WASHINGTON – Fourth Congressional District Rep. Betty McCollum (D) is just one of the targets of a revolt by young, progressives against their party’s elders; a revolt that has resulted both in surprising upsets and resounding failures.
McCollum, is favored to win re-election, but she has never faced a political rival with so much campaign cash. Coupled with political skills honed as a community activist and a grassroots network that helped her raise campaign cash, Amane Badhasso is a challenger that can’t be dismissed lightly.
Badhasso, 32, is an Ethiopian refugee who came to Minnesota as a child after living in a with her family in a camp in Nairobi, Kenya. An ethnic Oromo, Badhasso is part of a group of progressive candidates who have crashed this year’s Democratic primaries hoping to unseat incumbents and push the party to the left.
Most of the progressive challengers target more centrist Democrats, like Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose slim primary victory over Jessica Cisneros is threatened by a recount. But Badhasso is challenging one of the most progressive members of the U.S. House in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary.
First elected to represent the 4th Congressional District in 2000, McCollum, 67, is an ally and confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and has benefitted from the seniority system in Congress, which rewards lawmakers with staying power. That system helped win McCollum a choice chairmanship on the House Appropriations Committee with oversight of the nation’s massive defense budget.
But, tilting left, McCollum has also differed with U.S. House leadership on a number of issues, including U.S. policy toward Israel.
Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, said that makes Badhasso’s challenge to McCollum different from those faced by other Democratic House members.
“She’s well to the left of all the other incumbents,” he said. “You are not going to see the traditional progressive movement target her. There is no reason for any power play.”
Badhasso has raised more than $600,000 to challenge McCollum, largely from individual donations, many from the Oromo diaspora. Yet she has not received support from Justice Democrats, an organization whose goal is to replace Democratic incumbents with “a new generation of leaders” with “a bold agenda.” In 2018, money and other help from the Justice Democrats helped elect “Squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (MI).
“I think they are focused on the Henry Cuellar’s of the world,” Badhasso said of the Justice Democrats lack of help to her campaign.
Omar has said complimentary things about Badhasso, a fellow Muslim, but stopped short of a formal endorsement. Meanwhile, McCollum, who has raised about $1.3 million for her re-election, has received donations from a number of progressive political action committees and fellow members of Congress, including Washington state Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s “Medicare for All” PAC.
Those donations from fellow Democrats, a reaction to Badhasso’s challenge, could siphon money away from other Democrats who are locked in tight races with Republicans.
The progressive movement has sometimes faltered. Its record in 2020 was a mixed bag when it came to challenging Democratic incumbents, and no Justice Democrat-backed candidate turned a congressional district from “red” to “blue.”
Tim Lindberg, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, Morris, said the Democrat’s intraparty battle is a mirror image of what happened to the GOP about 10 years ago when militant, very conservative candidates challenged party leaders because they were “not conservative enough or not XYZ enough.”
That GOP revolt moved the Republican Party to the right. While the new progressive movement is pushing the Democratic party to the left, it may not have resonance in the St. Paul-based 4th District, which Lindberg called a democratic stronghold, “but not as progressive as the districts represented by AOC (Ocasio-Cortez) or Omar.”
Rubashkin and other analysts also consider the 4th District “solid Democrat” in November’s general election, when whomever wins the Democratic primary (in which DFL candidate Fasil Moghul is also on the ballot) faces off against one of three Republicans running in the GOP primary, including party endorsed candidate May Lor Xiong.
Meanwhile, McCollum is running an incumbent’s typical campaign; on her record.
“I’m focused on my work and getting the message out,” she said.
A Norwegian mom
Badhasso hoped that a DFL policy change that allows non-citizens’ involvement in party caucuses would help her. But McCollum won the party’s endorsement on the first ballot.
Badhasso said the DFL “questioned the legitimacy” of some of her delegates.
“A lot of folks felt intimidated,” she said.
She said the convention results cost her campaign and “personally was one of the toughest moments” in a life filled with tough moments. That’s because Badhasso once worked for the DFL.
According to her filings with the Federal Elections Commission, Badhasso spent more than $130,000 in the first quarter of this year in payments to Pocket Aces, a Washington D.C. area political consulting group that has former DFL employees on staff. Those consultants used direct mail to help boost Badhasso’s profile and raise campaign cash, but could not save her from the DFL convention defeat.
Nonetheless, Badhasso is undeterred. To her the campaign is all about “replacing a status quo politician” who “shows up every two years to say nice things.”
To Badhasso, her challenge of McCollum is less about ideology – the candidates are closely aligned on that – but about priorities and approach to government.
She’s attacked McCollum for accepting campaign money from corporate PACs, especially the nation’s defense industry giants, and said the district should be represented by “folks who are ready to tackle the climate change crisis, and not be beholden to special interests.”
While the candidates both belong to the progressive wing of their party, there are some differences in their positions.
As a community activist, Badhasso was an organizer for Take Action Minnesota, a group that was part of a coalition behind a failed ballot initiative called Yes 4 Minnesota. The initiative allowed Minneapolis citizens to vote “yes” or “no” on whether to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety that would adopt a more comprehensive approach to public safety with the inclusion of divisions of public health professionals.
McCollum said she “has not sat down and had a conversation” with her primary rival over differences in policy.
“But I believe we need a strong police department,” McCollum said. She pointed to grants she had obtained last year for local police departments as evidence of the need to make sure law enforcement is properly funded. McCollum also said police departments needed to hire mental health professionals and public safety officers that can respond to “all types of crime.”
“And I believe we need to constantly improve training,” McCollum added.
Though McCollum oversees the Pentagon’s $750 billion budget she rarely touts is and says she’s “doing my job as a member of Congress,” Lindberg said her low profile and reticence to draw attention to herself, a reticence many of the more brash progressive candidates lack, could be working against her.
“She doesn’t ruffle feathers,” he said. “She works with other politicians in the House and she gets stuff done but she doesn’t take enough credit for her accomplishments.”
McCollum said her Norwegian background gave her a mother who frowned “about talking about yourself.”
Although McCollum may have to campaign harder than she usually does to keep her seat this year, Rubashkin said she’s likely to remain the dean of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.
“It’s always difficult to knock off an incumbent,” he said.