Chuck Schumer Faces The Progressive Surge

Both in New York and nationally, the Democratic leader is trying to guide candidates through ideological currents he’ll have to navigate in 2022.

A slew of ideological battles within the Democratic Party over the coming weeks, stretching from the Bronx to the hollers of eastern Kentucky to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, will test Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s ability to dictate primary outcomes both nationally and in his home state.

Senate Democrats’ political operation, previously led by former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and now by Schumer, has not lost a primary since the 2010 election cycle, but must fend off left-wing candidates in both Kentucky and Colorado over the course of the next week. And after originally declining to pick sides in a contested House primary in his home state, Schumer endorsed House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, who is desperately trying to fend off a challenge from educator Jamaal Bowman.

Both Bowman’s bid in New York’s 17th District and the Kentucky contest ― which pits Schumer-backed former fighter pilot Amy McGrath against progressive state Rep. Charles Booker ― point to a still-emerging alliance between Black and Latino voters and progressive groups that could spoil the Democratic establishment’s ability to swat aside primary challenges.

These coalitions’ potential strength has only grown as the coronavirus pandemic and the protests following the death of George Floyd have exposed systemic inequalities in health care and policing. If the left can successfully re-create them in the years to come, almost every Democratic politician in America ― up to and including those as powerful as Schumer ― could face serious primary challenges.

“From New York to Kentucky, there’s a multiracial slate of progressive candidates that are surging,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York state director of the Working Families Party, which is backing Booker and Bowman. “Primary voters are sending a clear message that politics as usual won’t get us heading in the right direction.”

L. Joy Williams, a New York Democratic strategist and consultant for New York Rep. Yvette Clarke’s re-election bid, was blunt about the potential impact progressive wins could have on Schumer.

“It will have an immediate impact in terms of people thinking about whether he is vulnerable,” she said.

Schumer’s office declined to comment. Any attempt to unseat Schumer, who remains popular throughout the state, would be a monumental uphill battle. Persistent rumors have suggested Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the pioneer of modern left-wing primary challenges, could run against Schumer in 2022.