s important to let voters decide whom they prefer in an open election.

“To progressive lawmakers who prefer to name-call and to label him as a spoiler candidate, please take a moment to remember that votes are always earned and never given,” said Cullen Tiernan, a progressive activist based in New Hampshire who has been critical of the party’s establishment class. “Too many of these lawmakers have changed from, ‘We will push Biden left,’ to now, ‘We will endorse anything he does.’”

“As Dr. West says, ‘You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people,’ and I ask: Who are you serving by trying to eliminate voices from a democratic process?”

Cheyanne M. Daniels contributed.

Rep. Dean Phillips mulls 2024 primary challenge against Biden

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips (D) is toying with a potential 2024 primary challenge against President Biden, a development likely to bring additional scrutiny to the incumbent’s reelection campaign.  

A well-placed Democrat in the state confirmed to The Hill that Phillips is talking to various people about possibly mounting a White House challenge to Biden. 

“True in that he is talking to folks,” said the Minnesota Democrat on Friday, who hedged that Phillips hasn’t “definitively” decided to run. 

He would be the first Democratic lawmaker in either chamber of Congress to run against Biden this cycle.  

The news of his early thinking was initially reported by Politico. Phillips confirmed independently to CNN that he will meet with donors in New York City.

The idea Biden may have to face a Democratic competitor from Capitol Hill is notable. For one, Phillips is a moderate, bucking Democrats' more common concern that a progressive could primary him from the left. 

He’s also not a household name, like fellow centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose contemplation of a presidential run has been viewed with frustration by the party’s establishment. 

But a potential primary campaign from Phillips wouldn't entirely be a surprise. He’s at times been critical of Biden, even going as far as to say he shouldn’t run for a second term due in part to his age. At 54, Phillips is 26 years younger than the 80-year-old president.

A campaign spokesperson for Phillips did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden already has a handful of marginal primary challengers, including political heir Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and author Marianne Williamson. Neither has gotten enough traction to cause more than just headaches, though Democrats have recently gone after Kennedy more harshly for his inflammatory rhetoric. 

Democrats are also grappling with the unknowns that could come from philosopher Cornel West’s third-party presidential bid, which has frustrated those who see him as a potential spoiler candidate in the general election. 

A congressional challenger would add another layer of uncertainty to the race.

"Not sure what the upside is," the Minnesota Democrat said of a possible Phillips bid.

Progressives face down disconnect: policy wins, electoral losses

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the PAC Protect Our Future has only spent money in Democratic primaries.

Progressives are facing down a seeming disconnect over what’s politically achievable in Washington and what wins elections back home.

On one hand, they’ve won major policy battles from the White House to Capitol Hill this month, moving Democrats beyond what many thought was possible to accomplish under President Biden. 

On the other, they’ve struggled to translate those victories to the campaign trail and are coming out of the primary season suffering damaging losses and bruised confidence.

In November, those two realities will be put to the test. 

“Progressives continue to win the battle of ideas, we just don’t always win elections,” said Max Berger, a Democratic strategist with the social justice organization More Perfect Union and a veteran of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass) presidential campaign.

After more than a year of setbacks, liberals have had a good few weeks in Washington.

They were pleasantly surprised by the multibillion-dollar investment they secured toward climate measures from the Senate and White House and were equally happy when certain tax reform and health care provisions were included in the Inflation Reduction Act. They saw the scope of the package as proof they can get much of what they want with enough pressure. 

Liberals put student loan relief high on the president’s radar early in his administration and their push persisted even as he tackled massive crises, from inflation and gas prices to Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

They argued that Biden could cancel borrowers’ debt through executive action, bypassing the ideological disputes of Democrats in the Senate that have stalled his agenda at other critical junctures. 

And after Biden announced a plan this week to cancel $10,000 in debt for those making less than $125,000 and double that for Pell Grant recipients, some felt even more optimistic about the power of the progressive movement.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said her flank had been “doggedly pursuing this,” for months, dating back to a conversation with Biden in March. She has maintained a line to the White House on the issue.

Those accomplishments have the left wing swatting back at what they see as uncredible critiques that their goals aren’t realistic.

Moderates have made the case that independents in particular find progressive policies unappealing. They fought to trim the price tag on earlier versions of Biden’s climate and spending package as well as on certain health care and education priorities. Some centrist lawmakers lobbied against student loan forgiveness up until the final decision, arguing that it would further increase inflation.

But on Thursday, liberals got more good news. A Gallup poll taken in the wake of the series of progressive wins showed the president’s approval rating jumping to the highest spot in a year — 44 percent — in part due to an increase in support from independents.

Still, for all progressives' celebrations on the policy front, they saw plenty of disappointment at the ballot box.

One state with hit the left particularly hard: New York. Home to “Squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and Jamaal Bowman (D), the state is usually seen as a bastion of support for progressive lawmakers.

But Democratic Trump impeachment counsel Dan Goldman, who was seen as more moderate, is projected to win the primary in the state’s 10th Congressional District, besting a field of progressive candidates including Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who ran in the 10th District instead of the 17th. And Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) dispatched a progressive challenger by 30 points.

Earlier in the year, former state Sen. Nina Turner, a co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, lost for a second time to Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), who had the support of the party establishment. And in a closely watched primary in Texas, Jessica Cisneros, a young activist and attorney lost by a hair to the establishment’s choice, conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. Cuellar’s supporters — and congressional leadership who weighed into the race — argued a progressive could not win his district.

Strategists attributed many of the losses to the amount of money backing more moderate candidates.

“Fragmentation plays a big part, as divided lefty fields opened up paths for ... Goldman,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist who worked on the New York race. “But you just can't talk about progressives' primary hardships without addressing the tens of millions of dollars in corporate dark money parachuted into major races.”

The worry over so-called dark money has been weighing heavily on progressives this cycle. The left has been drastically outspent by special interest groups that poured money into several important races to defeat them. 

Protect Our Future, the political action committee affiliated with tech megadonor Sam Bankman-Fried, has spent money in Democratic primaries, and a PAC called Mainstream Democrats has worked to protect moderate incumbents, including Cuellar.

Progressives also say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been spending more aggressively and out-in-the-open this cycle.

And Goldman, a Levi Strauss & Co. heir, angered his progressive challengers by pouring millions of his own money into his campaign.

Bill Neidhardt, a Democratic operative with Left Flank Strategies and former campaign spokesperson for Sanders, agreed with the damning influence he sees outside spending factoring into party primaries this cycle. 

“Much of it comes down to big money in politics, with conservative Democrats using corporate PACs, or even self-funding in the case of millionaires like Dan Goldman,” said Neidhardt.

“But I would also challenge the notion that progressives are coming up short. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is going to be stronger than ever next Congress with new members who beat out moderates like Becca Balint, Greg Casar, Delia Ramirez and Summer Lee,” he added.

One notable sleeper came from Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year-old Sanders-backed gun control activist who won the primary for Florida’s 10th Congressional District on Tuesday. The district’s blue tilt means he will likely become one of the youngest members of Congress next year.

And on the Senate side, voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin opted to nominate two progressives — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — to help Democrats with their quest to keep their majority.

“The candidates have gotten a lot better honestly,” said Berger, noting that left wing groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party have fine-tuned their operations to recruit and train contenders to mount credible challenges. “There’s more people who have experience who have decided to take the lead.”

Some progressives also see the potential in future contests. Even if Democrats lose the House and their collective legislative power diminishes, there are signs of interest for a more liberal candidate than Biden or other possible contenders in 2024.

According to a new USA TODAY-Ipsos poll released on Friday, Sanders leads in favorability among almost two dozen candidates in a hypothetical match-up. 

“Progressives are more popular than they appear,” said Burns. “And even with a torrent of money, corporate-backed candidates are still barely squeaking by.”