Liberal challenger Cori Bush defeated Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in
a primary for his St. Louis-based House seat on Tuesday — a huge
win for the left and a seismic loss for the Congressional Black
Caucus, which has tried to snuff out challenges from younger
Bush’s victory came two years after her first challenge to Clay,
which the incumbent won by 20 percentage points. But this cycle,
Bush’s campaign was better funded and had more outside help from
a wide array of surrogates including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
and the Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect Rep.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
She led Clay by more than 4,600 votes when The Associated Press
called the race late Tuesday night.
For the left, the outcome is proof that they could translate the
momentum from their wins earlier this month in the New York
primaries into a victory in the heartland of the country. But it
will also further intensify the feud between liberals and CBC
leaders, who have forcefully decried challenges against their
The Black Caucus had successfully defended two other incumbents
from progressive opponents earlier this year: Reps. Joyce Beatty
(D-Ohio) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.). CBC members rallied around
Clay, hoping to use this primary as another chance to ward off
But Bush, who participated in the 2014 protests in Ferguson,
Mo., after the police shooting of an unarmed black man, made her
activism the centerpiece of her 2020 campaign.
"We've been called radicals, terrorists. We've been dismissed as
an impossible fringe movement," she said during a victory speech
Tuesday night. "But now we are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic,
multi-generational, multi-faith mass movement united in
demanding change, in demanding accountability, in demanding that
our police, our government, our country recognize that Black
lives do indeed matter."
Clay is the seventh incumbent to fall in the 2020 cycle — and
the second one on Tuesday after Rep. Steve Watkins (R-Kan.) got
trounced by his GOP challenger. Bush's win represents the end of
an era; The Clay family has held Missouri's 1st District since
1969. Clay was first elected in 2000, succeeding his father,
former Rep. Bill Clay (D-Mo.), a co-founder of the Black Caucus.
Bush rode a wave of progressive enthusiasm generated by wins in
the New York primaries where Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school
principal backed by Justice Democrats, ousted House Foreign
Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and two other
progressives won open seats in the city and its suburbs.
Bowman endorsed Bush, who said in a pre-primary interview that
she saw a surge in donations and volunteer interest after those
wins that helped her in the final weeks.
“Cori is the fifth challenger backed by Justice Democrats to
unseat an incumbent. She organized a movement through pepper
spray and rioting police in the streets of Ferguson,” said Alex
Rojas, group’s executive director in a statement. “Her tenacity
and unbreakable pursuit of justice is desperately needed in
Clay took the threat seriously, dropping negative mailers and
running a TV ad that excoriated Bush for taking a $22,000 salary
from her campaign in the second quarter. And he outraised Bush
$744,000 to her $570,000, by mid-July.
But the incumbent was outspent on TV by Bush and her allies by
at least $250,000. Justice Democrats and a new group, Fight
Corporate Monopolies, aired TV ads on her behalf.
And Bush had also seen her profile rise since she first ran in
2018. She served as a surrogate for Sanders’ 2020 campaign and
was featured in the Netflix documentary “Bringing Down the
House” with now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — both of which
raised her name ID. Sanders himself fundraised for her and
joined livestream events with her campaign.
Ocasio-Cortez is a personal friend of Bush who endorsed and
campaigned with her in St. Louis in 2018. But Ocasio-Cortez, who
serves on a committee with Clay, declined to endorse Bush this
time, a sign of the fraught politics surrounding challenges of
Bush’s win comes at the end of the 2020 primary season, but it
is sure to rattle the Black Caucus leaders ahead of the 2022
cycle, when House races will be run under redistricted